Many countries acknowledge that different kinds of drugs pose different risks to the user and society in general. Drugs viewed as less addictive or harmful, generally labelled soft drugs, are not as heavily regulated. For example, most countries put restrictions on the use of alcohol and tobacco by prohibiting their sale to people under a certain age. Some countries further attempt to discourage use of these substances by taxing their purchase. However, legislators in these countries generally agree that people should be allowed to use these drugs if they choose.
Hard drugs are considered more addictive, meaning that the user can become addicted after comparatively little exposure, or more likely to elicit behavior that may be harmful to the user or others. Cocaine, heroin and amphetamines are examples of this category of drug. Countries punish the possession or use of these kinds of drugs with heavy fines often accompanied by a prison sentence. Legislators seem to agree that these drugs can have such a strong effect on users that they cannot be trusted to choose whether they would like to use them. They would become addicted quickly and would no longer be able to control their decisions.
The Netherlands is at the center of the controversy about whether marijuana, or cannabis, should be labeled a soft or hard drug. The governments of many countries, most notably the US, have argued that marijuana use is a gateway drug, which means that those who use it will eventually move on to harder drugs.
The Netherlands points to itself as evidence against this, as its liberal policy with regard to marijuana has resulted in merely average rates of marijuana use and addiction when compared to other European countries. In fact, the relatively permissive Dutch use marijuana and harder drugs like cocaine at much lower rates than Americans
Drug policy in the Netherlands is a largely pragmatic approach. The policy acknowledges that the use of soft drugs, including marijuana, can not be totally stamped out. Law enforcement agencies, therefore, should focus only on large-scale violations regarding soft drugs. This is in order not to expend too many of their limited resources chasing small-scale users who pose little threat to themselves or others. This also frees up more resources for them to police the spread of hard drugs in the country.
Possession of marijuana is still technically illegal under the law of the Netherlands. However, this law has been kept on the books largely out of a desire to conform to EU standards and to honor treaties signed. In practice, police and prosecutors have been advised by the Dutch Ministry of Justice not to arrest or prosecute people for possession of five grams of marijuana or less.
Many Dutch cities have allowed coffee shops to sell small amounts of marijuana on their premises. In many cases they cooperate with local law enforcement to allow limited use of the drug. It is believed that this approach makes the marijuana trade easier to regulate.
Officials also believe that this approach keeps people from coming into contact with harder drugs. The reasoning is that if people can get the marijuana they want from a neighborhood coffee shop, they will be less likely to establish contact with drug dealers. If marijuana was more difficult to find, people would have to acquire it through dealers. These dealers might then try to introduce their customers to more addictive and profitable drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
The now-famous coffee shops are allowed to sell small servings of marijuana as long as they abide by rules set by their city. For example, they may not sell hard drugs, serve marijuana to people under 18, sell alcohol, advertise the drugs they sell, or create a public nuisance. Many cities also restrict them from operating within a few hundred meters of a school.
In recent years the coffee shops have come under some criticism within Dutch society for drawing drug tourists to the country. These tourists may be less likely to use drugs responsibly during their short-term stays, and many are worried about the safety issues this may pose. In 2010, the EU court authorized the passage of Dutch policies to restrict the sale of cannabis to foreigners. About 70% of customers at coffee shops selling cannabis were foreigners.
Under Dutch law, it remains a serious offense to import, export or sell large quantities of marijuana. The maximum penalty for this is four years in prison. Sources report that local law enforcement has in many cases declined to go after such dealers, as they are considered necessary in providing the coffee shops with enough stock to sell to customers. Plans for state-controlled farms are being developed as of 2011. However, it remains commonly known that most of the stock of these shops comes from illegal sources in the Netherlands or abroad.
The Netherlands investigates and prosecutes the sale and use of hard drugs just as other countries do. The penalty for trafficking large quantities of these drugs is 12-16 years in prison. Despite a concerted effort against the import and export of hard drugs, the Netherlands remains a site of heavy trafficking of hard drugs to other European countries.
The Dutch approach to hard drug use also differs from many other countries. The government believes that treating addicts is ultimately cheaper than incarcerating them. A greater proportion of funds are diverted to treatment programs. One program provides heroin addicts with a substitute drug called methadone free of charge. Another allows users who inject drugs to exchange used needles for clean ones. This is intended to prevent the spread of HIV.
Many species of hallucinogenic mushrooms, which were once considered soft drugs and sold quite openly, have been banned in recent years. These mushrooms were formerly sold in smart shops alongside herbal remedies and supplements such as gingko biloba and guarana. The restrictions were put in place in 2008. This followed a series of years in which over a hundred people, mostly foreigners, were treated for problems related to use of the mushrooms. A few species of mushrooms have been left off the ban list, so hallucinogenic mushrooms can still sometimes be found in the shops.
International critics of the Dutch system have often assumed that the country must have an enormous problem with drug addiction as a result of its policies. When compared to other countries in the EU, the Netherlands fares around average or below average on most measures of drug use, though it has much lower levels of death due to drug use.
Furthermore, drug use in the Netherlands is far lower than in the US, one of the countries most skeptical of the Dutch approach. A 2008 survey of Americans found that 41% over age 12 had tried marijuana and 15% had tried cocaine. A 2005 survey in the Netherlands found that of people between the ages of 15 and 64, 23% had tried marijuana and 3% had tried cocaine.