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). People can define 'legalised' in a number of ways but essentially it means people can legally possess and consume the drug and it is also legally available for sale. 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.

There are also now 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 often 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 and the possession of 30 grams or less 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. They are only allowed to sell soft drugs and not more than five grams of cannabis per person per day. Coffee shops are governed by strict laws that control the amount of permitted soft drugs, and the conditions in which they are sold and used. Persons 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