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4. Policy on soft drugs and coffee shops PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator   
Sunday, 09 May 2010 00:00

Drugs policy in the Netherlands: Extent and nature of cannabis use

4. Policy on soft drugs and coffee shops

4.1. Extent and nature of cannabis use

The decriminalisation of the possession of soft drugs in 1976 did not result in increased use. The level of consumption stabilised in the first few years after the Opium Act was amended*. According to national figures, use again increased somewhat between 1984 and 1994, a trend which has also been observed elsewhere*. Indeed, the United States has experienced a considerable increase in recent years*. Both as regards the extent of cannabis use and trends in use, the Netherlands differs very little from other countries. Use appears to be determined primarily by fashions in international youth culture and other autonomous developments, such as levels of long-term youth unemployment. Government policy on drugs and the resulting availability of drugs has only a limited effect.

The total number of people in the Netherlands who regularly use cannabis is estimated by the Netherlands Institute for Alcohol and Drugs (NIAD) to be around 675,000*.

As already indicated, the number of users of soft drugs has increased after falling in the 1970s. Patterns of consumption are overwhelmingly recreational, though among certain specific categories of young people, such as chronic truants and street children, the use of cannabis can be described as very substantial and intensive.

The policy pursued by the Netherlands does not appear to have led to an increase in use, though there are indications that the existence of freely accessible coffee shops means that certain users continue to use the drugs for longer*.

Prevalence figures - i.e. figures on the extent of use within certain sections of the population - in themselves provide little if any information on problematic aspects of cannabis use. A great deal of scientific literature is now available on the effects of cannabis. It mainly affects mood, consciousness and memory and its effect is dependent on the amount used and the way in which it is used. In addition to its euphoric effects and the peace and relaxation it brings - on account of which it is prescribed for medical purposes in the United States and other countries - cannabis can reduce the ability to concentrate, alertness and memory*.

Cannabis is not very physically toxic. Neither fatal overdoses nor physical dependency can occur. Users may become psychologically dependent but the frequency with which and extent to which this occurs are such that it cannot be compared with the psychological dependency associated with the use of heroin, cocaine, alcohol or nicotine. Cannabis use generates less aggression than drinking alcohol and it is certainly not an automatic step on the road to the use of hard drugs. The number of incidents resulting from acute overdoses is no more than a few dozen a year. They can be treated easily: in the vast majority of cases it is sufficient to place the user in a quiet environment and if necessary administer a tranquilliser.

The number of people seeking the assistance of the Alcohol and Drugs Clinics (CADs) on account of their cannabis use has increased in recent years. In 1993 1,749 people were registered with CADs because of problems associated with the use of cannabis. That is 3% of the total number of clients registered with organisations caring for addicts. It is estimated that this represents between one and two percent of intensive cannabis users, that is to say those who use cannabis ten or more times a month.

Everything we now know, together with the circumstances in which the drug is used, leads to the conclusion that the risks of cannabis use cannot in themselves be described as "unacceptable", unlike those associated with the use of hard drugs such as heroin.

Nevertheless, some caution is called for in respect of the use of cannabis too. The drug is particularly popular among young people, that is to say users who are at a stage in their lives at which risks are actively explored. As a result of the increasing levels of education and training needed, there are considerable social pressures on today's adolescents to do well at school and at work. At the same time, the prospects of permanent employment and the status and social relations which go with it for certain groups of young people are uncertain. In this context social control may be relatively weak, which means that there is a greater chance of excessive cannabis use.

The effects of cannabis on schoolchildren require particular attention. It has been established that while occasional use presents few problems, the use of cannabis on a daily basis makes it more difficult to produce adequate schoolwork. It would be desirable to know more about schools' experiences of the use of soft drugs by pupils. This is hindered by the fears of headteachers and school boards for the reputation of their schools and by parents' and teachers' fears concerning the privacy of the pupils concerned. Greater openness is required here.

In conjunction with existing activities, an attempt will be made to gather more information on the extent and nature of the problems associated with the use of cannabis by pupils and on the effectiveness of the corrective and preventive measures in use. More information will be provided on the risks of frequent cannabis use.

