-Drug Laws of The Netherlands –
Is a Permissive Legal System Better than a Restrictive One in the Case of Drugs?
The Netherlands is one of the most highly developed countries in the world. It is an international, well-integrated country with policies that are among the world’s most liberal. In fact, The Netherlands has perhaps the most liberal view on drug use than any other country and has even gone to the extreme of extraordinarily relaxing its laws regarding ‘soft’ drugs.
However, a common misconception about drugs in the Netherlands is that people believe they have been legalized there. Rather, cannabis and its by-products, marijuana and hashish, have merely been decriminalized. This means that the sale and use in moderate amounts of marijuana and hashish is not prosecuted.
This begs the question: Is a permissive legal system more effective than a restrictive system in the case of soft drugs? This paper examines the attitude of law enforcement in The Netherlands regarding soft drug use and assesses whether or not The Netherlands’s permissive system is a successful one.
Soft Drug Decriminalization in The Netherlands
Contrary to popular belief, when the Dutch parliament revised the country's drug laws in 1976, it did not actually legalize any narcotic substances. Rather, it separated illegal drugs into two distinct categories: drugs with unacceptable health risks (such as heroin and cocaine), which were classified as "hard drugs,” and drugs with a lesser medical risk (such as cannabis), which were classified as "soft drugs" (Bransten, para. 3). The Dutch Parliament then decided to decriminalize soft drugs.
Because of this determination, throughout The Netherlands so-called "coffee shops” have opened. In these coffee shops, people are able to purchase limited amounts of cannabis and smoke a marijuana joint without fear of prosecution (Bransten, para. 4). These activities are not legal per se, but the local police do not monitor or prosecute them.
The rationale behind the Dutch parliament’s decision was that the use of marijuana among the Dutch population was increasing, and rather than bog down the legal system, Dutch politicians decided to decriminalize marijuana (Bransten, para. 4). The other benefit of the policy, as the Dutch politicians and general public see it, is that “it isolates the hard drug market from the recreational user...because cannabis consumers no longer regularly come into contact with street dealers and more harmful drugs” (Bransten, para. 5).
Dutch drug policy is guided by the principle of what is best described as "harm reduction" (Bransten, para. 8). This means that drugs are perceived as a public health issue and the goal should be to minimize the harm those drugs do to individuals and to society –- not to criminally punish soft drug users.
With respect to users of hard drugs, they are monitored and encouraged to turn to the public health system for treatment, but...