Amsterdam: Exactly What Is and Isn’t Legal

From the outside, Amsterdam seems to be the land of “anything goes,” and sure -- you can do a lot here that you can’t do elsewhere. But guess what? We’ve got rules here just like the rest of the world. Crazy, right?! So let’s run down what activities actually get the green light, the turn-a-blind-eye orange light, and the straight-up illegal red light.



Legal, of course. The drinking age for beer and wine used to be 16, but as of 2015 it’s 18 across the board. It’s not legal to sell alcohol anywhere cannabis is sold, but some alcohol purveyors are 420 friendly, especially on the terrace.

P.S. Alcohol consumption outdoors is for terraces and parks only. Walking around with open containers on a non-festival day can land you with a €50 fine.

Flickr/M. Martin Vicente


Cannabis is illegal. Seriously, it always has been. It actually falls in this murky gray area the Dutch call “Tolerance” -- for weed, this dates back from 1976. Basically, cops will look the other way for up to 5g per person or plants per household, as long as you’re not selling it. They’ll also kinda, mostly look the other way for coffeeshops, but there’s no legal way to supply them. Growers, even small scale, have been raided with increasing frequency, scaring away some of the smaller, quality-focused operations. Plus a bunch of coffeeshops (almost half) have been shut down for various reasons -- leaving a “mere” 200 in the city. Enter Amsterdam’s first cannabis social club: Tree of Life. It’s locals only, but members get higher-quality bud for cheaper... and a new circle of stoner friends. The government says this model isn’t legal, but so far they’ve been “tolerated.”

The good news? That locals-only weed pass you heard about does NOT apply in Amsterdam. Tourists are still welcome in the remaining coffeeshops. Hash oil, by the way, is classified as a hard drug and thus totally NOT legal. Hash (including some seriously strong varieties) is still on the menu, though.

Note for tourists: any hemp, hemp seed, or hemp oil products you buy outside a coffeeshop contain no THC and are legal to bring home!



Once another beneficiary of the Tolerance policy, prostitution has been legal since 2000. (Note: this doesn’t include street walking.) After centuries of shifting laws and regulations (they tried every model out there), the idea behind legalization was that it would make it a hell of a lot easier to keep the women (and some men not in the windows) safer, and make it easier to prevent trafficking. Prostitutes must be registered with the local chamber of commerce and pay taxes, and in turn they are protected by the same labor laws as everyone else. And the police.

Just don’t take pictures of them.

Flickr/Curtis Gregory Perry


In 2008, the Netherlands imposed restrictions on smoking tobacco in public places. Some bars openly flout this, risking fines to keep their regulars happy. In general, though, it’s not allowed. Coffeeshops got a special exemption for cannabis only -- so no smoking tobacco-mixed joints inside. The coffeeshop provides an herbal substitute in jars around the shop. (The many hookah bars around town also seem to have an exemption.)


Magic mushrooms

Magic mushrooms, sold in smartshops, have been illegal since 2008. But many smartshops basically ignore this. Those that don't instead sell magic truffles, a close cousin with much the same effect.

Also legally sold in smartshops: peyote and other psychedelic cacti.

Flickr/Mingo Hagen

Stop and search

Sorry Pulp Fiction fans, things have changed since the Vincent Vega rant on Holland that opens the 1994 film: since 2003 stop and searches have been legal. But, honestly, when it happens, they’re looking for guns. And though we’ve seen some rough arrests of unruly people, we’ve never seen a random stop and search.


Bike rules

Much to the shock/concern of people from other places, no helmet is required when riding a bicycle in Holland. Obeying traffic rules is, though, which means riding with a bell plus lights at night. Expect fines if you’re caught without or running a red light any time of day. Cars, however, are way more careful around bikes here than in other places because, if anything goes down, the car will always get the blame (and the bill).


Hard drugs

Nope. That was the whole point of the soft-drug policy.

That being said, policies on this have softened over the decades, with addicts being treated as ill rather than criminal, particularly heroin addicts. It is also legal to get ecstasy (which is indeed produced by and large in Holland) tested for pollutants, anonymously, at clinics across the country, and possession of up to five pills is tolerated (only in Amsterdam, mind you. For the rest of the country, it's one pill only). 


Nitrous oxide

Legal! You’ll see balloons full of the stuff sold openly at big events like King’s Day. Those wanting to stock up on their own can order from culinary supply shops -- it's supposed to be used to put the whip in whipped cream.

Flickr/Rool Paap


The Dutch are a lot more comfortable with their clothes off than most other countries, and the Dutch government says it’s not illegal to do in public, but it’s not like you’ll see people just walking down the street naked. (Though once a year you’ll see them biking through the city in their, as the Dutch put it, “Adam and Eve costumes.”) It’s even occasionally (inconsistently) ticketed. Toplessness is definitely not uncommon on beaches and other sunbathing spots, and some are designated for full nudity. In spas and saunas, as we’ve already warned, naked is the norm.

It’s also officially legal (or decriminalized, whatevs) to have sex in Amsterdam’s parks after dark.

Flickr/Franklin Heijnen

LGBT rights

The Dutch were the first to legalize gay marriage in 2001, as they’re fond of reminding everyone who will listen. The very first ceremony was performed by then-mayor Job Cohen himself. The privilege only extends to legal residents, though. And not that there aren’t bigots: even in Amsterdam, there is an occasional street attack.

In 2013 the government also passed a law that allows any resident age 16 or older to apply to change their officially recognized gender, even if they have not undergone surgery or hormone treatments. But you do need a doctor’s note.

All LGBT people are officially protected from (employment and other) discrimination by law. Men who sleep with other men (MSM -- yep, they have an official acronym for it here) are still barred from donating blood, but this policy is under review at this very moment.


Airbnb and Uber

After a protracted struggle with the city in the names of safety and regulation, Airbnb was given the official go-ahead (or at least a “please continue”) in December 2014... as long as renters collect and pay a tourist tax for each guest. (So it was about “safety,” eh?)

Now the government has turned its spotlight on Uber, whose drivers also at one point faced physical threats from local taxi drivers. As it stands, the higher-end Uber Black is often the only option available, using legally registered cars and drivers. Prices don’t differ significantly from regular taxis, though. (There’s also an even fancier UberLUX or a more spacious UberSUV.)

The cheaper UberPOP option is harder to find these days, though it’s still around. The government, however, has definitively stated this version is not legal, fining the organization and its drivers hundreds of thousands of euros so far and raiding the massive mobile development HQ in the center of town twice (though users haven’t faced any fines). Hoping to appease opponents, Uber is replacing UberPOP with the more legal budget variants UberX and Uber Taxis, where all the drivers are officially certified, but the struggle with The Man goes on.

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Elysia Brenner is a writer, editor, and all-around Amsterdam expert. Follow her on Twitter right here.