The Definitive Guide to Cannabis Law in the Netherlands - It is probably not what you think...
The Netherlands is known for pretty much three things: cheese, windmills and weed. Visiting Amsterdam has become a type of rite of passage for pot smokers worldwide. There is a distinct weed culture associated with the Netherlands, especially Amsterdam. Reportedly, 25-30% of tourists to the Netherlands visit coffeeshops but, with the recent introduction of the "wietpas", where do visitors really stand when wanting to partake in a bit of the green stuff?
Assuming weed is legal, people have this idea that the Netherlands is a type of Cannabis Valhalla. Or at the very least that it has been decriminalised. This is, alas, not the case. There is a lot of confusion, even for locals, when it comes to the legal status of weed.
Dutch lawmakers are continuously modifying and adjusting the cannabis laws. Increasingly, they are becoming less tolerant of lax cannabis laws and more aggressive in their law new making. Most importantly, through a general clamp down on what is considered to be "drug tourism", the Netherlands is quickly starting to lose its status as cannabis country.
It might be easiest to try and explain the current cannabis laws if we start at the beginning…
Cannabis Law: The “Gedoogbeleid” (a.k.a. Tolerance Policy)
In the early 1970’s heroin was a big problem in the Netherlands – especially in the larger cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Maastricht. Thus, in 1976 the “Opium Law” was ushered in distinguishing between hard and soft drugs.
The thinking at the time was that weed was a bit like alcohol and tobacco. Well, that is the way it played out in the real world - it was a hell of a lot less problematic than heroin. So, authorities decided that a better use of resources it to leave pot smokers alone (the Dutch are a pragmatic bunch that way) and funnel their limited resources towards combating the hard stuff.
Enter the “gedoogdbeleid” – a policy of tolerance towards the use of cannabis. The intention was to eventually move towards complete legalisation sometimes in the near future.
So, with that in mind, the government and municipalities made up a bunch of rules that coffee shops have to comply with. In turn, the government and police will turn a blind eye until everything is above board and the laws have been ratified. But, due to international policies at the time, legalisation became more of a long-term goal that kind of fell by the wayside over time.
Cannabis Law: The “Wietpas”
All this blind-eye-turning and tolerant policing of everything pot resulted in a flourishing cannabis culture. This drew people from all over the world to cities and coffee shops across the Netherlands. But, over time, lawmakers and (some) locals alike, got fed up with the nuisance of – what they called – “drug tourists” - seeing them as flooding Dutch cities, getting stoned and drunk and generally causing havoc. In response to all this debauchery and in an attempt to appease complaining locals, the idea came about that, by limiting tourists access to coffee shops, the tourists will stop coming. A bit like the opposite version of “build it and they will come”.
With that in mind, the grand idea sprung up that coffee shops should be treated like a club with memberships. To become a member and get a “wietpas”, you have to be 18 or over AND a local resident. So, from 2012 in the south and 2013/4 in the rest of the country, it was that last little quid pro quo – prohibiting Brits, Belgians, Germans and a boatload of other tourists from partaking in pot – that they hoped to stop “drug tourism” and all its associated evils.
However, quite predictably, the tourists didn’t stop coming. They just started buying from street dealers and other criminal types that also sell them hard drugs. This resulted in an epic fail situation, which resulted in even more debauchery and nuisance than before. Once again, being pragmatic, a blind-eye has been turned to the "wietpas" too. And for the most part, with the exception of Limburg, Noord-Brabant and Zeeland, this rule is not actually being enforced.
It is exactly this fluidity with regards to enforcement that causes so much confusion. Even the locals get confused… So, what does the law say?
Cannabis Law: As it stands now
As it stands right now in 2017, and contrary to popular belief, cannabis is NOT legal in the Netherlands, and it is NOT decriminalised. In the Netherlands, there are two classes of drugs – hard drugs and so-called soft drugs. Any possession, sale, manufacture and/or growing of any substance listed under either of these categories is illegal and is, as such, punishable under the law. Cannabis, falling under the “soft drugs” banner, is thus still very much considered to be an illicit substance making the possession, sale and growing thereof punishable.
However, still having a general policy of tolerance, it is (again) not that simple. So, let’s break that down further.
If you are over the age of 18, the possession of 5 grams or less for own use, although illegal, is not prosecutable. If you have 5 to 30 grams of weed or hash on you, it is considered to be sellable amounts and thus is a prosecutable violation. Not only will your stash get seized, you can also expect a fine of around €75 (unless it is not your first time, in which case you will get a higher fine). If you carry more than 30 grams you are pretty much screwed and considered to be committing a crime. For this, you can expect a maximum of two years in prison and/or a stiff fine of up to €16,750
If you are under 18, the penalties are harsher and you can expect to pay substantially larger fines.
Smoking in Public
Smoking pot in public is not allowed and will lead to a fine of about €130. Some municipalities are more tolerant than others when it comes to actually doing something about it. But as a rule of thumb, just don't, no matter how much fun it might be. Better to be safe than sorry, right?!
In effect, coffee shops are illegally buying in and selling cannabis. With the government becoming less and less tolerant towards weed, coffee shops are pretty much between a rock and a hard place. The introduction of the “wietpas” and stricter operating rules means that in some regions and cities you might not be able to partake in the green bounty unless you registered with a coffee shop and are local. So, if you want to have a toke when visiting the Netherlands, check out the local laws.
And, there you have it. In a nutshell, foreigners can still buy weed and smoke it in about 85 percent of the coffee shops, despite the national ban on selling to foreigners. The majority of municipalities don’t check at all or hardly bother to. But that being said, be mindful of the local laws, respect the locals and their customs and don't party too hardy. And without sounding like a Debby Downer, also remember that Dutch weed tends to be stronger than what you might be used to so it's not a bad idea to ask the personnel for a bit of advice.
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