The History of Drugs & Alcohol in the Netherlands

Cocaine, heroin and opium: it’s hard to imagine now, but these drugs were completely legal in Amsterdam at the beginning of the 20th-century. They were even produced here.

Dutch Cocaine Factory

Dutch cocaine factory
This was where the dutch cocaine factory was located.

On the corner of the Eerste Schinkelstraat / Schinkelkade in Amsterdam stood the Dutch Cocaine factory, where cocaine was made from Indian coca leaves. Completely legal from 1900 to the early 1960s. Intended for medicinal use, but it is not hard to imagine that it was soon abused.

Cocaine Factory Netherlands

People could even invest in the Dutch Cocaine Factory by buying stocks.

Dutch Cocaine Factory Stock
A stock of 450 guilders of the Dutch Cocaine Factory.

But far before the Dutch Cocaine Factory, cocaine in Amsterdam was already a widely used medicine for all kinds of ailments. Already in 1870, a man named José Alvarez owned his own drug lab on Zeedijk 16 (a street in the Red Light District) where he produced cocaine and sold it in pill form in his shop. Completely legal! The pills were a great success.

Designer Drugs

The coolest Amsterdammers, however, were not using cocaine pills. At the end of the 19th century, the young writers and poets of the Eighties-renewing literary movement took advantage of a now-unknown substance known as ‘Broomkali’, a strong tranquilizer.

history of drugs and alcohol
Amsterdam, Oosterpark 82, year 1892. Writers drinking ‘jenever’ & using Broomkali.

It ensured that Dutch poet Willem Kloos became completely paranoid and tried to kill his colleague Pet Tideman in a fit of madness. They lived together with co-editor Hein Boeken in what is nowadays known as the Witsenhuis, Oosterpark 82 – in the east of Amsterdam. Their downstairs neighbor was painter Isaac Israëls who went crazy because of the gentlemen’s nocturnal drinking and drug sessions. Eventually Willem Kloos ended up in the madhouse where he was helped by electroshocks from alcohol and drugs. That was at the expense of his writing, because after that Willem Kloos didn’t write much.

Alcoholism in Amsterdam

Nonetheless, also in in that time, alcohol was the intoxication that was used most and caused most nuisance too. Figures from the Dutch police from 1915 show that 20% of all trials were verbally related to public drunkenness. Government campaigns of the time were aimed at combating alcohol abuse, and there were several associations that advocated total abstention. Of these, ‘De Blauwe Knoop’ was the best known. The expression ‘being a member of the blue knot’ has been a character for years for someone who does not drink alcohol.

Alcoholism in the Netherlands
Amsterdam, 1638. Five men drink alcohol and smoke heavy tobacco.

It is not strange that alcohol was a problem back then: Amsterdam has a long history with alcohol. From the earliest beginnings of the city – from the 13th-century -, beer has been the most drunk beverage for centuries. The locals drunk alcohol from the early mornings until late in the evening. Back then, there was no clean drinking water and tea & coffee were not yet known. Dutch people drank 300 liters of beer per year, nowadays it is 70 liters. Although the beer back then was on the slack side – alcohol content around 3% – it must have been noticeable that the entire city from young to old was in a permanent, slightly misted state. And everyone walked around smelling of alcohol all day long, on top of the smell of unpolished rotten teeth. In addition, people smoked a lot of tobacco in that time. The tobacco was very heavy back then and the effect was comparable to cannabis.

Alcohol Use In The Elderly

On the basis of the most recent data in the Netherlands, it can be concluded that the number of clients who primarily seek help for alcohol in addiction care is almost as high as the number for cannabis, cocaine, opiates, ecstasy, amphetamine, GHB and other drugs combined. (Source: Trimbos)

Alcohol Statistics Netherlands

8 out of 10 Dutch people over the age of 18 sometimes drink alcohol. 1 in 12 (8.2%) adult Dutch drink excessive (figures 2018). That is, they drink more than 14 (women) or 21 (men) glasses of alcohol per week.

Cannabis use in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, coffeeshops are businesses where the sale of cannabis for personal consumption by the public (>18 years) is tolerated by the Dutch authorities.

First Coffeeshop in Amsterdam
Mellow Yellow was world’s first coffeeshop.

