Inside a Dutch Smartshop’s Harm Reduction Approach

September 5, 2023

Three 18-year-old kids shuffle into Herbal Spirit, a smartshop in The Hague, on the Netherlands coast. One of them, clearly the spokesperson, steps forward.

“We want to buy some truffles,” he says, with mustered swagger. He’s referring to the fruiting body that psilocybin mushrooms sprout from, legally sold at shops like this across the country.

Naturopath and salesperson Dave Achula smiles at them curiously from beneath his fluffy brown curls and wide-brimmed felt hat. They’re a contrast from the regulars who stop in to top up their microdoses and tinctures.

Achula asks if they’ve ever used psychedelics before and what their intentions are for the journey. Only the ringleader has, but he’s flummoxed by the other question. “I dunno,” he stammers, “we were just gonna go to the city center and see some cool shit.”

Intention, Achula tells them warmly, is what you’re bringing into the experience and hoping to get out of it. He explains the importance of set and setting when working with psychedelics, and encourages the trio to consider a more peaceful environment, preferably in nature. He also recommends that they set expectations with each other, and that the first-timers start with a half-dose.

Blushing but nodding along, the ringleader acknowledges that the nearby sand dunes might be a better location than the city center. He and his friends agree to start low, go slow and make a plan.

“The main focus is maximizing the benefits and minimizing the risks.”

This respectful, informal but well-directed conversation was one of the best examples of harm reduction I’ve seen in the legal psychedelic landscape. Dutch smartshops are often the first and only point of contact for people beginning their psychedelic exploration in a climate that isn’t as warm to these substances as many believe.

Staff and owners bear a big responsibility, and safety is paramount to people like Yvonne Mosbach, Herbal Spirit’s owner, whose experience in smartshops goes back almost 20 years.

“Self-regulation has been fundamental to the structure of things in the Netherlands from the beginning,” she told Filter. Members of the smartshop supply chain determine their own standards of safety and care, working with health ministries to codify guidelines on age restrictions (18 and up), informed consent and harm reduction principles.

“It’s important that all involved, including drug policymakers, scientific researchers [and others] find common ground when it comes to harm reduction,” Mosbach added, “where the main focus [is] maximizing the benefits and minimizing the risks.”


The industry is mediated by an association called VLOS (translated, the National Consultation Association of Smart Products), which represents smartshops, growers, wholesalers and resellers—all of whom sign an agreement to abide by the association’s ethical and safety standards.

The goal, according to the VLOS website, is “maintaining a favorable social and economic climate so the legal trade and sale of smart products remains possible.”

VLOS liaises with health ministries and the media to negotiate guidelines, advocate for members, stay up-to-date on regulations and promote a positive public image for the shops. An annual course for members teaches minimum safety standards, guidelines for first-time users, pharmacological information, and how to deal with customers who are under the influence or become aggressive when refused service.

Deep listening, Achula emphasized, is the most important skill for a smartshop worker.

Owners and staff who abide by this agreement play complex roles: educator and harm reduction advocate; herbalist and pharmacist; de facto therapist and spiritual guide. They advise customers on everything from products and dosage to expectation-setting and how to navigate a trip, even sharing playlists.

Deep listening, Achula emphasized, is the most important skill for a smartshop worker. “People trust the person behind the counter,” he told Filter. “They come [to] me with their deepest traumas. … It’s a great responsibility to hold space for those people, to really listen to them, and find which plant can help them in this process.”

If someone comes in looking to treat a symptom, Achula said, he tries to uncover the root of the problem, whether it’s physical or emotional: a tenet of herbalism. Mosbach trained him to always get curious about people’s background, especially first-time users, before selling them anything psychoactive.

“Some people come in thinking they need salvia or truffles, and I talk them out of it, [and suggest] working with cacao, some herbs or breathwork first,” Mosbach said. “I tune into the situation: How sensitive is this person, what is their experience and what is their intention? With all the information, you can make proposals.”

There is a lot of misinformation about psychedelics, Achula said, and some people just come in looking for a light show. “I always tell them about the full experiences I’ve had. It could be laughter, wanting to dance, or fun visuals, but you can also experience confrontation and sadness, and traumas may come up. This is all part of the process, and if you allow yourself to surrender to these feelings … then it’s just an experience that you can learn from.”

With no formal public education efforts in the Netherlands about psychedelics, a smartshop may be the only source of information a person has before they trip. Mosbach considers preparation and integration part of a shop’s informal purview. As well as suggesting practices and guidelines, they may offer herbal supplements to support the nervous system and ease re-entry.

