As I’ve returned to the Netherlands for a brief few weeks to conduct the last of my fieldwork here, I thought it would be worth reflecting and updating on recent changes to Dutch cannabis policy. On a global level, there appears to be an active interest in alternative regimes to prohibition, and so it seems only befitting to look at a country who has been the forerunner of these developments for the past 40 years. For the benefit of those who have not encountered the complexities of Dutch cannabis policy, it’s worth sketching out the origins and fundamental components from which I’ll go on and discuss
some of the most recent developments and how they have taken shape.
The Dutch have long been known to be tolerant of activities which are elsewhere outlawed and frowned upon, and this idea of the Dutch being tolerant stretches back to even before the country’s official formation in the 19th century. Even in the 16th century the people living in the land had to deal with the constant fear and realities of living alongside (and underneath) the sea level. Being able to put aside differences of class and religion to deal with common problems seemingly gave birth to a broad accommodation of being inclusive and pragmatic.
Without boring you with the details of centuries of history, these cultural undertones of compromise and pragmatism contributed to the way in which cannabis policy developed in the Netherlands. During the 1960s the initial reaction to the growing use of cannabis in society was treated with hostility by the police. But as its use did not match up to the imported expectations of ‘reefer madness’ and sexually violent behaviour (as had been the prevailing rhetoric in the US), a cultural accommodation of the drug began to take shape at a local level, with police, prosecutors, and judges recognising the harmful, and
ultimately pointless, effects of criminalising mainly young people looking to break through the traditional constraints of post-war Dutch society. This was an important issue at the time, and the tolerance of its use was ceded to allow this generation not to become socially marginalised simply for using cannabis. Following two important commissions (Hulsman and Baan), the government decided to separate cannabis from other illicit drugs under the revised Opium Act of 1976.
By this point, a series of ‘house-dealers’ located mainly in youth clubs had already become established and were seen as a useful way in which a separation of markets could take place. So importantly, and this is something that often gets lost in transmission, the Dutch have never legalised any component regarding the cannabis market. But rather, cannabis may be sold and possessed under certain rules, known as the AHOJ-G criteria. These criteria are conditions laid down by the public prosecutor’s office, which says, if you follow these rules then it is not in the public interest to prosecute such offences. Until recently, these rules were: no advertising (A); no hard drugs (H); no nuisance (O); no people under 18 (J); no large stocks (G).
Out of its pragmatic and humble beginnings, the more formal establishment of this tolerance policy (gedoogbeleid) led to the replacement of ‘house-dealers’ by more commercial outlets known as ‘coffeeshops’, which has since become the icon of Dutch drug policy.
Everything seemed to be going well, rates of use remained relatively low and there didn’t appear to be any major issues as a consequence. Fast-forward 30 years and the landscape in which coffeeshops now operate appears to be markedly different. Perhaps the title of ‘coffeeshops in crisis?’ is a little extreme, but as we can see from the graph below, there has been a steady decline in the number of coffeeshops.
One of the fundamental issues that has always been a rubbing point in cannabis policy has been that whilst the ‘front-door’ has been regulated or managed, the ‘back-door’ of production and supply to coffeeshops has always remained firmly un-tolerated. As the coffeeshops grew in their clientele, made easier by European convergence in mobility, this has seemingly led to a new set of problems. Predominantly located in some of the southern municipalities such as Terneuzen or Maastricht, the demand to supply an enormous amount of individuals has created an opportunity for serious amounts of money to be made. For example, Coffeeshop Checkpoint in Terneuzen (which has now been closed for a few years) was serving up to 5000 customers on a busy day. In order to supply such a demand it would not be possible to rely upon a small network of local growers. On searching the premises, the police found approximately 92kg of cannabis spread over 10 locations.
What is the problem you may ask? The problem is that such large-scale operations have been taken over by organised criminal networks, who not only delve into the cannabis trade as a way of making vast sums of money, but have also been seen to be linked to other, more dangerous and harmful activities, such as human/sex trafficking, violence, corruption etc.
Another issue which has arisen in this context is due to ‘nuisance’ caused by these large amounts of people who mainly come from neighbouring countries to buy cannabis and then cross back over into their native countries. In an old city such as Maastricht, where its coffeeshops are predominantly located in the city centre, issues of parking and noise become serious points of annoyance for local residents.
