Own your ow legal marijuana business
Your guide to making money in the multi-billion dollar marijuana industry
Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume 3 - Public Policy Options

Chapter 20 - Public Policy In Other Countries - The Netherlands

Essential expert reports

Unlike most other countries where commissions of inquiry produced reports in the 1970s, the Netherlands is the only country that has implemented the recommendations of its commission.


The Hulsman Commission(1968-1971)

In 1968, the National Federation of Mental Health Organizations[1][62] established a commission with a broad mandate to "clarify factors associated with the use of drugs" and "to suggest proposals for a rational policy."[2][63] Chaired by criminal law professor Louk Hulsman, the Commission had a diverse membership including law enforcement officials, alcohol treatment experts, psychiatrists, a drug use researcher and a sociologist.

The commission’s final report, presented in 1971, provided an analysis of drug use and the social mechanisms behind drug problems. New approaches were suggested, including:

··        The use of cannabis and the possession of small quantities should be taken out of the criminal law immediately. For the time being, production and distribution should remain within criminal law, but as misdemeanours.

··        The use and possession of other drugs should temporarily remain in the realm of criminal law, as misdemeanours, but in the long run all should be decriminalized.

··        People who have problems with their drug use should have adequate treatment facilities at their disposal.


In recommending the gradual decriminalization of all drugs, the report noted that illicit drugs can be used in a controlled and limited way and that marginalizing drug-using subcultures has significant negative repercussions. Specifically, becoming a member of the "drug scene" may familiarize a cannabis user with other drugs and patterns of use. Although the commission found no evidence of a "stepping stone" sequence of drug use – what in other contexts has been referred to as "gateways" – it accepted the notion that one kind of drug user (e.g., heroin user) will contaminate another kind of drug user (e.g., cannabis user) when the two kinds of drug use are forced into one marginalized subculture.

With respect to the issue of law enforcement, the commission concluded that once started, drug policing would have to be constantly enlarged to keep pace with the never-ending escalation of drug use. It referred to the criminal law option of opposing drug use as inadequate and "extremely dangerous":


Time after time it will show that the means will fall short, upon which those who favour punishment will plead for increase of law enforcement, until it will be amplified a hundred fold from the present situation…This will boost polarization between the different parts of our society and can result in increased violence. [3][64]


Although it had no immediate impact, the Hulsman report nevertheless influenced the government report of the Baan Commission.


The Baan Commission (1968-1972)[4][65]

A State Commission was also established in 1968 by the Under Secretary of Health. This commission contained some members of the Hulsman Commission, as well as officials from the Ministry of Justice, the Amsterdam Chief of Police, and additional psychiatrists and sociologists. In 1970, Pieter Baan, the Chief Inspector of Mental Health, assumed the chairmanship of the commission and a final report was presented in 1972.

The report suggested dividing drugs into those with acceptable and those with unacceptable risks. Further research would be needed to create a greater consensus among the experts as to how some individual drugs should be classified, but the report described cannabis products as relatively benign with limited health risks. However, even for those drugs that pose unacceptable risks, the report concluded that use of the criminal law is not an adequate approach. The Commission suggested the long-term goal of complete decriminalization once a good treatment system had been created. In the interim, the justice system should just be used as a tool for manoeuvring heavy users into treatment.

Other notable findings include:

··          The special characteristics of youth culture are important determinants of drug use and if so‑called deviant behaviour is stigmatized by punitive measures, the probability of intensification of this behaviour is a serious danger. This will initiate a spiral that will make the return of the individual to a socially accepted lifestyle increasingly difficult.

··          Much drug use is short-lasting experimentation by young people.

··          Cannabis use does not lead to other drug use, but as noted in the Hulsman report, the criminalization of cannabis promotes contact between cannabis users and the users of "harder" drugs.

··               Drug users are better served by drug information and prevention efforts than by prosecution.

··               The sometimes unusual behaviour of cannabis-consuming youth is more a result of specific subculture norms and ideologies rather than pharmacology.

··               Cannabis use when driving or operating machines in factories is not responsible conduct, and the consumption of cannabis should be restricted to times of leisure in order to limit the risks to the individual or society .


The Baan report formed the basis of what was to become the system of tolerance toward cannabis in the Netherlands as part of a concern for public health and the separation of drug markets.


