Stay safe in Netherlands
The Netherlands is generally considered a safe country. However, be vigilant in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and other major cities, where pickpocketing and bicycle theft are common; violent crime is rare. In larger cities, some outer districts are considered unsafe at night.
The police, ambulance and fire brigade have a general emergency number, 112. There is a police force organised into 10 police regions. Visitors will mainly deal with the regional police. Some specialised forces, such as the railway police and the traffic police on the main roads, are run by a separate national force (the traffic police is the KLPD – Korps Landelijke Politie Diensten, and the railway police is the spoorwegpolitie). When you call 112, you should, if you can, find out which emergency services you need.
Border controls and security at ports and airports are carried out by a separate police unit, the Marechaussee (or abbreviated to “KMar” – Koninklijke Marechaussee), a gendarmerie. This is an independent service of the Dutch armed forces (which makes it a military, not a civilian service) and security tasks are part of its duties.
Most cities have municipal departments (stadswacht or stadstoezicht) that are responsible for certain policing tasks, such as issuing fines for parking and littering. They often wear police-style uniforms to convey a certain authority, but their powers are limited. For example, only police officers are allowed to carry a weapon.
The European Network Against Racism, an international organisation supported by the European Commission, stated that in the Netherlands half of the Turkish population reported having been victims of racial discrimination. The same report highlights a “dramatic growth of Islamophobia” in parallel with anti-Semitism. However, such attitudes are more likely to be linked to issues of migrant settlement than to tourists, and visitors from minority backgrounds will not find their ethnicity a problem in a country known for its tolerance.
Cannabis is legal, but it carries some safety risks. It is advisable to take your first spliff in a relaxed social atmosphere, for example among like-minded people in a coffee shop. Be careful: cannabis sold in the Netherlands is often stronger than strains sold elsewhere. Be especially careful with cannabis-based pastries (‘space cakes’), as it is easy to accidentally eat too much – although there are also unscrupulous shops that sell space cakes without any herbs. Wait at least an hour after eating!
It is prohibited to drive a motor vehicle while impaired, including driving under the influence of recreational or prescribed drugs, legal or illegal (such as cocaine, ecstasy, cannabis and mushrooms), as well as alcohol and medications that may impair your ability to drive.
Buying soft drugs from street dealers is still illegal and generally discouraged. The purchase of other (hard) drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine or processed/dried mushrooms is still regulated by law. However, people caught possessing small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use are often not prosecuted.
The act of using any form of drugs is legal, even if possession is not. If you are seen taking drugs, you can theoretically be arrested for possession but not for consumption. This has an important effect: do not hesitate to seek medical help if you are suffering from the harmful effects of drug use, and inform the emergency services as soon as possible about the (illegal) drugs you are using. The medical services do not care where you got the drugs from, they will not contact the police, their only intention is to take care of you in the best possible way.
On some evenings, a “drug testing station” is offered where you can have your (synthetic) drugs tested. This is mainly because many pills contain harmful chemicals in addition to the claimed ingredients; for example, many “ecstasy” pills (MDMA) also contain speed (amphetamines). Some pills do not even contain MDMA. Test banks are not designed to encourage drug use, as owners of places of assembly are heavily fined if they allow drugs on their premises, but they are tolerated or “doogied” because they reduce public health risks. Note: Tested drugs are not returned by the office.
Please note that there are considerable risks associated with drug use:
- While marijuana bought in coffee shops is probably not dangerous, hard drugs like cocaine and heroin and synthetic drugs like ecstasy are still illegal and unregulated. These hard drugs are likely to be contaminated in one way or another, especially when bought from street dealers.
- In some countries, there are laws that make it illegal to plan a trip with the aim of committing illegal acts in another jurisdiction. So you could be arrested in your home country after legally smoking weed in the Netherlands.
Be very careful with alcohol and grass. Do not drink alcohol the first two times you smoke weed: If you drink a beer after smoking, it can feel like you are drinking ten. However, alcohol and weed can be a very pleasant and unpleasant experience, especially for people who don’t feel well enough after smoking only weed (for some people weed can be a bit disappointing, while others can go all night on 0.5 g). Alcohol and weed reinforce each other: a little alcohol can enhance the effects of weed, but a little too much can make you feel dizzy and/or nauseous.
The use of drugs is condemned, disapproved of and sometimes feared by many Dutch people, even though it is legal.
In the Netherlands, prostitution is legalised as long as it is voluntary interactions between adults. The minimum age for sex workers is 18. Exploiting sex workers or involving them in the sex industry against their will is a crime. Street prostitution is prohibited in most municipalities, although Utrecht, Arnhem, Groningen, Heerlen, Nijmegen and Eindhoven allow it in special ‘peak areas’. Although brothels are allowed by law, most cities require a permit and enforce a maximum number of establishments in a limited part of the city. Research has concluded that drug abuse is more common in street activities. A client who uses sexual services when he or she could have suspected an illegal situation is already liable to prosecution, and more explicit legal provisions on client responsibility are being developed. Reasonable suspicion can refer to shy or young girls, (minor) injuries, but also to suspicious places like industrial areas or garage boxes. Illegal prostitution in hotels can be raided by the police, and both the client and the prostitute can be fined or jailed. Hotel staff were required by law to notify the police if they suspected such illegal activity. In short, it is advisable to have paid sex only in places licensed to receive prostitutes and to ask for identification if in doubt about a person’s age.
Stay healthy in Netherlands
The Netherlands has some of the best “tap water” in the world. It is even considered similar or superior to natural mineral or spring water. It is distributed by the democratically elected water authorities (waterschappen). Food (bought in supermarkets or consumed in restaurants) should not be a problem either.
The healthcare system in the Netherlands is on a par with the rest of Europe. Hospitals are mostly located in larger cities and all have English-speaking medical staff. General practitioners can be found in almost all towns, except in small villages, and they usually speak English. In most cases, staying healthy is a matter of common sense. Two health risks are particularly important for travellers:
- When hiking or camping in the forests and dunes, be on the lookout for ticks and the diseases they carry. It is advisable to wear long sleeves and tuck your trousers into your socks. If you discover a red ring on your body within a few weeks, be sure to see a doctor to check for Lyme disease, which can be fatal without proper medical care.
- In summer, outdoor swimming pools (mainly freshwater) can suffer from the notorious blue-green algae, a rather smelly cyanobacterium that, when it dies, releases toxins into the water. If this happens, a sign at the entrance to the area or near the water should say something like “Waarschuwing: blauwalg”. If in doubt, ask someone.