Update of cannabis policy in the Netherlands: has the Dutch war on weed ended?

At the 11th Cultiva cannabis fair and conference in Vienna, VOC chairman Derrick Bergman presented a lecture about Dutch cannabis policy. After explaining the historical background and development of the policy since the 1960’s, he analyzes the policy shift and the cannabis experiments planned by the current Dutch government of prime minister Mark Rutte. 


The Netherlands is known the world over for its tolerant cannabis policy and the coffeeshops that have been openly selling hash and weed for over 40 years. But contrary to what many people think, cannabis is still illegal in the Netherlands. To be precise: the only thing that is legal is consuming cannabis if you are 18 years or older.

So how is it possible that you can buy cannabis in the coffeeshops?

To answer this question we have to go back in time half a century, to the end of the 1960’s. This was the heyday of ‘Amsterdam Magic Center’, with tens of thousands of young people from all over the world travelling to Amsterdam to experience freedom, sex, drugs and counterculture.

Paradiso, Amsterdam

One of the focal points of the scene was ‘Cosmic Relaxation Center Paradiso’, a former church turned into concert hall and hippie youth center, that opened in 1968. Today, Paradiso, is still one of the best known concert venues in the Netherlands.

Most of the original visitors of the Paradiso smoked hash and inevitably there was a lot of selling and buying going on in the building. After a while, the Paradiso management decided to take a pragmatic approach. They choose one guy, who was only allowed to sell cannabis, as the only dealer that they would not throw out. It worked very well, but this so-called house dealer was completely illegal.

Number of Opium Law convictions from 1958 to 1968

As more young people, including many university students, started using cannabis, the number of arrests skyrocketed. And the Dutch law was still very harsh: people could be locked up for weeks for just one joint. Even worse was that they would have a criminal record for the rest of their life, seriously damaging their career perspectives.

The growing number of small time cannabis cases started to clog up the court system at the end of the sixties. It also became apparent that the criminal prosecution of young people did them far more harm than smoking some weed or hash. Two scientific commissions were asked to come up with reports on the background and risks of drug use in the Netherlands and recommendations for policy. The most important commission was led by a man who is rightfully known as the intellectual father of the Dutch cannabis policy, Louk Hulsman.

Hulsman was a professor of criminal law and criminology at the university of Rotterdam. He had a profound influence on one of his brightest students, Dries van Agt, who would go on to be the youngest minister of justice ever and prime minister of the Netherlands twice. The Hulsman report was published in 1972. It is an eloquent and powerful document, emphasizing the importance of individual liberty and a rational approach to drugs and drug policy.

The Hulsman commission report, published in 1972

Here are some quotes that remain as true today as they were back in 1972.

“Individual freedom and responsibility are central values in our society, which should also be reflected when it comes to drug use. This presupposes, as far as the potential user is concerned, the broadest possible knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of the use of the different substances, so that a realistic, responsible choice for a certain behavior can be made.”

“Stigmatization of the user promotes his involvement in a subculture, the increase of his use of drugs and the reduction of his chances of assistance acceptable to him.”

“The hardest judgment is found among those who know the least about it. In general, the real knowledge of drugs is limited. Well-organized, balanced information is needed.”

“Isolating the drug user must be prevented. Drug use is risky behavior, just as other behavior entails greater or smaller risks.”

“Repressive selective attention must be avoided. More attention should be paid to the backgrounds of drug use than to the phenomenon itself.”

The Hulsman report laid the intellectual foundations of the Dutch drug policy for decades to come. The commission advised the government to effectively legalize the use of cannabis, including the possession of small quantities for personal use. Production and distribution of cannabis products should remain illegal but were to be treated as simple violations. This would prevent cannabis “from being commercialized and the sales being stimulated through advertising and the like”, in the words of the commission.

Koos Zwart in 1980

It took four years for the Dutch government to change the drug law along the lines suggested by the Hulsman commission. There was a lot of resistance, especially from Christian parties in Parliament. Use of cannabis by adults was legalized, possession of no more than 30 grams was decriminalized.

