Cannabis, Counter Culture, and Criminals

The Rise of Smuggling in the Netherlands, c. 1962 to c. 1976
Photo by Rob C. Croes (Nationaal Archief)
Date 2021
Authors Stephen Snelders


As in most Western countries, illegal cannabis use increased enormously in the Netherlands from the mid-1960s onwards. In the following two decades the country changed from a staunch upholder of the international regime of drug prohibition into an international idiosyncrasy; especially when the revised Opium Law of 1976 allowed the possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use. However Dutch policy makers left the supply side of the cannabis market unregulated and law enforcement agencies continued their (unsuccessful) fight against the illegal cannabis trade.

The new regulatory regime of 1976 had unintended consequences, such as the concentration of retail in the coffee shops and their expansive growth in the 1980s, and the cultural transformation of cannabis use as an act of resistance into an act of everyday consumption. These unintended consequences were as much the result of increasing demand as of the successful tactics of entrepreneurs from the counter culture and the criminal milieu on the supply side of the market. They succeeded in turning the Netherlands into a major nexus of the international illegal cannabis trade. Ironically, cultural and criminal deviance would open the way for the normalization of cannabis use in The Netherlands.

This paper presents the early phase of this development. It investigates the conditions for the success of the illegal cannabis trade, such as the geographic position of the Netherlands, the connections between Dutch maritime trading culture and new assemblages of hippie idealists and criminals, and the socio-economic and political situation in supply countries such as Lebanon and Morocco.


To be published in: Lucas Richert and James Mills (eds.), Cannabis: Global Histories (MIT Press, 2021: in preparation).

Imperative of Regulation