Cannabis made its appearance in the 1960s. In 1972, this led to the founding of the first coffeeshop in Amsterdam, Mellow Yellow on the Weesperzijde. During the last day of 2017, the first coffeeshop in Amsterdam had to close its doors because it was too closely located to a hairdressing academy. The government implemented a new law and decided that coffeeshops are not allowed to be closer than 250 meters to schools anymore. That meant for Mellow Yellow – founded in 1972 – that it had to close down their business for some students – mostly adults – who want to become hairdressers.

Fun facts

Fun fact: 7.2% of the Dutch adults used cannabis last month and 1% uses cannabis daily. (Source: Trimbos).

Fun fact: Did you know that in Amsterdam’s Red Light District it is not allowed to drink alcohol in the streets, but one can use cannabis on the streets?

Read these interesting 10 laws in Amsterdam’s Red Light District.

Cannabis Laws in the Netherlands

coffeeshops in Amsterdam
In the Netherlands, it’s allowed to have up to 5 grams of cannabis on you.

Because soft drugs are less harmful to the health than hard drugs, other rules sometimes apply in the Netherlands. Coffeeshops may sell cannabis under strict conditions. They are not prosecuted for this. This is the essence of the tolerance policy (or gedogen-beleid in Dutch).

People will not be prosecuted in the Netherlands if they have 5 gram (or less) of cannabis.

Amsterdam Coffeeshop Laws

coffeeshop the bulldog amsterdam cannabis
The Bulldog 90 was founded in 1975 and is Amsterdam’s 3rd coffeeshop.

For the sale of hash & weed, coffeeshops in the Netherlands must adhere to rules (the tolerance criteria). A coffeeshop must meet the following conditions which are stated in Dutch laws:

  • No more than 5 grams of cannabis may be sold per person per day.
  • Hard drugs (like cocaine, XTC, etc.) may not be sold.
  • It’s illegal to sell cannabis to people under the age of 18.
  • Minors may not be admitted to a coffeeshop.
  • It’s not allowed to serve alcohol.
  • Coffeeshops may not advertise its drugs nor its store.
  • No nuisance may be caused to the neighborhood.
  • The cannabis stock of coffeeshops may not be more than 500 grams.

The number of coffeeshops in Amsterdam has drastically decreased. In 1993 there were more than 400 coffeeshops. This decreased from 283 coffeeshops in the year 2000 to 174 at the end of 2015 (a decrease of 39%). Nowadays there are 164 coffeeshops in Amsterdam. (Source: Parool)

Read this article for 10 free tips for cannabis use in Amsterdam.

Heroin on the Amsterdam Zeedijk

amsterdam zeedijk drugs cocaine heroin
Amsterdam, Zeedijk, 1980’s. Street dealers on the left selling drugs like heroin.

While (soft) drugs – like cannabis – were initially fun and harmless, the 1970s caused hardening due to the arrival of heroin. The heroin trade landed in Amsterdam and concentrated on the Zeedijk, a street in the Red Light District – just next to Central Station. The Zeedijk street was filled with street dealers, drug addicts and the corruption among police officers was quite high.

Zeedijk Amsterdam Heroin Cocaine History
Amsterdam, Zeedijk, 1980’s. Police patrols by car while dealers stand on the sidewalk.

The Chinese mafia from Hong Kong and Singapore brought very cheap heroin to the Dutch market. At the time, heroin was even cheaper than hash, speed and opium. Because of this, very many people became addicted in a very short time. In 1980, Amsterdam had more than 10.000 heroin addicts. (Source: Jellinek)

Netherlands Drug Use 1980's
Amsterdam, 1980’s. Two addicts using heroin on the streets.

The Zeedijk street was a no-go area for many years. But therefore also attractive for people that you would not immediately expect.

Chet Baker Death

For example, the world-famous American trumpet player Chet Baker could be found on and around the Zeedijk a lot. Baker had become famous in the 1950s, playing with the best music artists in the world. But in the 1980s he had turned into an old junkie who was always looking for his next shot. And that was nowhere easier to arrange than in Amsterdam. Baker had no fixed place of residence and stayed in hotels on and around the Zeedijk, among other places. On Friday, May 13, 1988, half past three in the morning passers-by found an elderly heroin killed on the sidewalk in front of the Prins Hendrik Hotel at the end of the Zeedijk. It turned out to be Chet Baker, fallen out of the window of his hotel room under the influence of drugs.

chet baker death hotel Amsterdam
Chet Baker fell from this hotel with his head down, straight on a concrete pole.

The story goes that many people stepped over the dead body of Chet Baker that night. Only after a while the police was called in. This is how incredibly rough this neighborhood in Amsterdam was during that time.