Drugs policy in the Netherlands: The size of the soft drugs market in the Netherlands

4.2. The size of the soft drugs market in the Netherlands

Various estimates have been made of the size of the domestic soft drugs market. According to a recent estimate, annual consumption by Dutch citizens amounts to some 500 million guilders. The total domestic market, i.e. including sales to drugs tourists, could be NLG 800 million (price to the final consumer). This market has provided openings for organised crime*. Half of all cannabis consumed comprises types of hashish from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa and a small amount of marihuana, which comes primarily from Colombia. Moroccan hashish accounts for almost three-quarters. There are indications that a large proportion of the hashish imported into the Netherlands is then re-exported. The export organisations involved, which are often run by Dutch people, are managed in a highly professional manner aimed at continuity.

In 1994 over 43 tonnes of hashish and almost 195 tonnes of marihuana were seized. The number of homegrown cannabis plants found and destroyed in the Netherlands rose to 558,000. A number of consignments of cannabis seized abroad were found to have been destined for the Netherlands. Despite these investigative successes the market in the Netherlands continued to be amply supplied.

The market share of domestically grown cannabis is believed now to amount to half of the total domestic consumption of soft drugs. The Netherlands' traditional knowledge of horticulture and plant improvement has helped in the conquest of this share of the market. Dutch cannabis is considered to be of a high quality and is therefore particularly popular with young people.

Annual turnover resulting from import, domestic sales, export, re-export and transit trade in soft drugs is believed to amount to some 6.5 billion guilders. Finally, it should be noted that Dutch citizens are also involved in trafficking in soft drugs, in particular, in other parts of the world*. Such activities fall mainly under the jurisdiction of the judicial authorities in the countries involved.

Drugs policy in the Netherlands: Regulation of coffee shops

4.3. Regulation of coffee shops

The sale of small quantities of soft drugs which was initially permitted only in youth centres has for some time now been partly in the hands of commercial operators in many parts of the country. As a result, there has been a considerable increase in the retail trade in soft drugs in many municipalities throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

As explained in the introduction, coffee shops have proved to be of assistance in keeping the retail markets for soft and hard drugs separate, as desired. However, having in themselves proved their worth, coffee shops have also increased both in number and the problems they engender. Moreover, criminal organisations have gained a measure of control over some of them.

Neighbours in some municipalities complain about the nuisance caused by such phenomena as customers hanging around the streets outside coffee shops, litter and increased traffic*. Coffee shops in town centres understandably give rise to fewer such complaints than those in residential areas. Nuisance is a particular problem in municipalities along the borders because of foreign customers, who often behave in an aggressive and intimidating manner.

There has been a great deal of criticism of the establishment of coffee shops near schools and other youth centres. Occasionally there are also complaints about the sale of hard drugs in or near coffee shops. The latter is totally contrary to policy as laid down by the Public Prosecutions Department in its guidelines on coffee shops of October 1994. The Public Prosecutions Department will take stricter action against such breaches in the future. The large concentrations of coffee shops in some municipalities not only cause nuisance but also encourage the sale of hard drugs. Such concentration means that profits from the trade in soft drugs are too small for operations to be viable and is therefore undesirable from this point of view too. The assertion sometimes made abroad that hard drugs are also sold in Dutch coffee shops as a matter of course is completely erroneous, however*.

Criminal justice policy as set out in the policy guidelines on investigating coffee shops published by the Procurators-General in October 1994 (Netherlands Government Gazette 1994, no. 203), is intended to support the policy on coffee shops established in local tripartite consultations. Under strict conditions - no advertising, no sale of hard drugs, no nuisance, no sale to young people under the age of 18, and no sale of more than 30 grammes per transaction, per person - no criminal proceedings will be instituted against people involved in the sale of soft drugs in catering establishments not licensed to sell alcohol which are designated in the tripartite consultations. It is a matter of principle that only establishments which do not sell alcohol should be permitted to sell soft drugs.

