Although the Netherlands is often identified as an extremely liberal country that endorses drug use and other unorthodox vices, the country’s attitude toward cannabis is more nuanced than that. The government of the Netherlands is concerned with drug use, and like most governments, actively seeks to curb it. The Amsterdam weed laws differ a little from those in the rest of the Netherlands if you're a tourist. Amsterdam’s weed laws are complicated, but we’ll get into that later.

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What You Need to Know About Amsterdam's Weed Laws

  • Where can you buy weed? Cannabis is accessible only from “coffeeshops,” licensed establishments that sell non-alcoholic beverages, snacks, and small amounts of cannabis.
  • How much weed can you get? You can only buy up to 5 grams of cannabis at a time.
  • Who can buy weed? In Amsterdam, the only requirement is that you are an adult (18 years +). However, in the rest of the Netherlands, tourists are prohibited from purchasing cannabis at coffeeshops.
  • Can you grow your own cannabis? Growing cannabis for personal use is illegal. If you grow 5 plants or under for personal use, the police will seize them. There is also the possibility of eviction if you are renting your home. There may also be penalties imposed by your energy company if it is determined that you are using excessive energy to cultivate cannabis plants. If you grow more than 5 plants, the police may prosecute you.

Coffeeshops in Amsterdam: The Only Place For A Tourist To Smoke

In the 1990s, Amsterdam was home to 350 coffeeshops. Today, there are only 165. The drastic change is a result of conservative laws implemented by the Dutch government designed to decrease the prevalence and support of coffee shops and reverse the tolerance policy toward soft drugs.

Amsterdam’s weed laws are meant to prevent black market activity, decrease public nuisance associated with soft drugs, discourage young people from using soft drugs like cannabis, and keep cannabis users safe. Today, a coffeeshop in Amsterdam must comply with specific regulations in order to operate legally including:

  • obtain a valid permit and certificate of good conduct
  • keep no more than 500 grams of cannabis in the coffeeshop at a time
  • refrain from selling alcohol or hard drugs
  • prohibit people younger than 18 from entering the establishment
  • refrain from advertising
  • provide their customers with educational information about the risks and quality of their cannabis stock

Police and tax authorities regularly visit coffeeshops to ensure that they are compliant with these regulations. If they are not, they will be closed.

Cannabis is Illegal, but the Government of the Netherlands Tolerates It

The Dutch government tolerates soft drugs. According to the government’s website on the policy, “this means that the sale of soft drugs in coffee shops is a criminal offense, but the Public Prosecution Service does not prosecute coffee shops for this offense.”

This is the confusing part of Amsterdam's weed laws: technically, coffeeshops that sell cannabis are operating illegally. As long as the coffeeshop meets the government’s toleration criteria, it will not be prosecuted. To meet the toleration criteria, coffee shops:

  • must not cause any nuisance
  • are not authorized to sell hard drugs
  • are prohibited from selling cannabis to minors
  • must not advertise drugs
  • must limit each transaction to a maximum of 5 grams of cannabis

Although the national government tolerates coffeeshops, it has given municipalities the right to ban them from within their city limits or implement additional restrictions.

Cannabis Restrictions Imposed by the Dutch Government

According to a 2014 Transform Drug Policy Foundation report, much of the confusion surrounding cannabis laws in the Netherlands stems back to a conservative policy change in 2011. In 2011, the Dutch government imposed a series of initiatives designed to increase the strictness of cannabis regulations.

This was perceived by opponents of cannabis regulation as an indication that cannabis reform had failed in the Netherlands. However, these restrictions have been largely abandoned given their counterproductive results. One of the measures was the requirement of a “Wietpas’ (Weed Pass).

In order to access one of the coffeeshops, consumers would need to have a pass registered with the coffeeshop. Each coffeeshop can have up to 2000 adult members registered with it. Additionally, all adult members would have to be residents of the Netherlands. Coffeeshop owners are required to screen each visitor by asking for a valid government-issued ID proving that he or she is at least 18 years old and a resident of the Netherlands.

The Dutch government also announced that it would require cannabis to contain no more than 15% THC, stating that any cannabis with greater potency than the 15% limit would be considered a “hard” drug. Another significant change was that coffee shops are not permitted within 250 meters of a high school. The belief is that keeping a greater distance between coffeeshops and schools will protect children from premature exposure to cannabis. This measure has resulted in 28 coffee shop closures.

One of these closures was Mellow Yellow, the oldest coffeeshop in Amsterdam. The government states that these measures are meant to decrease crime and nuisances related to coffee shops. However, the Netherlands’ population and municipal authorities have expressed frustration and resistance to these impositions.

There is a heavy concentration of coffeeshops located in Amsterdam, and the tourism those shops bring to the city has a significant positive impact on its economy. Amsterdam was able to negotiate with the Dutch Government and retain the right to serve non-residents at coffee shops, but the city is still affected by the law.

According to a 2017 report by The Economist, the decreased prevalence of coffeeshops in other Dutch cities has increased the number of tourists visiting Amsterdam’s coffeeshops. While this means more money, it also means busier hours and less time to monitor the shop.

The relaxed, cannabis café atmosphere has converted into something resembling the rapid transactional pace you’d see in a fast-food restaurant. Residents and municipal leaders also feared that the reduction of coffeeshop accessibility would lead to increased black-market activity.

This was already a problem before the implementation of the conservative laws—since growing cannabis has always been illegal in the Netherlands, obtaining a cannabis supply has required coffeeshops to work with black market dealers. However, now that there is more limited coffeeshop availability, these black market dealers and cannabis users have a greater incentive to street deal.