So out of these problems, and in the context of a right-leaning coalition (VVD, CDA, supported by PVV), it was announced that a new set of measures would be introduced to make the tolerance policy stricter. Firstly, that coffeeshops would become private clubs in which an individual had to register at a particular coffeeshop, with coffeeshops able to have a maximum of 2000 members. Second, only residents of the Netherlands would be able to enter coffeeshops. And third, that there would be a minimum distance between coffeeshops and schools of 350m.
So what do these developments mean? Are the Dutch turning against the coffeeshops in preference for a more law-enforcement focussed, stricter policy?
Well, despite the evidence showing the links between coffeeshops, nuisance and organised criminality, it should be noted that with regards to the nuisance aspect, there was only a small minority of the total number of coffeeshops located in the southern border areas which were experiencing such issues. For the most part, coffeeshops are seen to provide a valuable social function and pose little threat to social stability and order. As figure 1 shows, despite a significant reduction in the number of coffeeshops, the amount of municipalities with coffeeshops has changed very little over this period. So when the new measures were announced in 2011 there was a sustained backlash from the larger municipalities (who do not have such problems) who did not want to implement the new measures.
Following a change in government in 2012 which has shifted the political balance back towards the centre (VVD and PvdA), and in combination with pressure exerted from numerous sources, such as the media, coffeeshop owners, mayors, health, public prosecution, there has been a revision of these initial measures which has removed much of the sting, and demonstrates that despite a broader trend towards clamping down on its coffeeshops, there still remains the important and fundamental ability to be pragmatic and compromise to find a workable solution.
The school’s distance criterion is perhaps the most useful example to show this. This was mainly a policy measure advocated by the religious CDA, who want to completely reverse the Dutch position on cannabis by gradually making coffeeshops less visible, and less normalised, under the guise of protecting youth (despite under-18s not able to enter coffeeshops anyway…). But to actually enforce this measure would have led to the closing down of most coffeeshops, which as I said before, for most local municipalities is not an
attractive policy option because they are seen to be beneficial. Take for example Utrecht, not only do they not want to close down coffeeshops but they argue that they do not have enough coffeeshops, and actually have 2 licenses available.
Further to this, the private club criteria was also removed, after seemingly diverting Dutch users away from coffeeshops who were sceptical of being known to be a registered member of what is still technically an illegal outlet. This, I think, threatened the very fundamental idea behind having coffeeshops, to separate the cannabis market from other, more hazardous substances. So if Dutch users didn’t want to buy their cannabis at a coffeeshop, it would be feasible that a non-tolerated source could also be the provider of other substances.
So what is left from this on-going mess currently is the criteria which states that only Dutch residents may enter a coffeeshop. But even with this there has been a large degree of compromise in how it is to be enforced at a local level. In essence, municipalities do not have to enforce this criteria if they do not have problems relating to drug-tourists and if they can show they have plans to tackle nuisance.
What’s important to remember is that drug policy is still rooted to a grass-roots level, just as it was when it was initially formulated. So from what was initially a much more stricter and repressive set of measures which could have ultimately led to many coffeeshops being closed down, this has now been mellowed out through the Dutch political process which, in spite of growing tendencies to embrace more populist punitive strategies, have still retained the ability to find pragmatic solutions to complex problems within the current political and social context.
An interesting component between national and local levels of governance can be seen with regards to the political representation. At a national level, the tougher measures towards coffeeshops have predominantly come from the VVD, a centre-right liberal party. However, VVD’s current coalition partner, the centre-left PvdA, who support ideas for more tolerance and liberalisation, is also heavily represented at a local level, with 7 out of the 10 largest cities having mayors which come from a PvdA background. Given that the majority of coffeeshops are located in these municipalities, it has been absolutely crucial for the VVD Minister for Security and Justice to co-operate and bargain with the interests of these local stakeholders.
However, the problem of the ‘back-door’ remains, and with national and international pressures and constraints against any further liberalisation, it appears that current approaches to tackle cultivation will not do much to stop the large-scale operations behind supplying the coffeeshops. If current trends continue at a global level, I don’t believe the Dutch will be by any means the last to experiment with regulated forms of production, but for now it seems that there is still a stalemate which is slowly eroding away at the tolerance of cannabis. But given the powerful role of the local in being able to
mediate and resist against national policies, it is not simply the case that the Dutch have lost faith in their more liberal approach to cannabis.