The guidelines of the Public Prosecutions Department notwithstanding, the establishments which sell soft drugs still vary enormously. Strictly speaking, a coffee shop is a catering establishment which does not sell alcohol and which has no gaming machines. In practice, soft drugs are also sold in bars, video hire shops, fitness centres and people's homes. The number of such points of sale is estimated to be about 900. The number of coffee shops in the strict sense of the term throughout the country is believed to be between 1,100 and 1,200. Coffee shops also vary considerably in character, from those geared to mass sales in the cities, to neighbourhood shops or youth shops where regulars play table football, to shadowy establishments off the beaten track. Commercialism has the upper hand everywhere, with the sale of soft drugs on idealistic grounds continuing in only a few municipalities.

Many municipal authorities are endeavouring, in cooperation with the police and judicial authorities, to improve the situation as regards coffee shops and to control them better. In other words, the policy of tolerating coffee shops is being tightened up. The stage reached in the formulation and enforcement of this new policy on coffee shops differs from one municipality to another. In many municipalities attempts are being made drastically to reduce the number of coffee shops, for example to half the present number, over a period of years. We support these efforts, partly because they will make the coffee shop phenomenon more manageable.

If they use them consistently, the administrative instruments available to municipal authorities should permit them to bring a great deal of the nuisance caused by the use of and dealing in soft drugs under control and keep it that way; they can also be used to refuse licences to coffee shops near schools or in streets where catering establishments are not desirable on account of the traffic situation or residential nature of the street*.

Measures to regulate the establishment of coffee shops can be taken under the terms of nuisance ordinances, the Catering Establishments Decree, the Nuisance Act, local non-licensed hotel and catering ordinances, local bye-laws and ordinances on the living and working environment. Planning regulations can be used to combat the establishment of coffee shops in unacceptable places (opposite schools, club houses and neighbourhood centres).

Measures to regulate the running of establishments can be taken in a manner similar to those under the Licensing and Catering Act, under local bye-laws, and under the terms of local non- licensed hotel and catering ordinances. A number of municipalities have also concluded voluntary agreements with coffee shop proprietors.

It is possible to establish clear standards for coffee shops using the instruments outlined above. The municipal standards then have to be enforced of course, and action really must be taken against the sale of soft drugs outside coffee shops. This requires practical agreements between the municipal authorities, the Public Prosecutions Department and the police in the tripartite consultations. The aims of this policy are to end the sale of soft drugs in bars which serve alcohol and to impose strict regulations on coffee shops as regards location, opening hours, design, sanitary facilities, parking and noise nuisance.

The attractions which an establishment holds for criminal elements plays a role in the question of whether nuisance is likely to be caused. It is therefore important that the character and background of those running coffee shops should be subject to certain requirements. Where coffee shops are concerned, this can be achieved through recourse to local ordinances on non- licensed catering establishments, by analogy with ordinances under the Licensing and Catering Act and the Decree on requirements pertaining to moral behaviour pursuant to that Act. In consultation with the Association of Netherlands Municipalities (VNG) we are now examining whether model provisions on the subject can be developed. These efforts are not only intended to establish a number of quality requirements, but also to make it possible to refuse a licence or a nuisance permit if the manager or proprietor of a coffee shop has a criminal record or is acting as a front for a criminal organisation. As part of administrative efforts to combat organised crime, consideration will be given during the general review of the Licensing and Catering Act to how the powers available to municipalities to refuse or withdraw licences can be increased. In elaborating the new provisions the desirability of preventing the image of other catering establishments being damaged will also be considered.

The integrated policy described above, which combines judicial and administrative elements to regulate coffee shops, does not mean that a municipality has to tolerate the presence of one or more sales points. The municipal authorities may decide to allow no coffee shops at all. Naturally, this must be discussed with the chief of police and the public prosecutor in the tripartite consultations. Depending on the real local demand for cannabis, there is a risk in such a situation that young people would become dependent on the criminal underworld for the purchase of soft drugs. Moreover, the sale of soft drugs could shift to premises used for drugs, to bars or to the streets, the side effects of which would cause problems. The enforceability of such a policy must also be considered. Most municipalities therefore prefer to tolerate a few relatively safe points of sale. The government supports this approach, providing the standards decided upon are properly enforced. If it is decided in the tripartite consultations that no coffee shops should be permitted, the Public Prosecutions Department will institute criminal proceedings against existing coffee shops, even if they are otherwise complying with the guidelines.

