Coffee shops: a new approach

Photo Source: Destination360 Amsterdam Coffee Shops

The Open Society Foundation is to release their latest publication – ‘Coffee Shops and Compromise: Separated illicit drug markets in the Netherlands’. The publication looks at drug policy in the Netherlands in a great amount of depth, aiming to highlight the positive and negative implications of their approach, focusing primarily on cannabis and heroin use.

Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, Director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program said, “Governments are looking to reform their drug policies in order to maximize resources, promote health and security while protecting people from damaging and unwarranted arrests. The Netherlands has been a leader in this respect. As other countries and local jurisdictions consider reforming their laws, it’s possible that the Netherlands’ past offers a guide for the future.”

The turning point for the country happened in 1976, where illicit drugs were separated into two categories: “hard” drugs with “unacceptable risks” and “soft” drugs with more “acceptable risks” to the user/society. This allowed the government to focus on harm reduction techniques for the more worrying drugs such as heroin.

Before this turning point, under the original opium act, possession/production of cannabis was turned into a criminal offence in 1953. Drug use increased in the 1960s due to a change in culture leading to an increase in arrests from 74 in 1966, to 544 in 1969. It was obvious to the government that criminalising drug users was not working.

The first known shop selling cannabis was in Amsterdam in 1972 called a “tea house” name ‘Mellow Yellow’. here, dealers would not sell behind the counter, but instead would sell with a low profile where the dealer would pose as a customer, not advertise and aim to sell to friends and friends of friends only.

One of the first coffee shops that tried to create this into a more commercial concept in 1976, but again with no advertising, was ‘The Bulldog’, whom tried to avoid being a nuisance and held house rules such as no hard drugs. Giving rise to a new coffee shop culture that drastically helped to separate the soft drugs away from the hard drugs.

“Only 14% of cannabis users say they can get other drugs from their sources for cannabis. By contrast in Sweden, for example, 52% of cannabis users report that other drugs are available from cannabis dealers.”
This separation of two different cultures in the 1970s allowed young people to be exposed to the very distinct differences between the two drug groups.

Korf noted “the visibility of these people, since we didn’t send them all to jail, also helped, as it provided negative role models, like ‘I do not want to be like them.’”

In 1995, the “Purple Government” understood that the successful separation of soft and hard drugs was partly due to the new growing coffee shop culture and due to this success less people, especially young people were addicted to hard drugs compared to other European countries.

Along with all this change in cannabis law over the years, the Netherlands had also implemented a number of harm reduction techniques such as needle exchange and safer consumption rooms, decriminalised small quantities of drugs and easy-to-access treatment services resulting to the country having the lowest problem drug use rate in Europe, less people in prisons for non-violent offences and HIV amongst drug users virtually disappearing.

The publication came to a number of different conclusions. Firstly, the decriminalization of individual possession does not mean that drug use will increase. Cannabis use was at its peak in 1996, after which it declined and it can be argued this is partly due to coffee shops. Secondly that separating drug markets, soft from hard drugs, is practically possible and very, very successful as well as this movement leading to less criminal offences/record, less social exclusion and being able to control consumption. And finally that harm reduction is extremely effective in reducing levels of problem drug users.

If you haven't already, i would highly recommend reading this publication as it give a most valuable insight into the Netherland's drug policy and the great deal of lessons can be learnt from from their more practical approach to drugs

For more information on this publication, visit