The fact that the law did change in 1976 was thanks to the cooperation of two government ministers: Dries van Agt, Hulsman’s pupil as minister of justice and Irene Vorrink, who was health minister for the Dutch Labor Party, PvdA. Vorrink’s son Koos Zwart, enjoyed national fame for reading out the prices of weed and hash on national radio every Saturday, the so-called Beursberichten, literally: stock market listings. He also published these listings in Aloha, the number one counter culture magazine of the era.

It’s important to note that when the Dutch drug law changed in 1976, there were already a few coffeeshops operating, both in and outside Amsterdam. The very first one was Sarasani in Utrecht, opening its doors in 1968. It was a cellar like space along the main canal in Utrecht, de Oudegracht.

Reptile pit in Sarasani, the first Dutch coffeeshop, in Utrecht (© Gonzo Media)

For years, the owner kept two small alligators in a concrete pit near the entrance. A nice attraction for the visitors, but also an ideal stash for the hash and weed. It took the police a very long time to figure this out.

In 1973, Wernard Bruining opened the first coffeeshop in Amsterdam, in a former bakery he had squatted with his friends the year before. They called it teahouse Mellow Yellow. Wernard only ran the Mellow Yellow for a few years and went on to become a pioneer of Dutch weed or Nederwiet. He opened Europe’s first growshop in 1985 and is now focused on medical cannabis.

Another coffeeshop pioneer, Henk de Vries, started his first Bulldog coffeeshop in 1975, in Amsterdam’s Red Light district, de Wallen. These men knew about the house dealer at the Paradiso and other youth centers like De Melkweg and Fantasio and thought: if they can sell hash at the youth center, why can’t we sell hash in a little teahouse or café?

Coffeeshop The Bulldog in Amsterdam (© Gonzo media)

In other words: the coffeeshop concept was never introduced or developed by politicians, but by individual entrepreneurs with a lot of guts. In its first year, police raided The Bulldog over a hundred times. Henk de Vries would be taken to the police station, released a few hours later and The Bulldog would open the next day like nothing had happened.

In those early years, the whole stock was hidden in a bar stool on which the dealer sat. When police raided The Bulldog they would search the place from top to bottom, including the dealer who remained seated on his bar stool throughout the raid. Eventually they more or less gave up.

The number of coffeeshops started rising in 1980, after the ministry of justice published the guidelines they used to deal with these new establishments. They only did so after sustained pressure from Koos Zwart, the son of the health minister. Koos understood that once these guidelines would be out in the open, black on white, people could open up coffeeshops everywhere. These guidelines later morphed into the so-called AHOJ-G criteria, a hard to pronounce acronym, with every letter representing a rule. A is for no advertising, H is for no sales of hard drugs, O is for not causing disturbance, J is for no youths allowed and G is for no selling of large quantities. Coffeeshops who did not break these rules were not prosecuted.

Jacques Chirac, president of France 1995 – 2007

Things went great until the mid-nineties. By this time, the number of coffeeshops had grown to over 2,000 and the French president Jacques Chirac decided to launch an attack on Dutch drug policy, calling us a narco-state. Instead of confronting him with simple facts, the Dutch government decided to apologize to France and embark on a mission to increase repression of cannabis and coffeeshops. In 1996 the government raised the minimum age for coffeeshops from 16 to 18 and lowered the maximum amount that you could buy at a coffeeshop from 30 to 5 grams. This directly led to an increase of traffic in Dutch cities near the border. A new word started popping up in the media, “drug tourism”.

Campaign by southern province of Limburg from 2009

As the new millennium approached, the political climate started changing from tolerant and pragmatic to repressive. Growers were increasingly targeted by the police, penalties were increased, social housing corporations started banning any kind of home growing… The number of coffeeshops steadily went down, with predictable results: the remaining ones attracted ever more visitors. In 2008, Checkpoint, the biggest coffeeshop in Dutch history, located in the small city of Terneuzen close to the Belgian border, was closed down for good.

The results of the repressive approach were all counterproductive: prices for cannabis went up, criminal gangs got involved while small growers opted out, violence increased and the quality of cannabis deteriorated. Some of the best coffeeshops in the country had to close, some temporarily, some forever. In 2009 the border towns Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom forced all the coffeeshops to close down. The Southern province of Limburg, with Maastricht as its main city, tried to introduce a local weed pass and a 3 grams sales limit.

