Difference between hard and soft drugs

The Opium Act sets out the rules pertaining to drugs. The Act distinguishes between hard and soft drugs. The sale of soft drugs in coffee shops is tolerated in the Netherlands under certain strict conditions. A coffee shop is an establishment where cannabis may be sold but no alcoholic drinks may be sold or consumed.

Opium Act

The Opium Act sets out the rules pertaining to drugs. Two schedules are appended to this Act. These lists define the distinction between soft and hard drugs.

  • Schedule I lists the substances classified as hard drugs, for example heroin, cocaine, amphetamine, ecstasy and GHB.
  • Schedule II lists the substances classified as soft drugs: cannabis products (hash and marijuana) and sleeping pills and sedatives such as Valium and Seresta. According to the government, these drugs carry less serious risks than the hard drugs listed in Schedule I.

Toleration policy regarding soft drugs in coffee shops

Soft drugs, such as marijuana and hash, are less damaging to health than hard drugs, such as ecstasy and cocaine. But soft drugs are also illegal in the Netherlands. This means that those found selling, producing, dealing or in possession of these drugs are liable to prosecution.

However, the Netherlands applies a policy of toleration in relation to the sale of soft drugs in coffee shops. This means that the sale of soft drugs in coffee shops is a criminal offence but the Public Prosecution Service does not prosecute coffee shops for this offence.

Neither does the Public Prosecution Service prosecute members of the public for possession of small quantities of soft drugs. These quantities are defined as follows:

  • no more than 5 grams of cannabis (marijuana or hash);
  • no more than 5 cannabis plants.

Reasons for toleration policy

The Netherlands tolerates the sale of soft drugs in coffee shops and takes rigorous action to suppress the sale of hard drugs. By adopting this strategy, the government separates these two markets. Cannabis users are not obliged to buy their soft drugs from criminal dealers who might easily bring them into contact with hard drugs.