Culture //

Pass the Dutch

Kate Clinnick reports from the Netherlands, where marijuana is illegal … but not really.

Image by MendezEnrique via Flickr.
Image by MendezEnrique via Flickr.
Image by MendezEnrique via Flickr.

It doesn’t take a Missy Elliott song for one to know that the Dutch are famous for their, well, Dutch. The image of the Netherlands as a liberal minded, sexually progressive, pro-drugs nation is firmly held the world over. Imagine my surprise on learning, while on exchange in the Netherlands, that by law marijuana and other soft drugs are actually still illegal.

Since an amendment to the Dutch Opium Act in 1953, cannabis has been listed as an illegal substance. Attitudes began to change in the 1970s when, plagued by a violent heroin market, the Dutch government established a new policy distinguishing ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ drugs in order to protect individuals from organized crime. The 1976 Amendments to the Opium Act established two classes of drugs: Schedule I, “hard” drugs like heroin, which are deemed an unacceptable risk to Dutch society; and Schedule II, “soft” drugs like marijuana.

The result of all this is a policy that can seem baffling and inconsistent. Professor of General Law Studies and Director of the Centre for Public Order and Security at Groningen University Jan Brouwer explains the law “prohibits all actions – growing marijuana, selling marijuana, buying, cutting, preparing. It is a criminal act to do anything with marijuana except for using it.” Marijuana is illegal, but individuals can legally possess up to five plants or grams at any one time, and police do not prosecute the possession of anything less than 30 grams. People are allowed to use marijuana in specially licensed coffee shops, but their suppliers are technically not allowed to grow, import, or sell it. As the saying goes over here: ‘The front door is open, but the back door is illegal.’

Confused? You’re not the only one. This Dutch doublethink is often mistaken for hypocrisy by outsiders. Take the time to question a local, however, and they will explain that it is simply ‘gedogen’. There is no exact translation for the phrase, but it falls somewhere between ‘tolerance’ and ‘turning a blind eye’. In the Netherlands, matters such as prostitution, drugs, and euthanasia are all broadly treated as gedogen – in other words, illegal, but not really.

Philosophically, gedogen is based on a rejection of the view that law enforcement should prevail in all cases. In the Netherlands, it is broadly preferred that controversial issues or minor infractions be solved through non-judicial measures. Individual self-regulation is highly valued. Rules are only enforced if the overall effects can be considered positive. This result is gedoogpolicy, a policy wherein complex issues like drugs, prostitution, and euthanasia are handled by the state with a feather-light touch. This is a well-established Dutch tradition. Examples of gedogen in law can be found as far back as the 17th century, when strict Calvinist laws were regularly disregarded in order to appease religious minorities.

But does gedoogpolicy work? During our interview, Brouwer asked me for an Australian perspective. I had to admit that I thought Dutch students at Groningen University actually smoked less pot than Australian students. According to the 2013 World Drugs Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC), my impression was accurate. UNDOC did a country-by-country comparison on the percentage of the youth and adult population, who have consumed the drug at least once in the past survey year. 10.6 per cent of Australians had used marijuana; in the Netherlands only 5.4 per cent had consumed the drug. These statistics seem to support the gedogen logic that certain behaviours will happen regardless of their legality, and that it is better to tolerate these actions in order to better regulate them.

As the Dutch sociologist Hans Adriaansens wrote, “some countries are corrupt, others have a proper Mafia, the Netherlands has gedogen”.