The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform


The Netherlands introduced heroin-assisted treatment in 1998 (services include syringe access and the prescription of methadone and heroin under strict conditions) and applied a gedoogbeleid (tolerance policy) with regard to soft drugs. The results have been very positive.

According to current policy, the possession of a maximum amount of five grams cannabis for personal use is not prosecuted; neither is growing Cannabis sativa plants, as long as it’s not more than 5 plants.

Dutch ‘coffeeshops’ are establishments where the sale of small amounts of cannabis to customers is tolerated by police. In October 2011 the Dutch government released a proposal banning the sale of strong THC cannabis in coffeeshops, yet many tourists still flock to these establishments due to the legality and higher quality product. In 2012 the Dutch coalition government introduced a tougher legislative programme that transforms dutch coffee shops into private clubs, limited to 2000 members each. These ‘weed card’ carrying members must be over 18 and legally resident in the Netherlands. The card was introduced in 3 provinces on 1st May 2012, with a nationwide roll-out in 2013. However, the proposal faces strong opposition from other cities, and the Mayor of Amsterdam has publicly declared that tourists will continue to be able to use his city’s 220 coffee shops.

According to the Global Commission on Drugs Report, of all EU-15 countries, the percentage of people who inject heroin is the lowest in the Netherlands and there is no new influx of problematic users.[1] Heroin has indeed lost its appeal to the mainstream youth and is considered a ‘dead-end street drug’ – James P. Gray (the former presiding judge of the Superior Court of Orange County, California) coined the expression Holland Effect and quotes the Dutch Minister of Health: we have succeeded in making pot boring.[2]

The example of the Netherlands demonstrates how medically prescribed heroin can reduce petty crime and public nuisance, and have positive effects on the health of people struggling with addiction. According to the Global Commission on Drugs report, in 2001, the estimated number of people in the Netherlands dependent on heroin was 28-30,000. By 2008, that number had fallen to 18,000 [3]. Furthermore, the population of opiate users is in the process of aging – the proportion of young opiate users (aged 15-29) receiving treatment for addiction has also declined. Heroin costs about £20 a gram in the Netherlands, which is about half the price it is in England; yet per head of population, Holland has about a quarter of Britain’s addicts [4].

 The comparison with the United States is not new: a study by Reinarman, et. al. compared the verydifferent regulatory environments of Amsterdam and San Francisco, in the US, which criminalizes cannabis users. The researchers concluded that: Our findings do not support claims that criminalization reduces cannabis use and that decriminalization increases cannabis use [5].

In 2009, 9.5% of young Dutch adults (aged 15–34) consume soft drugs once a month – less than in Italy (20,9%), the Czech Republic (19,3%), Spain (18.8%), France (16,7%), Slovakia (14,7%) the UK (13.8%), Denmark (13,3%), and Germany (11,9%).[6] Statistics and reports all seem to reach the same conclusion: the drug tolerance policy in the Netherlands was a success – addiction rates fell, cannabis consumption is far from dramatic, and recovery programs help an increasing number of ex-addicts to reintegrate society.

Lifetime Prevalence %Last Year Prevalence %
CannabisUNITED STATES41.010.3
CocaineUNITED STATES14.72.1
A comparison of lifetime and recent prevalence of drug-use between the United States and the Netherlands Sources: [6], [7]


[1] Global Commission on Drugs Report

[2] Judge Jim Gray on The Six Groups Who Benefit From Drug Prohibition

[3] E. Schatz, K. Schiffer and J.P. Kools (2011) The Dutch treatment and social support system for drug users IDPC Briefing Paper, January 2011

[4] The GuardianTwo countries took the drugs test. Who passed?

[5] The Limited Relevance of Drug Policy: Cannabis in Amsterdam and in San Francisco American Journal of Public Health vol. 94 pp.836–842 by Reinarman, C., Cohen, P. and Kaal, H. (2004)

[6] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2009). Results from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-36, HHS Publication No. SMA 09-4434)

[7] Trimbos Institute, “Drug Situation 2006 The Netherlands by the Reitox National Focal Point: Report to the EMCDDA” (Utrecht, Netherlands: Trimbos-Instuut, 2007), p. 26, Table 2.1.