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

The coffee shop system

Contrary to several stereotypes, cannabis possession is not decriminalized; strictly speaking, it is still a criminal offence. However, based on the principle of expediency, which is part of the criminal law tradition in the Netherlands, the possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use has been decriminalized. The sale of cannabis is technically an offence under the Opium Act, but prosecutorial guidelines provide that proceedings will only be instituted in certain situations.

Without legalizing the sale of cannabis and cannabis derivatives, the municipalities may permit the establishment of coffee shops which are authorized to sell cannabis under certain conditions. An operator or owner of a coffee shop (which is not permitted to sell alcohol) will avoid prosecution if he or she meets the following criteria:

··        no more than 5 grams per person may be sold in any one transaction;

··        no hard drugs may be sold;

··        drugs may not be advertised;

··        the coffee shop must not cause any nuisance;

··        no drugs may be sold to minor (under 18), nor may minors enter the premises;

··        the municipality has not ordered the establishment closed.


The idea behind the Netherlands' policy towards the coffee shops is that of harm limitation. This is based on the argument that if we do not prosecute small-scale cannabis dealing and use under certain conditions, the users – who are mainly young people experimenting with the drug – are not criminalized (they do not get a criminal record) and they are not forced to move in criminal circles, where the risk that they will be pressed to try more dangerous drugs such as heroin is much greater. [1][77]


It is common for municipalities to have a coffee shop policy to prevent or combat the public nuisance sometimes associated with these establishments. For example, suspicion of selling hard drugs or locating a coffee shop near a school or in a residential district may result in closure. In April 1999, the "Damocles Bill" amended the Narcotics Act by expanding municipal powers regarding coffee shops and permitting local mayors to close such places if they contravened local coffee shop rules, even if no nuisance was being caused. As a result of strict enforcement and various administrative and judicial measures, the number of coffee shops decreased from nearly 1,200 in 1995 to 846 in November 1999.[2][78]

There appears to be three types of policies on coffee shops:

··          tolerance without condition as to the number of coffee shops, which is determined by market mechanisms; this situation is the most rare;

··          conditional tolerance, setting a maximum number of coffee shops;

··          zero tolerance: no coffee shop; this is the case in approximately 50 per cent of Dutch cities.


To determine the ideal number of coffee shops, the association of municipalities recommends that demographic factors (number of inhabitants, age groups) and urban development factors (role of the city with respect to the region; number of centres in the city) be considered, as well as any nuisance caused by the use of soft drugs.


Thus, in most municipalities, coffee shops are accepted on in the downtown area, and a maximum number is determined in accordance with criteria of distance – distance of the establishments from one another and distance between the coffee shops and certain institutions such as schools and psychiatric hospitals. (…) The difficulties encountered by certain mayors with regard to administrative judges have come from the fact that the absence of any complaints or contraventions has been considered by certain judges as an absence of any concrete evidence of nuisance. A "substantiated" policy is ultimately a policy based on a procedure for consulting drug addiction and public health experts, police experts and, in certain instances, the public itself (including users). This is also a balanced policy in the sense that it accommodates the interests not only of "average" citizens irritated by public nuisances, but also those of soft drug users.[3][79]


Since the memo on public nuisances was issued in 1993 and stricter conditions were set for the issuing of permits in 1999, municipal authorities have in fact been able to issue "nuisance permits", which are thus used to monitor the number of coffee shops, without moreover violating the fundamental orientations of the Dutch system.


[1][77]  Dr. Robert Keizer, The Netherlands’ Drug Policy. Brief to the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, November 19, 2001.

[2][78]  National Drug Monitor, "Fact Sheet: Cannabis Policy, Update 2000", Trimbos Institute, 2000.

[3][79]  Martineau and Gomart, op.cit., page 85, for the quotation and preceding information.

Library Highlights

Drug Information Articles

Drug Rehab