This issue contains 4 sections.
The Netherlands’ drug problem has changed substantially in recent years. There are now more hazardous substances on the market, and it is clear that drug use is leading to problems among young people, in particular. The government wants to tackle the nuisance and crime associated with drugs and make young people aware of the consequences of drug use.
Soft drugs and coffee shops
Soft drugs, such as cannabis (hash and weed) and sedatives are less harmful to health and to society than hard drugs. Coffee shops may sell cannabis under strict conditions. That is part of the Dutch policy of toleration
Hard drugs – heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, opium, amphetamines, LSD, etc. – are illegal. The government takes a hard line on the use and trafficking of these substances. Some 32,000 young people and young adults use cocaine in this country, and around 40,000 use ecstasy. The use of heroin has been declining in recent years.
The risks associated with hard drugs are unacceptable. Users can become addicted, sustain brain damage or develop serious psychological problems. The Netherlands has rules in place designed to restrict the use of hard drugs as much as possible. These rules are set out in the Opium Act.
The government is closely involved in efforts to tackle hard drugs, particularly ecstasy. Besides stringent checks and searches, it also invests heavily in international joint enforcement efforts.
The nuisance caused to the public by drug use is another key focus of attention. A great deal of information on drugs is therefore disseminated in special campaigns, targeted mainly at young people.
Ecstasy pills and capsules are popular in the Netherlands, especially in pubs and clubs. However, possession of ecstasy is an offence, and there are stiff penalties for trafficking in ecstasy.
Ecstasy is a synthetic drug which often gives the user a sense of energy and euphoria. Some people believe that it is a harmless substance, but this is not the case. Every year people die after using ecstasy. Most of them are young.
People with cardiovascular disease, diabetes or epilepsy are at particular risk if they use ecstasy. Healthy users, too, risk brain damage, leading to memory loss, depression and other psychological problems.
Ecstasy is classed as a hard drug under the Opium Act. Production, sale and possession of ecstasy are prohibited, and are subject to stiff penalties. The production and trafficking of ecstasy are attractive to criminals in the Netherlands because the production costs are low. Large numbers of ecstasy tablets can be produced in a small laboratory in a short period of time. However, more and more large, professional laboratories are also being discovered.
The Netherlands is regarded by many other countries as a hub of ecstasy production and trafficking. The Dutch government acknowledges that ecstasy is a problem, and is taking measures to curb production and trafficking.
The policy document Joining Forces Against Ecstasy announced a five-year plan involving a major intensification of efforts to tackle synthetic drugs. An evaluation has shown that this strategy has yielded good results. In four years, for example, hundreds of suspects were arrested, more than 20 million ecstasy tablets seized, and some 130 laboratories discovered and dismantled. Since ecstasy is still produced on a large scale in the Netherlands, and there is a large supply for consumers on the market, it was decided in 2007 that this major campaign should be continued. There are now signs that some production has shifted to other countries.
The maximum penalty for ecstasy smuggling in the Netherlands is 12 years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to €45,000. Many other countries, in Europe and beyond, also have heavy fines. In some countries, this offence even carries the death penalty.
Smart products are natural or chemical stimulants that may be sold freely. They must however meet certain quality requirements.
There are two categories of smart product:
- Smart drinks or energy drinks: these usually contain stimulants such as caffeine, guarana and/or taurine;
- Nutritional supplements such as vitamin and mineral preparations containing herbs or herbal extracts that act as stimulants. Product names include Herbal Extacy, E-Booster, Kryptonite and Cloud Nine.
Like psychoactive herbs and plants, smart products are covered by the Commodities Act, which sets out health and quality requirements for all products that are officially marketed in the Netherlands. Smart products may therefore be sold freely (with the exception of Psilocybin (magic) mushrooms, which are covered by the Opium Act).
Smart products and psychoactive plants are sold in ‘smart shops’ and ‘eco shops’, among other places. Some products sold in smart shops can also be bought in the supermarket, chemist’s or health food shop. Trade in these products is not banned. Smart shops may not sell any substances that fall under the Opium Act, the Abuse of Chemical Substances (Prevention) Act or the Medicines Act.
