• Do you

    want a puff?

    Internationals in the Netherlands like soft drugs even more than the Dutch themselves. ‘If you are going to try drugs any time in your life, it will be now.’

    in short

    International students Birgitte and Nina both smoke a lot of weed, now that they study in Groningen.

    Recent studies show that international students love soft drugs even more than the Dutch students do.

    The internationals themselves think it’s because of the restrictions back home.

    However, weed can cause trouble. Dutch student Arne and Steven smoked pot far too much.

    It makes you shy and awkward in social situations

    Internationals don’t get enough information about soft drugs in the Netherlands.

    Birgitte would have been more apprehensive about using drugs if she had the information then that she has now

    complete version

    Reading time: 6 min. (1578 words)

    When Birgitte*, a 23-year-old student from Sweden, moved to Groningen, she had not used drugs for years. But the cosy student city quickly changed her attitude toward soft drugs: ‘Everyone I knew smoked weed’, Birgitte says. She quickly began smoking regularly – again.

    Birgitte’s new friends were an important factor in her behavioural change, as well as the proximity of coffee shops. ‘The usage of my friends tempted me, and you can practically get weed at every street corner here.’

    Now that she’s smoking again, the young blonde does not think her weed use is problematic. ‘I don’t really see cannabis as a drug, it is like alcohol to me’, she explains. But one substance that she considers to be a real drug is ecstasy. ‘The difference between weed and ecstasy is that the latter really changes your behaviour. Maybe it’s because it is chemical, while marijuana is natural.’

    Calm myself down

    Nina*, a 27-year-old German student, is also not really worried about her cannabis use. Nina says herself that she smokes a lot of weed. It all started when she moved to Groningen, where she could smoke cannabis without any legal consequences. That was not the main reason to come here though, she insists. ‘It is rather a nice feature as soon as you are here.’

    Having troubles focussing on her study, Nina started to smoke on a regular basis. ‘Recently, I was diagnosed with the Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Before using the proper medication to focus, I used weed to calm myself down.’

    Birgitte and Nina are no exceptions. International students in Groningen love soft drugs even more than Dutch students, according to two recent studies of Applied Psychology from the Hanze University of Applied Sciences.

    ‘It is like the government says, “go ahead, use that drug”’

    Sandra van der Wijk conducted one of the studies, which was based on qualitative research. Interviewing both Dutch and international students, she found that international students feel more positively towards soft drugs than Dutch students. Because of the perceived social norms derived from the Dutch tolerance policy, foreign students believe soft drugs use in the Netherlands is widely accepted, Van Der Wijk says.

    In a separate study, Jeff Schaafsma and Hanna van Wagensveld surveyed 476 students –Dutch and non-Dutch alike – on how they perceive the use of soft drugs in Groningen. They found that international students – Germans in particular – are more positive about hash and weed than Dutch students. More than 80 percent of German students in Groningen have used soft drugs or visited a coffee shop at some point. For Dutch students, this percentage is lower: 63 percent have used soft drugs and 55 percent have visited a coffee shop.

    A form of rebellion

    Nina attributes the popularity of soft drugs among her fellow German students to restrictions back home. ‘It increases your curiosity’, she believes. ‘Germans are confronted with a situation in Groningen that they’re not confronted with at home.’ As a form of rebellion, it is exciting for German students to visit a coffee shop and light up a joint.

    Arne*, a 26-year-old Dutch university graduate, thinks that the Netherlands’ policy of tolerance sends the wrong signal to other countries. ‘It is like the government says, “go ahead, use that drug”.’ Still, he believes that this policy is better than prohibiting cannabis.

    ‘You’d better regulate and decriminalize the use of weed. Because it doesn’t matter whether it  is the United States, Germany or Spain – people will use drugs anyway. The only difference is that abroad, they’ll have to buy it from crooks in shady places. Here, they don’t.’

    Arne was fourteen when his brother introduced him to weed. ‘Do you want a puff?’ his brother asked. The same question prompted Steven*, 22-year-old Dutch student at the RUG, to try it. Steven was 19 and had just started his studies when his pot-smoking roommate invited him for a joint. It escalated into smoking weed daily for a year and a half.

    ‘Most days, I would wake up around three or four in the afternoon, get a quick shower and breakfast. Then, me and my roommate would go to the grocery shop and maybe do some sports. Around six, we would be sitting behind our computers, gaming and smoking pot until sunrise.’