The Engelsman Report (1985)[5][66]

Taking notice of the limits of a public health policy essentially based on young people (the principal cannabis users) and of the evolution of heroin use, as well as the declining condition of users, the Engelsman report proposed to extend the Baan Commission's tolerance approach to other drugs. It also went further than the Baan report on the need to rely on the experience and word of users in determining policies, proposing in particular to exclude non-users from the circle of experts. In Engelsman's view, drugs and drug use were no longer the only factors involved in explaining the problems of drugs - hard drugs in this case - and that new factors included the perverse effects of repressive action (care and police) on users. Public policy proposals should therefore not be based on the panic reactions of society and should aim to integrate users and "normalize" their drug use. The state should therefore arbitrate between users and non-users with a view to protecting users. The Engelsman report, which was considered too radical in certain circles, remained a dead letter.


"Continuity and Change" Report – 1995[6][67]

In 1995, the Dutch government published a report entitled Drugs Policy in the Netherlands: Continuity and Change. This policy document was sponsored by: the Minister of Justice; the Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport; and the Secretary of State for the Interior. To some extent, this report was the Dutch response to international pressure (from both neighbouring countries and the USA) as well as an opportunity to make its cannabis policy clearer and to some extent stricter.

The report begins by noting that the Netherlands has always attempted a pragmatic approach to drug use, recalling that prohibitionist policies throughout the world have proven to have a limited effect. Thus, the modest objective in Holland is to limit the health and social problems that result from the use of dangerous drugs. This harm reduction approach has led the Dutch government to distinguish between "hard drugs," i.e., those that pose an unacceptable risk to health, and "soft drugs" such as cannabis products, which although still considered "risky" do not present similar concerns. The underlying assumption made in the Netherlands with respect to cannabis is that people are more likely to make a transition from soft to hard drugs as a result of social factors, not physiological ones. Separating the markets by allowing people to purchase soft drugs in a setting where they are not exposed to the criminal subculture surrounding hard drugs is intended to create a social barrier that prevents people experimenting with more dangerous drugs.

The report goes on to review the effects of the Dutch drug policy, the treatment of addiction in the Netherlands, and enforcement under the Opium Act. Key conclusions and findings include:

··          Decriminalization of the possession of soft drugs for personal use and the toleration of sales in controlled circumstances has not resulted in a worryingly high level of consumption among young people. The extent and nature of the use of soft drugs does not differ from the pattern in other Western countries. As for hard drugs, the report states that the number of addicts in the Netherlands is low compared with the rest of Europe and considerably lower than that in France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.

··          The number of heroin users under the age of 21 has continued to fall in the Netherlands.

··          The use of cheaper forms of cocaine (i.e., crack) has not made significant inroads in Holland as had been feared as a result of developments in the United States.

··          The tone of public debate in Holland is different than in other countries because drug use is no longer seen as an acute health threat but rather as a source of nuisance. Policies focusing on addiction and care have resulted in less HIV infection; in fact, levels continue to fall. As well, the mortality rate among addicts is low and is not increasing, as it is in other European countries.

··          With respect to the legalization debate, the report concludes that, with a state monopoly or licensing system, the disadvantages would outweigh the practical advantages. Although the role of criminal organizations would be reduced, such a system would impose a considerable burden in implementation and monitoring, and would probably attract even more "drug tourists" and the nuisance they sometimes cause. Furthermore, the report suggests that this is not something that could be done by the Netherlands in isolation. The international conventions preclude outright legalization and would have to be renegotiated or denounced. As well, even if just soft drugs were legal in Holland but not in the rest of Europe, the Dutch criminal organizations that export drugs would continue to exist and would still require significant law enforcement activity.

··          Foreign concerns about the Dutch coffee shop policy have centred not on the use of cannabis in the establishments, but on drug tourists who take cannabis back to their home countries, something that has been particularly easy since the abolition of border controls under the Schengen Agreement. The report confirms the government’s plan to reduce the purchase limit to 5 grams from 30 grams to see what impact this will have on illegal exports.[7][68]

··          Given the lack of sufficient scientific data, the report endorses the 1995 recommendation of the Dutch Health Council that a medical trial into the effectiveness of prescribing heroin to addicts be undertaken.[8][69]


The report also notes three negative implications that need to be addressed: the nuisance caused by hard and soft drug users; the increasing presence of organized crime in the Netherlands; and the effect of Dutch policy on other countries.

