The Netherlands is renowned for its liberal drug policy. While technically still illegal because of international treaties, personal use of (soft) drugs are regulated by the Ministry of Justice under an official policy of gedogen; literally this means to accept or tolerate, legally a doctrine of non-prosecution on the basis that the action taken would be so highly irregular as to constitute selective prosecution. This does not mean the Dutch are all permanently high; in fact drug usage is much lower in the Netherlands than it is in countries with more restrictive policies. Much of the clientèle of the coffeeshops (see below) are in fact tourists. Be sure you are among like-minded people before lighting up a spliff. However: it is customary to smoke only inside coffee shops or in private places; using drugs in public streets and being excessively high is considered impolite, so, try to maintain a certain discipline.
If you are 18 or older, you are allowed to buy and smoke small doses (5 g or less) of cannabis or hash. For this you have to visit a coffeeshop, which are abundant in most larger towns. Coffeeshops are not allowed to sell alcohol. Minors (those under 18) are not allowed inside. Coffeeshops are prohibited from explicit advertising, so many use the Rastafarian red-yellow-green colours to hint at the products available inside, while others are more discreet and sometimes almost hidden away from plain view.
When the Dutch gedoogbeleid (“tolerance policy”) began in the 1970s, coffeeshops were dumpy little places where a few hippies sold pot to each other from shoe boxes in their basements. Today, for better or worse, coffeeshops have grown into extremely sophisticated businesses that serve thousands of customers monthly. Their success, however, is not without controversy; some coffeeshops are operated by organized crime syndicates and serve as money-laundering operations, and many Dutch consider their presence, and the accompanying throngs of foreigners, to be a nuisance. This has caused a backlash; now many coffeeshops have closed and magic mushrooms are (mostly) banned. The “wietpas” (“weed pass”), which used to be a mandatory pass to be able to buy weed, is no longer in use. It was introduced in 2012 to prevent foreigners from buying drugs, as to reduce the problem of drug tourism. This problem, however, still exists and has led to local laws in major cities in the southern provinces of Limburg, North Brabant and Zeeland preventing non-Dutch citizens from entering a coffeeshop. Since failing to comply with the law can mean instant closure and criminal charges, coffeeshops enforce this strictly. When in doubt, ask the bouncer. If rejected, do not make a scene: no really means no. Do not try to get others to buy drugs for you, this will get you in trouble with law enforcement. While it has become harder for foreigners to buy weed in the Netherlands, the use of drugs is still legal, also for foreigners.
Beware that cannabis sold in the Netherlands is often stronger than varieties outside, so be careful when you take your first spliff. Be particularly wary of cannabis-laced pastries (“space cakes”) as it’s easy to eat too much by accident — although there are also unscrupulous shops that sell space cakes with no weed at all. Wait at least one hour after eating!
Hallucinogenic (“magic”) mushrooms, once legal, are banned as of December 1st, 2008. However, “magic truffles”, which contain the same active ingredients as magic mushrooms are still technically legal and are sold in some Amsterdam head shops.
It is forbidden to drive any motorized vehicle while impaired, which includes driving under the influence of both illegal and legal recreational or prescribed drugs (such as cocaine, ecstasy, cannabis and mushrooms) as well as alcohol, and medication that might affect your ability to drive.
Buying soft drugs from dealers in the streets is always illegal and is commonly discouraged. The purchase of other (hard) drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine, or processed/dried mushrooms is still dealt with by the law. However, often people who are caught in possession of small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use are not prosecuted.
The act of consuming any form of drugs is legal, even if possession is not. If you are seen taking drugs, you may theoretically be arrested for possession, but not for use. This has one important effect; do not hesitate to seek medical help if you are suffering from bad effects of drug use, and inform emergency services as soon as possible of the specific (illegal) drugs you have taken. Medical services are unconcerned with where you got the drugs, they will not contact the police, their sole intention is to take care of you in the best way possible.
At some parties, a “drug testing desk” is offered, where you can have your (synthetic) drugs tested. This is mainly because many pills contain harmful chemicals in addition to the claimed ingredients; for example, many pills of “ecstasy” (MDMA) will also contain speed (amphetamines). Some pills don’t even contain any MDMA at all. The testing desks are not meant to encourage drug use, since venue owners face stiff fines for allowing drugs in their venues, but they are tolerated or ‘gedoogd’ since they mitigate the public health risks. Note: the desk won’t return the drugs tested.
Please note that there are significant risks associated with drug use, even in the Dutch liberal climate
- while marijuana bought at coffeeshops is unlikely to be hazardous, hard drugs like cocaine and heroin and synthetic drugs like ecstasy are still illegal and unregulated. These hard drugs are likely to be in some way contaminated, especially when bought from street dealers.
- some countries have legislation in place that make it illegal to plan a trip for the purpose of committing illegal acts in another jurisdiction, so you might be apprehended in your home country after having legally smoked pot in the Netherlands. It should go without saying (but many people each year run afoul of this nonetheless) that before leaving the Netherlands ensure that you have absolutely no drugs-related matter in your luggage, in your pocket, etc. If you used enough that your clothes have picked up an odour, you may wish to consider running them through the laundry before packing or wearing them for the flight home.