That same year the VOC, the Union for the abolition of cannabis prohibition, was founded. Things were clearly moving in the wrong direction. One of the first slogans we came up with: Save Our Cannabis Culture. Starting in 2009, we organized Cannabis Liberation Day in Amsterdam for ten years in a row. Positive voices were and still are very important, amidst all the negative propaganda that politicians and justice officials are spreading.

Anti weedpass poster featuring Opstelten, published by VOC in 2011

Thanks to the right wing governments of Christian prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, who led four consecutive governments from 2002 to 2010, and our current prime minister Mark Rutte, the once liberal Dutch cannabis policy was transformed into a full scale war on weed. Cannabis became the top priority for Dutch police.

Justice minister Ivo Opstelten came up with one repressive measure after the next. Opstelten, a firm believer in the war on drugs, seemed to be obsessed by cannabis and coffeeshops. In 2012 he introduced the weedpass, forcing coffeeshops to refuse customers not residing in the Netherlands. This attempt to create a sort of coffeeshop apartheid led to a wave of protests, including a VOC poster campaign and demonstrations in Amsterdam and Maastricht.

The weedpass turned out to be a total fiasco. Today, only about twenty mostly small cities still enforce the so-called residents criterium. Eighty percent of the cities with coffeeshops do not enforce it. Most of them never even bothered to enforce it in the first place.

In early 2014, a large group of mayors launched the so-called Joint Regulation manifesto, pleading with Opstelten to allow experiments with regulated cannabis production for the coffeeshops. He turned them down by declaring that his answer was and always would be no, “even if the mayors come up with ten manifestos.”

On average Dutch police raid 5,000 so-called cannabis grow operations every year. These range from a small tent in a private house or even a few plants in someone’s garden, to computerized grow containers buried under the ground. Every year around a thousand people are evicted from their house for growing cannabis, including families with children. Police actively stimulate the population to snitch on neighbors who they suspect might be growing cannabis. In 2015, a law to ban growshops came into effect.

Cartoon by Ruben L. Oppenheimer depicting Opstelten, Teeven and Van der Steur (© Ruben L. Oppenheimer)

Looking back, 2015 was a crucial year. In March, minister of justice Ivo Opstelten had to resign over a scandal involving a secret payment to a big hash trader. With Opstelten gone, the worst was over. His idea for a legal limit of fifteen percent THC and the rescheduling of cannabis with more than fifteen percent THC to List 1, on par with heroin and crack, never made it into law.

A survey from 2015 showed that seventy percent of the Dutch population is in favor of regulating or completely legalizing cannabis. There clearly was, and is, a disconnect between the Dutch people and their politicians.

The secret deal with the hash dealer that forced Opstelten to resign, came back to haunt his successor, Ard van der Steur. He only lasted 22 months before he too had to resign over the secret deal, just like undersecretary of justice, Fred Teeven. All of them are members of the VVD, the conservative liberal party of our prime minister Mark Rutte.

One political party has consistently opposed the war on weed and promoted legalization: D66, named after the year they were founded, 1966.

Two female D66 parliament members managed to not only produce a law proposal to regulate cannabis production for coffeeshops, popularly known as “de Wietwet” or Weed Law, but to also get a majority for it in Parliament. Magda Berndsen, a former police commissioner from the Northern province Friesland, handled the first stretch of the Weed Law. Her successor Vera Bergkamp, former chairperson of the largest Dutch NGO for LGBT rights, got the proposal a majority vote in the Second Chamber. On February 22nd, 2017, 77 members of parliament voted for it, while 72 voted against.

D66: regulate cannabis production

The normal procedure for the Weed Law would be to discuss and vote about it in the First Chamber, the Dutch senate. But things got messy after the elections in March 2017, just weeks after the Weed Law got a majority in the Second Chamber. During the formation of the new government, the cannabis policy was one of the themes the parties fundamentally disagreed on. This is hardly surprising if we look at the four parties that make up the current Dutch government.

