Tolerance policy

Tolerance policy regarding soft-drugs and coffeeshops

Soft-drugs are less damaging to health than hard drugs. In the Netherlands, coffeeshops are permitted to sell cannabis under certain strict conditions. A coffeeshop is an establishment where cannabis may be sold but no alcoholic drinks may be sold or consumed. This is part of the Dutch policy of toleration.

Toleration policy regarding soft drugs

In the year 1976 the Dutch Opium Act is revised[1]. The Dutch government back in the 70’s saw that a lot of people used softdrugs, and therefore wanted to offer people the opportunity to buy softdrugs in a controlled and safe environment. Public health and safe drug usage where the main goals of this act. A distinction is made by law between soft and harddrugs. Softdrugs are hasish and marijuana. This year is considered of the official start of the so called ‘Tolerance policy”. This means that the sale of soft-drugs in coffeeshops is illegal but there is special part in the law that states that it is tolerated to sell cannabis in designated stores called coffeeshops. These coffeeshops have a have a permit handed out by the Dutch government.

The tolerance policy was inteded as temporary measure but still is used nowadays. The last few years the tolerance policy has become a point of discussion because the current government is cracking down on this policy and trying to close as many coffeeshops as possible.

The backdoor

The tolerance policy is a strange policy and hard to explain, especially for foreigners. A coffeeshop owner is allowed to sell cannabis but he is not allowed to purchase the cannabis. This means that a coffeeshop owner must buy his cannabis at a person who is commiting criminal offenses by growing cannabis. Afterall, growing cannabis is prohibited by law in the Netherlands. The term ‘backdoor’ comes from the metaphor surrounding the illegal purchase of cannabis. Because the cannabis officially cannot be bought it must be brought in out of plain sight through ‘the backdoor’.

Toleration criteria for coffee shops

The sale of cannabis (hash and marijuana) in coffeeshops is tolerated, provided that coffeeshops keep to the prescribed rules or ‘toleration criteria’:

  • must not cause any nuisance;
  • are not permitted to sell hard drugs;
  • are not permitted to sell cannabis to minors;
  • are not permitted to advertise drugs;
  • are not permitted to sell large quantities (over 5 grams of cannabis) in a single transaction.
  • Are not allowed to have a supply over 500 grams instore

Crackdown on coffeeshops

Since the year 2002 there has been a change in attitude towards the tolerance policy by the Dutch government under the ruling of former prime minister Jan-Peter Balkenende. This results in a statement made by the government in 2004 which consists of a stricter approach of cannabis and cannabis users.

In the year 2010 there is a new minister of justice called Ivo Opstelten. Ivo Opstelten is a member of the VVD-party.


Ivo Opstelten

Former Minister Opstelten is a member of the Dutch VVD-party and has portrayed himself as a real crime fighter. This minister is anti-cannabis and often gave public speeches about what a negative impact cannabis has on the Netherlands. According to him Netherlands is the granary of Europe and is mainly exporting cannabis. He says that three-quarters of the cannabis grown in the Netherlands it destined for the foreign market. At least that was the result of a investigations which was commissioned by his ministry, experts are very critical of the statements made by the Minister[2]. He doesn’t think the legalization of cannabis is the solution, not even for coffeeshops. He opts for a war on drugs that we have not seen so far in the Netherlands.

Part of the war on drugs is to address the larger coffeeshops in the Netherlands. Part of this war on coffeeshops is the so-called weed pass. His idea was to make private clubs of the coffeeshops. The weed pass forced the customer of the coffee shop to register at the coffee shop if they wanted to buy cannabis. This weed pass was subjected to a maximum number of members. The weed pass was only applicable for the border provinces. In Amsterdam there was no weed pass because the mayor objected violently to this idea. The weed pass resulted in massive layoffs at coffee shops and huge increase in illegal street trade in these provinces. This weed pass was a massive failure and the weed-pass was converted in November 2012 in the so called I-criterion.The I-criterion requires that foreigners in the border provinces still cannot entire coffee shops. The I-criterion again is not applicable for big cities not located in border area’s like Amsterdam.

The Public Prosecutor has been prosecuting larger coffee shops throughout the Netherlands since 2010. It is possible for the Public Prosecutor to do so because of the tolerance policy. Because afterall, it still is illegal to buy cannabis. The Public Prosecutor often states that coffeeshops do not comply with the 500 gram rule which is part of tolerance policy

Because every coffee shop sells more than 500 grams per day is necessary for the coffee shop to restock several times each day[3]. Therefore, they use a so-called stash. Here is a larger stock of cannabis which is used to restock the coffee shop several time each day. As a stash does not fall within the tolerance policy that gives the Public Prosecutor the incentive to widely prosecute coffeeshops. Because coffeeshops work as professional organizations, the Public Prosecution dubs this as criminal organizations for violating the tolerance policy. And money is what is gained through a “criminal organisation’ is obtained illegally and hence laundered after investment. Until today coffee entrepreneurs are hauled into court because this crazy tolerance policy. Fortunately, anno 2016 no judge accepts the prosecution of a coffeeshop owner.


Ivo Opstelten has resigned for a political scandal surrounding his person. His party member Ard van de Steur succeded him. Unfortunately, minister Ard van de Steur sets exactly the same course as its predecessor and there will be no change in the tolerance policy at this time. Although there is aclear call from the community and local government to regulate the cultivation of cannabis to coffeeshops[4].

VICE made a documentary about the once tolerant Dutch softdrug policy which has been changing as the government cracks down on coffeehops and their owners in every way possible.

Dutch judges and the tolerance policy

Although the Public Prosecutor keeps trying to prosecute coffeeshop owners judges do not agree with the views they express. In het past years there where many cases in court about coffeeshops. One of the most famous is the case of coffeeshop Checkpoint. With his location in the province of Zeeland near the Belgium border the coffeeshop was thriving. It actually was the biggest coffeeshop in the Netherlands before the Checkpoint was raided by an army of police officers. Although he had to close his business down he eventually was discharged of ‘selling cannabis on a big scale’[5].

Another famous coffee shop case which has become one of the most notorious ones in Dutch history is case regarding The Grass Company. Because the founder of The Grass Company is sentenced to 103 years in a Thai prison cell for the laundering of money which was legally obtained through his former coffeeshop. The stash of The Grass Company was raided in 2011 by a police force and they put down charges for supplying cannabis to the coffeeshop. The court of ‘s Hertogenbosch judged this case and gave a so called “judicial pardon”. The suspects of the investigation are guilty because they broke the law but they have to break the law due to the tolerance policy[6].

The verdict of the court in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and the case of Checkpoint confirmed the opinion of a high ranking former judge Frits Lauwaars that judges do not think the tolerance policy workable and therefore apply the judicial pardon.[7]

As you probably understand by now, the Dutch tolerance policy is long over due en needs a change. Sir Richard Branson narrated a solution for the tolerance policy. This short movie provides insights in the current policy and show how things could be.