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Is cannabis legal in Amsterdam or the Netherlands?

“When you spoke at my school you said that the only countries cannabis was legal in were Uruguay and Canada. Isn’t it legal in the Netherlands and the city of Amsterdam?”

At the time of publication the only two countries that have legalised the recreational (or non-medical) use of cannabis are Uruguay (in late 2013) and Canada (2017). When a drug has been ‘legalised’ it means that all penalties for possession and personal use of the drug have been removed. Regulations are also put into place that manage how it is produced and sold. Many other countries have decriminalised the drug, which means if you are caught with cannabis in your possession it is not treated as a criminal offence, instead you would receive something similar to that of a speeding ticket.

South Africa is often included in a list of countries that have legalised cannabis but even though it is now legal to possess and use the drug, it is not legally available for sale.

Currently there are 18 states in the USA that have legalised the non-medical use of cannabis, with another 13 states decriminalising the drug. At the federal level, however, cannabis remains prohibited for any use under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

So what about Amsterdam, the capital city of the Netherlands? Many people who visit the city are surprised to hear that even though there are many shops openly selling cannabis, the drug is actually illegal. The Netherlands has a unique drug policy that was launched in 1976 when the Dutch Government made the decision to separate drugs into ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ categories. At that time cannabis was placed in the ‘soft’ category, with the possession of 30 grams or less being made a misdemeanor.

In an attempt to keep the two categories of drugs separated, establishments were introduced where cannabis could be sold for personal consumption. These became known as ‘coffee shops’ and they still exist to this day. Coffee shops are governed by strict laws controlling the amount of drugs available, and the conditions in which they are sold and used. Those under the age of 18 are prohibited from buying drugs and are barred access to coffee shops.

The Dutch experience is unique and is referred to as a ‘tolerance policy’ (‘gedoogbeleid’) where even though cannabis is not legal in the Netherlands, authorities ‘turn a blind eye’ when it comes to personal use in coffee shops.

First published: June 2021

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