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Drugs policy of the Netherlands

The drugs policy in the Netherlands is based on two principles:
  1. A distinction between hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin, and soft drugs such as the cannabis products hashish and marijuana
  2. Drugs usage is not considered a criminal issue but a public health issue.

Because of this, drug users are not being prosecuted for either possession or use of drugs, while small-scale dealers are dealt with only when they disturb public order. Large-scale dealers, and especially production, import and export, are being prosecuted.

For soft drugs, toleration goes even further, and so-called coffeeshops are being permitted to sell them openly, and to have a market store much larger than that officially allowed by law for own usage. A problem is, that whereas the sale of soft drugs by coffeeshops is allowed, there is no official allowance for buying the products, so in the end the drugs still come from the illegal circuit. Production of hashish and marijuana is allowed only in amounts that are meant for 'own use'. In practice the limit is set on four cannabis plants per person.

Note that cannabis is an illegal substance in the Netherlands, although possession for personal use is an offense punishable only with a fine. Legally you could in principle be prosecuted for drug possession, but in practice you are not. This is because the Dutch Ministry of Justice applies a "gedoogbeleid[?]" (tolerance policy) with regard to softdrugs: an official set of guidelines telling public prosecutors under which conditions not to prosecute an activity that is officially forbidden. "Gedoogbeleid" is in fact the institutionalised version of a practice commonly found in other countries, namely that law enforcement officers have to make priorities on which offenses are important enough to spend limited resources on. Proponents of "gedoogbeleid" say therefore that with a gedoogbeleid, there is better unity in law protection in practice, than without it. Opponents of the Dutch gedoogbeleid however state that since there has been de facto legalisation of soft drugs for so many years, that the state of law would be better served with a real legalisation.

Despite the high priority given by the Dutch Government to fighting narcotics trafficking, the Netherlands continues to be an important transit point for drugs entering Europe, a major producer and exporter of amphetamines and synthetic drugs[?], and an important consumer of most illicit drugs. The exportation of the synthetic drug ecstasy to the U.S. during 1999 reached epidemic proportions. The Netherlands' special synthetic drug unit, set up in 1997 to coordinate the fight against designer drugs[?], appears to be successful. The Dutch Government has stepped up border controls and intensified cooperation with neighboring countries.

All drugs are illegal in the Netherlands. The Dutch Opium Act, however, distinguishes between "hard" drugs, having "unacceptable" risks (heroin, cocaine, etc.) and "soft" drugs (cannabis). One of the main aims of this policy is to separate the markets for soft and hard drugs so that soft drug users are less likely to come into contact with hard drugs. The sale of a small quantity (no more than 5 grams per person) of soft drugs in "coffee shops" is tolerated, albeit under strict criteria and increasing government control. The United States continues to disagree with this aspect of Dutch drug policy. Although drug abuse, as opposed to trafficking, is seen primarily as a public health issue, responsibility for drug policy is shared by both the Ministries of Health, Welfare, and Sports, and Justice.

The Netherlands spends more than $150 million on facilities for addicts, of which about 50% goes to drug addicts. The Netherlands has extensive demand reduction programs, reaching about 90% of the country's 25,000 to 28,000 hard drug users. The number of hard-drug addicts has stabilized in the past few years and their average age has risen to 38. The number of drug-related deaths in the country remains the lowest in Europe.

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