··          The criminal and general nuisance caused by Dutch and foreign hard drug users may have the effect of undermining public support for the policy of social integration of addicts. A small proportion of hard drug users commit a large number of property offences in order to buy their drugs. Contrary to expectations, the fact that methadone is easily obtained has scarcely improved the situation. Drug-related crime and anti-social behaviour, such as discarding used needles in public places, has affected the tolerance levels of residents in some socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the larger Dutch cities. Nuisance caused by the presence of coffee shops selling soft drugs has also been problematic in some municipalities.[9][70]

··          Another complication has been the rise of criminal organizations involved in the supply and sale of drugs in Holland which has necessitated increased criminal law measures. The prosecution of drug traffickers will continue to be a top priority for the Dutch police and judicial authorities.

··          Although the "ideological nature" of some foreign criticism suggests a lack of understanding of Dutch policy and is often based on purported health risks that are not supported in the scientific literature, there are problems in the Netherlands that have international implications. The Dutch, for example, are responsible for more than their proportional share of trafficking in soft drugs, and drug tourists routinely purchase soft drugs in Holland with the intent of transporting them back to their home country. The report suggests that combating these problems will involve continuing and reinforcing current law enforcement activities that prioritize trafficking. As noted, the issue of soft drug tourists taking home their coffee shop purchases is to be addressed by decreasing the amount permitted for sale.


Three major principles have characterized the Dutch approach since 1976:

·               Harm reduction: attenuation of risks and dangers related to drug use rather than prohibition of all drugs, the key elements of which are:

··          prevention or alleviation of social and individual risks caused by drug use;

··          a rational relationship between those risks and policy measures;

··          a differentiation of policy measures based on the risks associated with drugs;

··          repressive measures against drug trafficking are a priority; and

··          the inadequacy of criminal law with respect to other aspects apart from drug trafficking.[10][71]

·               Policy of normalization: social control is achieved through depolarization and the integration of deviant behaviour rather than isolation and removal, as is typical of the deterrence model. This paradigm also suggests that drug problems should be seen as normal social problems rather than unusual concerns requiring extraordinary treatment.

·               Market separation: by classifying drugs according to the risks posed and then pursuing policies that serve to isolate each market, it is felt that users of soft drugs are less likely to come into contact with users of hard drugs. Thus, the theory goes, users of soft drugs are less likely to try hard drugs.


[1][62]  In the Netherlands, public and private agencies have jurisdiction over mental health based on political affiliation and religious denomination. The National Federation of Mental Health Organizations was a coordination agency.

[2][63]  Louk Hulsman, Ruimte in het drugbeleid, Boom Meppel, 1971, page 5, mentioned in Peter Cohen, "The case of the two Dutch drug policy commissions: An exercise in harm reduction 1968‑1976" (1994, revised in 1996), Article presented to the 5th International Conference on Drug Harm Reduction, March 7‑11, 1994, Addiction Research Foundation, Toronto, available online at: www.cedro‑uva.org/lib/cohen.case.html.

[3][64]  In Peter Cohen, "The case of the two Dutch drug policy commissions", supra, page 3.

[4][65]  Working Party, Department of Justice, The Hague, 1972.

[5][66]  Interdepartmental Task Force on Drugs and Alcohol, The Hague: Department of Justice, 1985.

[6][67]  Department of Foreign Affairs (1995), Continuity and Change. 1995. The report is available online at: www.drugtext.org/reports/wvc/drugnota/0/drugall.htm.

[7][68]  As noted in the section on current legislation, this reduced limit is now in effect.

[8][69]  As noted in the section on current legislation, trials began in 1998.

[9][70]  This concern was addressed subsequent to the Report by the "Damocles bill" of 1999, discussed herein, which provides greater powers to municipalities to shut down coffee shops that are a local nuisance.

[10][71]  M. Grapendaal, E. Leuw and H. Nelen, A World of Opportunities: Life‑Style and Economic Behaviour of Heroin Addicts in Amsterdam. New York, S.U.N.Y. Press, 1995, mentioned in T. Boekhout van Solinge, "Dutch Drug Policy in a European Context", Journal of Drug Issues Vol. 29, No 3, 1999, page 511. Available online at: www.cedro‑uva.org/lib/boekhout.dutch.html.

Library Highlights

Drug Information Articles

Drug Rehab