The house dealer experiment at Hippo

From the mid-1960s onwards, cannabis use in the Netherlands was on the rise. At first, the policing of users and dealers was still quite strict, as the possession and use of hash and weed were considered a criminal offense under the Dutch Opium Law. The tide turned around 1970s, however. A policy of tolerance grew into being, which in 1976 would become formalized in a revised Opium Law that would introduce a separation between hard drugs (heroin, cocaine, speed) and soft drugs (cannabis and benzodiazepines). The possession of small amounts of cannabis was now considered a misdemeanour, and users were no longer persecuted.

One of the features of this new climate of tolerance was the so called house dealer: a trusted figure who was unofficially allowed to sell cannabis products to young people in various youth centres throughout the country. Amsterdam was early to experiment with this construction, in the late 1960s - other Dutch cities soon followed.

In the North of the Netherlands, a “house dealer” experiment was initiated in the late 1970s at youth centre Hippopotamus Unlimited (Hippo). Hippo opened its doors in 1973, as a youth centre for the 'alternatives,' which had been advocated for by several Leeuwarden citizens for years. It was financially supported by the local government. As the use of hard drugs was on the rise from the mid-1970s onwards, Hippo argued for the appointment of two ‘drug prevention’ officers, whose task it should be to keep young visitors away from the lure of opiates and speed.  These officers would become the ‘house dealers’ of cannabis, arguing that it was better to sell cannabis from Hippo rather than leave young people looking to get high no choice but to buy from street dealers. These would have other drugs on offer as well.    

The Hippo memo was ambiguous about legalizing soft drugs, stating that:

The use of hemp products (soft drugs) cannot be approved unconditionally. Our view towards hemp products is ambivalent. Like the use of alcohol and cigarettes, we are of the opinion with regard to the use of hemp products that their use is harmful to health. We also believe that their use is so well established that a ban would be completely ineffective.

Hippopotamus. Drugnota. Leeuwarden, 1980, 3.

The house dealer experiment should not be seen as part of legalization activism, but rather as a driving force behind the introduction of harm reduction measures in the Dutch municipality of Leeuwarden. The protection of experimenting youth was a first priority.
Please enjoy this short movie about Hippo and its unique history.

Lang hier yn Ljouwert sub(1)

Video "Lang hier yn Ljouwert"2010

Video (with English subtitles) about the Dutch youth centre Hippo.

Omrop Fryslan Televyzje

For further reading, see this longer essay on the house dealer at Hippo.

Drugs in Hippo: The evolution of a drug prevention experiment in an open youth centre2024

The house dealer experiment at Hippopotamus Unlimited was a driving force behind the introduction of harm reduction measures in the municipality of Leeuwarden

Sonja de Haan