The Dutch drugs policy is based on two principles:
- A distinction between hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin, and soft drugs such as the cannabis products hashish and marijuana
- Drugs usage is not considered a criminal issue but a public health issue.
Because of this, drug users are not being prosecuted for either possession or use of drugs, while small-scale dealers are dealt with only when they disturb public order. Large-scale dealers, and especially production, import and export, are being prosecuted.
For soft drugs, toleration goes even further, and so-called coffeeshops are being permitted to sell them openly, and to have a market store much larger than that officially allowed by law for own usage. A problem is, that whereas the sale of soft drugs by coffeeshops is allowed, there is no official allowance for buying the products, so in the end the drugs still come from the illegal circuit. Production of hashish and marijuana is allowed only in amounts that are meant for 'own use'. In practice the limit is set on four cannabis plants per person.
Note that cannabis is an illegal substance in the Netherlands, although possession for personal use is only an offense punishable with a fine. Legally you could in principle be prosecuted for drug possession, but in practice you are not. This is because the Dutch Ministery of Justice applies a "gedoogbeleid" (tolerance policy) with regard to softdrugs: an official set of guidelines telling public prosecutors under which conditions not to prosecute an activity that is officially forbidden. "Gedoogbeleid" is in fact the institutionalised version of a practice commonly found in other countries, namely that law enforcement officers have to make priorities on which offenses are important enough to spend limited resources on. Proponents of "gedoogbeleid" say therefore that with a gedoogbeleid, there is better unity in law protection in practice, than without it. Opponents of the Dutch gedoogbeleid however state that since there has been de facto legalisation of soft drugs for so many years, that the state of law would be better served with a real legalisation.