The Netherlands always has coalition governments with more than one party, but four is a lot, even for us. On the progressive side there is D66, the party that wants to fully legalize cannabis. On the conservative end there are two Christian parties, CDA and ChristenUnie, who want all coffeeshops closed and no legalization whatsoever, whenever. Somewhere in the middle is the VVD, the conservative liberal party of prime minister Mark Rutte.

Report of the commission Knottnerus about the cannabis experiments, published in June, 2018

Instead of just going ahead with the Weed Law, they came up with a purely political compromise: a limited experiment with regulated cannabis production for coffeeshops in no more than ten cities. An advice commission was installed to consult experts of all kinds and produce a report with recommendations for this experiment. I got an invitation to take part in one of the round table meetings on behalf of the VOC and gladly obliged.

I expressed our surprise at the way the D66 weed law had been put on hold and stressed the importance of home growing and using the existing expertise of underground growers. As far as the VOC is concerned, people who only have a criminal record for cannabis related activities, should be able to work in the legal cannabis industry. Regulation should not equal prohibition two point zero, but rather legalization one point zero. In other words: it’s no use setting up a legal system for the coffeeshops while continuing to prosecute and evict people for growing a few plants for their own use.

The VOC advocates what we call ‘inclusive regulation’. This means:
-Homegrowing for personal use is legally allowed for adults
-Cannabis Social Clubs are legally allowed
-People whose criminal record only has cannabis “offenses” on it, can work in the legal cannabis industry and obtain professional permits
-There is no maximization of any compound in the plant, like thc, cbd et cetera
-There is no maximum to the number of strains that can be grown
-For professional production, free market principles prevail, but measures are taken to ensure small producers can thrive as well as bigger ones
-There are enough consumption sites, such as coffeeshops
-Full legalization of cannabis is the end goal of the policy

Large scale legal cannabis production at CannTrust in Canada (© CannTrust)

The weed experiments clearly are a political compromise between four parties who totally disagree about cannabis. Their main purpose seems postponing any real change until a new government takes over. There’s a good chance that this government will resign before scheduled elections; there are more issues on which the four parties disagree. This could mean the experiments might never materialize, as a new government will likely be more ambitious and move faster towards legalization.

To return to the question in the title of my presentation: Has the Dutch war on weed ended? At this moment in time the only answer can be: no, not yet. Homegrowers are evicted from their house almost daily and coffeeshops can hardly function because of extremely tight regulations and the ban on production, wholesale and even transport and lab testing. And maybe most importantly: our prime minister Mark Rutte still thinks cannabis is “shit” and “garbage”.

So what could the future hold? Mister Rutte might well accept a job at the European Union or the United Nations in the not too distant future. His ramshackle four party government could break down, resulting in new elections. Or the weed experiments could prove to be a success, leading to change at a slower pace.

One thing is certain: the darkest days of the Dutch War on Weed are over. And the VOC is ready to keep fighting until cannabis is truly liberated in the Netherlands.


Comments (5)

  • kevin 23/11/2018 at 9:53 am Reply

    Those caught violating the ban will be subject to a fine, cost determined by a public prosecutor.
    Dutch marijuana regulations operate in a bit of a loophole. There are 573 coffee shops across the country which openly sell marijuana. Cannabis is openly sold in 103 out of the 380 Dutch municipalities, including major tourist cities like The Hague, Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

  • Jennifer Smith 30/12/2018 at 8:27 am Reply

    It’s nice to know where and how the Netherlands started with their cannabis journey.

  • Karen Page 09/01/2019 at 3:54 am Reply

    I saw an interesting fact on this post. “It took four years for the Dutch government to change the drug law along the lines suggested by the Hulsman commission. There was a lot of resistance, especially from Christian parties in Parliament. Use of cannabis by adults was legalized, possession of no more than 30 grams was decriminalized.” Than you for sharing!

  • Kevin Murphy 25/07/2019 at 7:31 am Reply

    The growing number of small time cannabis cases started to clog up the court system so it means this issue is now crawling and still ongoing but it might .also became apparent that the criminal prosecution of young people

  • Athea Jo 01/08/2019 at 3:11 am Reply

    Analyzing and realizing the drug law is not an easy job. The Netherlands is one of the countries which legalized the usage of marijuana. It’s nice to know how it started.

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