Psychoactive plants and smart products are often confused with smart drugs: medicines that are prescribed to people suffering from memory problems, dementia or epilepsy. Some healthy people use these medicines on the assumption that they improve memory, concentration and intelligence. Smart drugs are available only on prescription and cannot be bought in smart shops.
Psilocybin mushrooms and other psychoactive plants
Psilocybin (magic) mushrooms are the best-known naturally occurring psychoactive substance. Because of their hallucinogenic effects, it is illegal to grow or sell them.
Many plants and herbs can affect consciousness. Some have been known for centuries for their hallucinogenic, anaesthetic or stimulant effect. Examples include valerian, fly agaric, ginseng, thorn apple and guarana. Psilocybin mushrooms and certain types of cactus with a hallucinogenic effect are currently the best-known, however.
Many people regard psychoactive plants as a healthier and milder alternative to alcohol and illegal chemical substances like cocaine, ecstasy and LSD. The exact effects and possible risks of many of them are unknown.
Exception for mushrooms
Psychoactive plants are not covered by the Opium Act. They may therefore be sold freely, with the exception of hallucinogenic mushrooms, which are covered by the legislation because of their effects. Their cultivation and sale are forbidden.
The growing and selling of fresh Psilocybin mushrooms was banned in December 2008. It was already illegal to sell dried Psilocybin mushrooms or process fresh ones. This is because:
- Use of Psilocybin mushrooms can have unpredictable effects and thus lead to risky behaviour;
- It is not possible to control the effects of a ‘bad trip’;
- There is barely any difference in the health risk posed by dried (processed) and fresh (unprocessed) Psilocybin mushrooms.
Psilocybin mushrooms are banned in most EU countries.
After the ban came into force, sales of Psilocybin mushrooms by wholesalers and smart shops ceased almost immediately. They are no longer openly sold in the Netherlands.
Dutch drugs policy
The government focuses on preventing drug use and reducing the risks to users and those around them. Toleration (exemption from prosecution) is the main thrust of Dutch policy.
Prevention of drug use and reducing risks to users and those around them is referred to by experts as ‘harm reduction’. The government is particularly keen to prevent and curb drug use among young people, because they often fail to appreciate the risks associated with drugs. It does so through education campaigns, including a special project on Drugs and the Healthy School, in which around half of schools participate.
Drug users are given effective treatment to overcome their addiction. If full rehabilitation is not an option, the aim is to improve the addict’s health and minimise the risks. For example:
- Drug users may exchange their used needles for new, sterile ones free of charge. This reduces the risk of HIV or hepatitis B or C infection;
- Treatment with methadone and heroin is provided, and addicts are provided with drop-in centres where they can use these substances.
Policy of toleration
Marijuana and hashish are less harmful to health than hard drugs like ecstasy and cocaine, but they are just as illegal. This means that trafficking, selling, producing and possessing any drugs in the Netherlands is a criminal offence.
The Netherlands pursues a policy of toleration. This means that, though possessing and selling soft drugs are misdemeanours, prosecutions are usually not brought.
Tolerating the sale of soft drugs within clearly defined limits and taking rigorous action against the sale of hard drugs keeps the markets for the two types of drugs separate. The sale of cannabis in coffee shops is an example of this policy. The idea behind this is that cannabis users do not need to buy their soft drugs from a dealer operating illegally, which would increase their chances of coming into contact with hard drugs.
In the Netherlands, rules pertaining to drugs are laid down in the Opium Act, which distinguishes between hard drugs and soft drugs. Two schedules of illegal substances are appended to the Opium Act. These schedules are compiled on the basis of (a) the mind altering properties of a certain drug, (b) the health damage it does and (c) the costs to society.
Opium Act Schedule I lists substances which in the view of the government entail unacceptable levels of risk. These are known as hard drugs, and include heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, LSD and ecstasy.
Schedule II lists soft drugs: cannabis products (hashish and marijuana) and sedatives such as Valium and Seresta. Though these substances are not harmless, the risks associated with them are in the government’s view smaller than those associated with Schedule I substances.