Chet Baker was the Keith Richards of jazz music; a brilliant trumpeter. His most popular tracks are ‘I fall in love too easily’ (played more than 38 million times on Spotify) and ‘It’s always you’ (over 26 million plays).

Plaque Chet Baker hotel Amsterdam
The plaque in memory of jazz trumpet player Chet Baker on the wall of the hotel.

The text reads: Trumpet player and singer Chet Baker died here on May 13th, 1988. He will live on in his music for anyone willing to listen and feel.

Due to deterioration, diseases, overdoses, addiction and perhaps also due to the death of Chet Baker, heroin acquired a very negative image. The popularity among the young people decreased rapidly and there were hardly any new heroin users in the Netherlands.

Ecstasy in Amsterdam

xtc pills pictures
15 different XTC pills.

In the mid 1980’s, a new drug was introduced: Ecstasy or XTC. Originally developed in the 60s as a medicine to lose weight, but 20 years later by followers of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh widely introduced in Europe as a stimulant. From 1983 to 1992, the Zorba the Buddha disco – the ‘Bhagwan disco’ – was located on Oudezijds Voorburgwal 216 – a street in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. The disco was operated by followers of Bhagwan. The staff were dressed in red and walked around with dustpans to immediately clean any cigarette butts.

This is what Zorba the Buddha disco looked like. Source: Peter Elenbaas.

Zorba the Buddha disco had a futuristic snow-white interior and looked like an avant-la-lettre lounge club. They also conducted a joint meditation session a few times a night. According to various sources, there was an unknown substance in circulation around 1985 that made you very happy. It is the earliest known use of the ecstasy drug in Amsterdam’s nightlife. The revenue of 180.000 Dutch guilders – the currency before the Euro – that was made here monthly in 1984, went directly to the community, where followers could even live for free at some point. It is now a generally accepted fact that the Bhagwan followers were the first to bring ecstasy to Europe. In the late 1980s, the emerging dance scene discovered this new drug and formed an inseparable bond with it. (Source)

bulldog hotel amsterdam
Amsterdam, Red Light District, Oudezijds Voorburgwal 216.

Fun fact: Did you know that The Bulldog Hotel is nowadays located in the building where this disco used to be?

XTC Use Netherlands

According to the report ‘De achterkant van Amsterdam’, drugs are bought for around 5 million euros during the five-day festival Amsterdam Dance Event. The number of Dutch adults who have ever used ecstasy is 8.4%. Almost a quarter of 20-24 year olds and almost one in five 25-29 year olds have experience with ecstasy. And 13.1% of all adults have used XTC last month (measured in 2018 by Trimbos: Source).

The Netherlands is one of the largest XTC-producing countries in the world. This is due to the tolerant policy and the low penalties. The average consumer price for one 1 XTC-pill is 5 euro.

Learn more about drugs during our Amsterdam Drugs Tour.

Cocaine Use In the Netherlands

cocaine use statistics netherlands
1.6% of the Dutch adults used cocaine last year.

More than a hundred years after the first legal cocaine factory, much has changed in 2019: a distinction has been made between hard and soft drugs in the Netherlands, where hard drugs (like cocaine, XTC and amfetamines) are illegal but soft drugs (like cannabis and magic truffles) are tolerated. The term soft drugs has since become somewhat outdated due to the high THC-content (16.8%) in Dutch weed. Alcohol remains a big problem, although ‘De Blauwe Knoop’ no longer exists. The Netherlands does not have a cocaine factory anymore, but in a recent interview, Chief Commissioner Frank Paauw said that Europe is being flooded with cocaine – through the harbors of Rotterdam and Antwerp: ‘There is a very large supply of cocaine, making it easier to enter that market. There are also elements of being able to make a career very quickly.

According to the National Drug Monitor, 5.4% of all Dutch adults (= 700.000) have ever used cocaine, 1.6% (250.000) used it last year and 0.6% (80.000) used cocaine last month.

hard drug use in netherlands statistics
Use of drugs once among Dutch adults. Source: Trimbos & Gezondheidenquête.

Every year between 7,000 and 8,000 people seek professional help for their cocaine addiction. In the Netherlands, all addiction care (except for tobacco) is fully reimbursed by Dutch health insurers. 1 gram of cocaine cost about 50 to 60 euro in the Netherlands.

Learn more about Amsterdam, the liberal Dutch culture, tolerance and drugs during our interesting walking tours.

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