The Dutch have exhibited a remarkably tolerant attitude toward drug use throughout their history. This can be partially explained because of their incredibly cosmopolitan history. In 1602, the Dutch founded the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the most successful trading company of any of the early modern European empires. The VOC brought Dutch mariners and merchants to parts of the world stretching from north Africa to India and from Indonesia to China and Japan. A tremendous amount of trade, particularly in “spices,” which often included foreign drugs, made the VOC a fortune.
Because of the immense profits that were being made both by the overseas trade in Asiatic drugs, their import into the country, and their general use, the Dutch remained ambivalent regarding the recreational use of drugs. In fact, as historian Benjamin Roberts has argued in his book, Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll in the Dutch Golden Age, drug use—especially smoking tobacco, which in the seventeenth century was considered much more taboo than it is today—was a widespread and common feature of everyday life. In fact, the 1620s saw the rise of a generation of young men turn the experimental practice of smoking tobacco into a mainstream one. While students began to grow increasingly addicted to the high-concentration nicotine cigarettes that the Dutch West India Company (not the VOC) imported from Jamestown in America, soldiers masculinized the practice by creating an association between smoking and the martial spirit. Thus, since very early on, the Netherlands has been a place where smoking is not only tolerated but also seen as ordinary by multiple strata of society.
Fast forward to the current day. The Netherlands today very famously has legalized the sale and consumption of marijuana. On the one hand, the decision to make Amsterdam the cannabis capital of the world stems from its early history with tobacco. Furthermore, this leniency has made it a major tourist destination for travelers to Europe, accruing a tremendous amount of social and economic capital for the country. These rationales seem to justify the lenient policies the government has on marijuana from a retrospective point of view.
On the other hand, statistics taken by EU agencies like the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction have demonstrated that the Netherlands has one of the lowest addiction rates for other, criminalized drugs of any country in the western hemisphere. Per capita cannabis consumption is shown to be at about the average level as that of other EU countries, and the Netherlands has a far lower rate of heroin consumption in comparison to countries like the United States. Furthermore, the Netherlands has not had to face the destruction and economic ruin resulting from the “drug wars” that other countries have engaged in. The positive implications of Dutch temperance in regard to “soft” drugs like marijuana have justified the ongoing leniency the government places on drug use moving into the future.