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Getting a high from a national institution

There are about 1,200 so-called coffee shops in the Netherlands where customers are able openly to buy cannabis resin - hashish - or the dried hemp "weed".

Technically it is illegal to buy or sell any cannabis, but Dutch authorities turn a blind eye to anyone using small quantities of the drug in licensed coffee shops providing they obey certain rules.

Only people aged 18 or above can go into the premises and buy cannabis. They can only purchase five grams a day - enough for about 15 cannabis cigarettes - which cost as little as about pounds 3.50. The drug should be consumed, either smoked with tobacco, dissolved in coffee or eaten baked in a cake, on the premises, although this is often ignored and there is nothing to stop people going to several shops in a single day. Drug-users are offered a wide range of cannabis products from around the world including ready- made joints and the super-strong Dutch weed called skunk. Prices are listed on a menu board.

Anyone caught on the street with a small amount of cannabis will not be prosecuted. The shop owners must only keep 500 grams on the premises and are not allowed to advertise. Following complaints about anti-social behaviour and fears that they were becoming too numerous, the number of shops which are based in bars and cafes have been reduced by about 15 per cent since 1995 with about 350 in Amsterdam. The quantity that individuals can buy was also reduced from 30 grams. It is illegal for owners to buy cannabis from traffickers, however this has also been in effect decriminalised, with the police usually ignoring sales from professional dealers, amateurs who have grown it at home, and backpackers. The coffee shop owners have their own union and most must decide by 2000 whether to sell either alcohol or drugs but not both.