Introduced in 1976, Holland’s drug policy diverged from mainstream prohibition by treating drugs not simply as a legal, but a social and health issue. Policed by gedogen, a form of discriminatory enforcement that loosely translated connotes tolerated, the “Dutch Model” classified so-called soft drugs like cannabis and hashish differently than hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. Over the last 40 years, the Netherlands’ national model has become an international case study in sensible drug policy.
Contrary to popular folklore, cannabis is illegal in Holland; it always been. But unlike most every other country in the developed and developing worlds, the Dutch ministry of justice’s two-tiered system doesn’t prosecute any person or business that follows the liberal guidelines that govern the illegal marketplace. Particularly, people can only cultivate up to five plants and possess five or less grams, which must be acquired from one of the country’s licensed coffee shops.
Renowned globally as a bastion of unbridled recreational consumption, the country’s coffee shops are regulated by a strict set of rules. While cannabis sales are still a criminal offense behind their doors, shops can’t be prosecuted if they keep a maximum of 500 grams on site, refrain from advertising, causing a nuisance in the neighbourhood, and selling hard drugs, alcohol and marijuana to minors. In fact, most municipalities don’t allow coffee shops, and those that do try to limit their numbers.
Public support for the shops has increased over the course of their existence, as cannabis use has remained steady in the Netherlands. Consumption rates in Holland rival those of nearby countries and are significantly lower than the United States. Importantly, only 14 percent of Dutch users report being able to access other drugs from the place they source their cannabis, compared to 52 percent in Sweden.
Holland has also been at the vanguard of the medical cannabis movement. In 1984, Bedrocan BV started growing indoor crops – chicory, culinary herbs and potted plants – under controlled conditions. By the 90s, they had switched focus to developing and standardizing whole-flower cannabis strains, characterized by stable genetics, proprietary production techniques and consistent terpenoid and cannabinoid content. For the last 14 years, Bedrocan BV has been the exclusive supplier of medical cannabis to the Dutch Ministry of Health.
“No other organization has the detailed knowledge to maintain the vigour and health of the genetics like we do at Bedrocan,” says Tjalling Erkelens, chairman of Bedrocan International. “Because Bedrocan in the Netherlands is contracted by the Dutch government, we were not free to bring in varieties we chose to the market by ourselves.”
Rather, each strain Bedrocan produces was picked for a particular reason. The company’s eponymous variety was first used in a clinical setting to treat patients at the Amsterdam University hospital in 1999; Bedica was introduced when the government accepted a distinction between sativas and indicas; and cannabidiol-rich Bediol was brought to market in 2007, years before CBD was proven a useful medical cannabinoid.
Despite its distinction as a country with one of the most liberal drug policies, the Netherlands has in recent years faced challenges to its gedogen model. A revival of conservative politics in the country after 9/11 led to the planned imposition of a range of new restrictions on individuals and coffee shops.
The past government’s “wietpas” (or weed pass) would have effectively turned coffee shops to private clubs, while professional cultivation – defined trivially as growing with electric lights or prepared soil – would have been outlawed. Another report suggested the Dutch government planned to limit the cannabis sold at coffee shops to 15 percent THC.
Since 2011, most of the plans to tighten Holland’s liberal drug policies have been abandoned or implemented with marginal impact.
In fact, the fallout from the planned regressive measures has helped to bolster support for even more progressive reform in the country. Sixty-five percent of Dutch citizens are in favour of adopting laws similar to those in Uruguay; 41 municipalities have called for the production of cannabis to be regulated; and 25 of the 38 biggest cities have applied to experiment with various forms of cannabis production and supply.
Still, many questions remain unanswered: Will the dwindling number of coffee shops across the country – from 1,000 some years ago to just over 600 nowadays – be indicative of a changing of the times in Holland? Will the Netherlands abandon their policy for treating cannabis differently than hard drugs and all drugs as a legal, as well as a social, issue? Will the Dutch political arena cement or threaten the country’s precarious gedogen model?
Or, will the Netherlands continue to play a lead role in the future of cannabis as an industry, and medicine? Will the “Dutch Model” continue to serve as an example of sensible drug policy? And, perhaps most importantly, will the Netherlands remain a country with one of the lowest number of drug-related deaths in Europe?