Illegal but tolerated: the hemp business in the Netherlands

How the hemp business works in the Netherlands?

Cannabis and rolling paper. Photo: Cristiano von Steinkirch

Living in Delft for about half a year, I was curious to know more about this intriguing question and track the path of marijuana. To start this trip, there is no better place than the famous coffeeshops – commercial establishment known for selling marijuana products, right? No, I was wrong. Behind a thick glass wall and under surveillance cameras, I got disappointed with the repeated answer between excuses: “we are not allowed to speak about it”. In spite of the high cost of the weed, an average of 12 euros per gram, I could not go further than the regular consumption information: price, type of weed, strong or weak. The procedure of acquisition and origin of the herb remained kept within the high security coffeeshop room, contrasting with the urban safety sensation of the Netherlands. However, one of the attendants, sympathizing with my efforts of collecting data for my research, elaborated a little bit more – “all I can say is that hemp business in the Netherlands is weird. We don`t know where it came from and we are not allowed to speak about it”.  Though this initial encounter was a bit foggy, things became clearer afterwards – marijuana and coffeshops in the Netherlands are actually illegal, but tolerated, justifying why the attendants are so precautious.

Joint lightning. Photo: Cristiano von Steinkirch

Toleration policy in the Netherlands is a historical process, dated from centuries ago. Considered a society of minorities, which means that no social group was large enough to dominated and standardize the whole, the Dutch were forced to deal with their differences to reach common social goals, with the spirit of “live and let it live”. [1] Also, maritime commercials trades, which are the bases of the Dutch history, allowed higher circulation of people and a tolerance attitude that facilitate business relations. In this toleration policy context, the hemp business started at 1976, with the implementation of the new Opium Act, which differentiate hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, from soft drugs, such as marijuana. The law fostered the hazy decriminalization for the personal use of soft drugs, given birth the multi-billion hemp business in the Netherlands, that play an important role in tourism (it is estimated that 30% of tourism goes to coffeeshops), as well as reinforces the already romanticized view of freedom in Dutch society.

Police empty a marijuana plantation in an ordinary Amsterdam street. Photo: Read more at


The coffeshops are symbols of this freedom – they represent the liberty of free choice in the Netherlands. However, this freedom narrative is contradicted, as the marijuana illegal status do not allow the society to track the labour and the raw materials used in the production process, neither the waste and other externalities generated by it.  As we follow the materiality of cannabis, we see a different scenario, which is more related the enclosure and surveillance system of coffeeshops, rather than the liberty of choice discourse. In addition, as the dynamics of society changes, even the decriminalization of personal use is threated, as The Hague has just become the first Dutch city in the Netherlands to prohibit the smoking of cannabis in certain public areas[2].  Now the question remains: is the hemp Dutch business a representation of the freedom and liberty of Dutch society or is it business as usual – a multi-billion market which toleration is bound to its profit generation?

Sorting marijuana in an Amsterdam coffee shop. Photo: Graham Dockery


About the author: Cristiano von Steinkirch is Brazilian and an environmental engineer specialized in urban water and sanitation. Currently he is coursing the MSc programme in Water Management and Governance in IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in partnership with UNESCO.


[1] “The Limits of ‘Live and Let Live.’” Newsweek, May 14, 2009. Accessed in



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