A clear enforcement policy means that capacity must be provided to monitor and check licences and compliance with the Public Prosecutions Department guidelines and local ordinances. Action must be taken in response to violations of the standards set. The municipalities and the Public Prosecutions Department will be asked to do all they can to ensure this. If the coffee shop situation is to be improved and regulated, ensuring that the limits set are complied with is a primary requirement. In this connection the government would make reference to the increase in police manpower which was agreed in the government policy accord. It is legitimate to expect that the efforts required by way of monitoring and enforcement can be reduced once the situation has been improved as intended.

People operating coffee shops must pay tax on their income and will be assessed accordingly. Flows of money which are connected to the real turnover of coffee shops which comply with the requirements set by the authorities will not be regarded as unusual transactions as understood by the Unusual Transactions Disclosures Office.

We consider that a coordinated local approach is of considerable value in combating the nuisance caused by coffee shops. The Inter-administrative Task Force mentioned previously will set up a panel of experts which will be responsible for supporting municipalities, the police and the Public Prosecutions Department in the implementation of a combination of administrative and criminal law measures to regulate coffee shops and in the further development of administrative options. This office will also be able to make recommendations on policy to be followed by municipalities on other aspects of the drugs problem.

Drugs policy in the Netherlands: Coffee shops and organised crime

4.4. Coffee shops and organised crime

A well-stocked coffee shop will be able to offer a selection of various sorts of marihuana, hashish and Dutch-grown cannabis. It is estimated that the latter now accounts for over half of turnover. Coffee shop operators obtain their wares from wholesalers or people who have been on holiday and have brought cannabis or cannabis derivatives back with them.

Since the emergence of Dutch-grown cannabis, some coffee shop operators have started growing their own or maintaining contacts with various domestic growers from whom they can buy their goods. This enables the entire production and sales chain to remain free of the influence of criminal organisations.

However, criminal investigations have also repeatedly found criminal organisations involved in the import, cultivation, wholesaling and distribution of cannabis, and in the running of coffee shops and other catering establishments. They invest in property and legal establishments, in the sex industry and gaming halls for example. In such organisations coffee shop operators are often no more than frontmen.

There are also indications that criminal organisations are involved in both the large-scale cultivation of cannabis (indoors and out of doors) and small-scale, professional indoor cultivation in the Netherlands. However, the cultivation of Dutch cannabis in general is by no means dominated by such organisations.

The influence of organised crime is an important criterion in the assessment of the policy on coffee shops. The role of criminal organisations in the supply of soft drugs to coffee shops should be reduced to the minimum, partly because of the aim of keeping the markets for hard and soft drugs separate. After all, if coffee shops are under the control of criminal organisations there is a considerable chance that hard drugs will be sold and that other criminal activities will take place on the premises. Apart from that, criminal organisations should be given as little chance as possible to earn money from the tolerated sale of cannabis in coffee shops. Reducing the influence of organised crime on coffee shops is an important objective of our policy. Policy as regards the criminal law and the supply of soft drugs to coffee shops is discussed in further detail in chapter 5 of this policy document.

Drugs policy in the Netherlands: Drug tourism and coffee shops

4.5. Drug tourism and coffee shops

In the border areas in particular, coffee shops attract customers from neighbouring countries, much to the annoyance of governments whose own policies on drugs are geared at least in theory to keeping the sale of any quantity of cannabis, including small quantities for personal use, illegal. Furthermore, the residents of Dutch towns near the borders suffer considerable nuisance as a result, as has already been pointed out.

It has been suggested that the problem of drugs tourism could be solved by banning sales to foreigners under the Schengen Agreement. However, an order to discriminate between Dutch and foreign buyers of cannabis would be in conflict with the Constitution and, moreover, difficult to enforce. If such a distinction were to be made, Dutch citizens would simply be used as intermediaries.