    Downward spiral

    Steven did nothing for his studies that year. Slowly, he began to recognize that marijuana was a downward spiral for him. ‘I realized that I only had social contacts that also smoked weed. I did nothing but smoke. I was standing still.’

    He wanted to change, but he couldn’t. He simply lit up another joint and felt better. His will just wasn’t strong enough, he thinks.

    ‘Shit, I’m just sitting at home’

    A long summer break brought about change. ‘I was sitting and talking with a lot of different people in the countryside. They were all doing things with their lives. Good things. I was thinking to myself “shit, I’m just sitting at home”. I felt so awkward.’

    The two international students are more relaxed about their excessive soft drug use. This could be attributed to the ‘Erasmus Experience’, as Birgitte explains: ‘You are abroad via an exchange programme or for a whole programme, and if you are going to try drugs or anything else at any time in your life, it will be now – especially when you are a student in Groningen’. According to Birgitte, being in a new environment makes internationals less constrained. ‘Your parents won’t pop up unexpectedly on the streets,’ she says.

    More information

    Van Der Wijk found that international students are ill-informed when it comes to the effects of soft drugs. Most of them also fail to realise that soft drugs are not legal but tolerated instead.

    Steven does not believe that informing international students would change anything about their drug use, though. ‘I’ve had enough drug education’, Steven says firmly. ‘When you are an addict, you simply laugh about the information and smoke one after it.’

    Arne believes that the University should give incoming students information about using drugs. ‘They are old enough to think for themselves, but as an educational institution, you should still offer them the chance to get to know the risks of drugs.’

    Side effects of drugs

    Speaking of risks, Arne says he has seen too many friends lose themselves to drugs. Weed ‘destroyed something in their heads’, he says. ‘It made them shy and awkward in social interactions. They would have been nice people if they hadn’t touched weed. I wished they would have received some decent information on drugs.’

    Could Arne lose himself in his weed addiction? ‘That’s a confronting question’, he replies. ‘I never experienced any serious side effects of drugs. I graduated and have a permanent contract now. I smoked weed all the time then, and I still do. Every day. I think I can handle it somehow. ’

    ‘Weed destroyed something in their heads’

    Arne has made peace with his drug use. But sometimes, he still wants to get rid of his addiction. ‘I feel really unsatisfied when I find myself on my couch in the middle of the day, having done nothing.’

    Birgitte thinks drug education could help international students to use drugs in a more responsible way: ‘International students do not seem really conscious of the consequences.’

    She would have been more apprehensive about using drugs if she had the information then that she has now. She never thought there was a risk of becoming an addict. ‘We are just students, and this is just a period of our lives.’

    *The names of drug users in this article are fictitious for privacy reasons.


    The drug policy in the Netherlands – het gedoogbeleid – has been the most liberal soft drug policy worldwide for decades. Formally, the sale of soft drugs is strictly illegal, but in practice, the police do not interfere when soft drugs are sold in designated selling points under strict circumstances. This is the case in the so-called ‘coffee shops.

    Coffee shops have five restrictions:

    1 no advertising

    2 no hard drugs

    3 no nuisance

    4 no sales to minors under 18

    5 no more than 5 grams per transaction (both buying and selling).

    For a soft drug user, the possession of small amounts is also tolerated: if you are in possession of no more than 5 grams of soft drugs or grow no more than five cannabis plants, then the police will not arrest you.

    But considerable hypocrisy exists in the Dutch soft drug policy: while the sale of small amounts of weed in coffee shops is tolerated, the large-scale production and sale of cannabis – which is necessary to meet the coffee shops’ demands –  is not. Because the large-scale growing of weed is mostly accompanied by organized crime, the police will intervene. In 2013 alone, the Northern unit of the Dutch police seized more than 30 million euros worth of marijuana and at least five cannabis producers were arrested per week.

    This legal ambiguity and its consequences for society have sparked a debate about whether or not the government should regulate the production of soft drugs. Mayors of several Dutch cities, including Groningen, have publicly argued for the regulated production of soft drugs. The Minister of Security and Justice Ivo Opstelten is not eager to pursue the idea. Opstelten recently declared, ‘Under my term of office, there will be no regulated soft drug production.’