Since 1976, it has been a basic principle of Dutch drug policy to pursue the separation of the markets for ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ drugs. The Opium Act Directive states that the ‘Dutch drugs policy aims to discourage and reduce drug use, certainly in so far as it causes damage to health and to society, and to prevent and reduce the damage associated with drug use, drug production and the drugs trade’ (Stc 2011-11134). The 1995 white paper ‘Drug policy: continuity and change’ sets out comprehensively the principles of the Dutch illicit drugs policy. Taking a balanced approach, it recognises the distinction between ‘soft’ (Schedule I) and ‘hard’ (Schedule II) drugs. It outlines four major objectives: (i) to prevent drug use and treat and rehabilitate drug users; (ii) to reduce harm to users; (iii) to diminish public nuisance caused by drug users; and (iv) to combat the production and trafficking of drugs.
Since 1995, other aspects of Dutch drug policy have been elaborated in a number of issue-specific strategies and policy notes or letters to parliament. These have included the white paper ‘A combined effort to combat ecstasy’ (2001), the ‘Plan to combat drug trafficking at Schiphol airport’ (2002), the ‘Cannabis policy document’ (2004), the ‘Medical prescription of heroin’ (2009), the ‘Police and the Public Prosecution Office policy letter’ (2008-12 and 2012-16) targeting drugs and organised crime, and a policy view on drug prevention addressing young people and nightlife (2015).
Dutch cannabis policy has been elaborated in a series of policy letters. The ‘Letter outlining the new Dutch policy’ (2009) placed an increased emphasis on prevention and use reduction, and it amended the ‘coffee shop’ policy. The expediency principle holds that the public prosecutor has the discretionary power to refrain from prosecuting a criminal offence if this is judged to be in the public interest. This approach provides the basis for the ‘coffee shop’ policy, which allows users to buy cannabis in coffee shops, preventing them from coming into contact with hard drugs. Since 1996, the sale of small quantities has been tolerated if coffee shops adhere to the following criteria: no advertising, no sale of hard drugs, no public nuisance in and around the coffee shop, no admittance of or sale to minors, no sale of large quantities per transaction (maximum 5 g) and a maximum in-store stock for sale of 500 g. In 2013, another criterion was added: admittance to coffee shops and sales are limited to residents of the Netherlands, although local adjustments in the implementation of this criterion are allowed.
Like other European countries, the Netherlands regularly monitors and evaluates its drug policy and specific issues using routine indicator monitoring and specific research projects. Long-standing monitoring systems include the Drug Information and Monitoring System (drug composition), the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) monitor (cannabis potency) and drug-related emergencies monitoring (presentations at festival first aid stations and medical services in eight Dutch regions). In 2009, an external evaluation of the 1995 white paper was carried out by the Trimbos Institute.
The responsibility for Dutch drug policy is shared among several ministries. The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport is tasked with coordination, while the Ministry of Justice and Security is responsible for law enforcement and matters relating to local government and the police. With regard to the dissemination of effective policies at the international level, including matters relating to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and injecting drug use, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is in charge. Regular coordination takes place through meetings between drug policy managers in these ministries.