Foreign criticism is not primarily concerned with the use of cannabis on the spot in Dutch coffee shops but rather the import into other countries of quantities which could be regarded as stocks. The 30 gramme limit which divides summary offences from indictable offences was adopted when the Opium Act was drawn up in 1976, on the basis of legislation in the United States, where possession of no more than an ounce of cannabis had been decriminalised. This limit was also chosen because the amount was enough to provide users who shared their supplies with others with enough to keep them going for about two weeks. Such users would therefore still only be committing summary offences rather than indictable ones. Even when the Opium Act was debated in parliament in 1976 this criterion was criticised because there was a risk of more professional dealing developing from it.

For example, 30 grammes of cannabis can be made into between 50 and 100 cigarettes (joints). Average customers in coffee shops buy amounts of no more than 3 grammes, costing about NLG 25. In the border areas at least, quantities of more than a few grammes sold to foreigners are almost certainly destined for export. At weekends, two-thirds of coffee shop turnover in many municipalities is accounted for by drugs tourists*. There are indications that the amounts seized when drugs tourists smuggling drugs across the border are arrested have got bigger since border controls were abolished.

The liberalisation of the criminal law as regards quantities of 30 grammes or less does not apply in respect of import and export. It goes without saying that it has never been the intention of Dutch policy that coffee shops should take on the function of supplying other countries. The export of soft drugs is an indictable offence under the Opium Act, irrespective of the quantity involved. Under certain circumstances the sale of soft drugs to a foreigner or a Dutch intermediary could make the operator of a coffee shop an accessory to the export of drugs, which would render them guilty of an indictable offence, even where the amount concerned was less than thirty grammes.

In the Public Prosecutions Department guidelines the statutory norm for the possession of a quantity of soft drugs for personal use of no more than 30 grammes also applies to the sale of cannabis by tolerated coffee shops. We are of the opinion that the nuisance suffered in the border areas and the criticism from abroad are sufficient reason to reconsider this standard as far as the sale of cannabis is concerned. Coffee shops will be permitted to sell no more than 5 grammes per customer. This adjustment to the guidelines does not endanger the principal objective of the policy, which is to protect soft drug users from the world of hard drugs. The few coffee shops which are non- profit making organisations already only sell amounts of no more than 3 or 5 grammes. Dutch citizens aged 18 and over who wish to use soft drugs will still be able to buy them in coffee shops in the same way. At the same time, simple possession of an amount of soft drugs for personal use which does not exceed 30 grammes will still have no priority as far as investigation is concerned. Foreign visitors will, however, find it more difficult to procure a supply to export. This is bound to have the effect of raising the threshold for young people from other countries.

In itself, it will be no more difficult to enforce the five gramme limit than it is to enforce the current 30 gramme one. Coffee shops which regularly sell amounts over 5 grammes will immediately become known for doing so. Enforcing the five gramme limit should not require any additional capacity if compliance with the thirty gramme limit is already being monitored. Enforcement of the new limit will be one aspect of the stricter monitoring and enforcement regime which will take effect in any case in respect of those coffee shops which remain once the present situation has been improved. If foreign drugs tourism does not decline, periodic special checks will be conducted to establish whether foreign tourists are exporting quantities of cannabis bought in coffee shops or elsewhere which can be sold on; this will be intended to underline the new policy. Where necessary, assistance will be requested from the police authorities in neighbouring countries, under the terms of the agreements concluded in 1990 in the framework of the Schengen Agreement.

By setting a maximum to the amounts of cannabis which may be sold in coffee shops the Netherlands is complying with the obligation it took upon itself in the Final Act of the 1990 Convention implementing the Schengen Agreement to do all it could to combat cross-border effects of its policy on soft drugs, in so far as this differed from that of other states party to the Agreement. The change outlined above will put an end to some of the criticism of coffee shops at home and abroad without affecting their primary social function, namely keeping the consumer markets for soft and hard drugs separate. The Public Prosecutions Department will incorporate the new limit in its guidelines and ensure that it is enforced.

One difficulty faced by operators of coffee shops is that though the sale of small quantities of soft drugs is tolerated, possession of the supplies needed by the vendor is not. Given the way the law is enforced in practice this does not present any major problems. The Public Prosecutions Department guidelines will be changed in such a way that no specific investigations will be conducted where coffee shop operators adhere to municipal and statutory conditions and therefore have in their possession in their coffee shop supplies of no more than a few hundred grammes.





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