It’s all a far cry from the early days of legal psilocybin access in the United States. For example, Oregon’s tightly regulated model allows people to use only by appointment at licensed service centers, in the presence of trained facilitators. Prices, as a result of this costly set-up, are far out of reach for many—and some consider the unregulated market a better fit both in terms of cost and care provided.

While a single high-dose session can cost $3,500 at an Oregon service center, 15 grams of psilocybin truffles—enough for several high-dose journeys—costs just €19.50 at Herbal Spirit.

At the end of the day, “If I don’t feel good about selling to someone, I don’t do it,” Achula said. But he acknowledges that harm reduction can be complicated in these scenarios: They can go somewhere else or buy online, where there’s no chance for dialogue.

The tourist draw is currently driving a slow retreat from the country’s famously open-minded stance on substance use.

Self-regulation has both upsides and downsides: Owners’ voices are heard, but they’re also blamed when something goes wrong, and one bad actor can ruin it for everyone, Mosbach said. VLOS can make recommendations, but members are still only one bad headline away from a business-threatening ban.

While truffles are legal in the Netherlands, mushrooms are not—and neither are any processed psychedelic products, including chocolate and gummies. Not even cannabis is legal, though possession of up to 5 grams for personal use is decriminalized, and sale and use is tolerated at the “coffeeshops” where tourists flock to smoke.

This draw is currently driving a slow retreat from the country’s famously open-minded stance on substance use: Smoking cannabis is no longer allowed on public streets, and Dutch authorities are considering banning tourists from coffeeshops to protect locals from rowdy crowds.

Mushrooms were banned in 2007 after a series of incidents that authorities tied to the fungi—92 percent of which reportedly involved tourists who ignored safety guidelines from smartshops. Like their primary advice: not to mix psychedelics with substances like alcohol and cannabis.


VLOS filed an injunction request, claiming the risks of mushrooms were being inflated, but it was rejected by the court. Previous attempts on behalf of the organization to institute additional safety measures, such as a three-day waiting period for mushrooms, were also rejected by the health ministry.

After the ban, many shops went out of business. Allowing truffles to remain legal was a compromise, but other substances, such as those including DMT, are banned even for religious use. In 2018, despite acknowledging that this breached religious freedom for the Santo Diame church, Dutch courts ruled that banning ayahuasca was justified on public-health grounds in 2018—reversing an earlier exemption and walking back a once-progressive drug policy.

A large community of advocates, including researchers and psychiatrists as well as underground guides and facilitators, is working to open a dialogue with the government. They hope to negotiate the integration of safe ayahuasca use into Dutch society, but the future remains uncertain.

Today, “there are smartshops that are really working in alignment with the advice and the law, like my business, but there are also new guys [who] push the limits, and it puts us in disgrace,” Mosbach said, citing truffle wholesalers and retailers who offer bulk discounts and advertise on Facebook—people who “made it extremely commercialized … because they’re not part of our association.”  That means they haven’t signed up to the harm reduction principles and community spirit of VLOS.

Many independent growers have additionally been driven out of business as a result of the growing dominance of warehousers who can undercut them on price, a phenomenon already seen in the nascent US market.

“Accidents happen, but we are still driving cars and flying. We do it because it’s useful and beneficial, setting rules and guidelines for all involved.”

That’s why Mosbach sources locally and goes with personal relationships whenever possible. The truffles, microdose packs and grow kits her shop sells are supplied by a local grower. Aged 82, he’s the country’s oldest supplier—and one of its first—of mushrooms, originally, and now truffles.

According to Mosbach, he long ago made enough to retire, but keeps doing it for the love of mycelium, talking to the truffles each morning and working with them personally. Building resilient local ecosystems among community members is the best approach, she said. “We take care of each other; I’m lucky to go directly to the producer.”

Local initiatives and communities across the Netherlands and Europe—including the Guild of Guides, formed by those who lead truffle ceremonies—form a network of care governed by shared ethics and created by all involved, Mosbach said, from participants themselves to facilitators informed by scientific research and Indigenous traditions.

For her, that community includes the natural world. Mosbach and Achula have personal relationships with the plants and fungi they sell and coexist with; Achula even leads guided herbal walks introducing native plants.


In this field, firsthand experience is key. Achula advises smartshop workers around the world to get familiar with what they’re selling and be honest about what they don’t know, even sending them elsewhere if it’s safest.

“If you work in a space like this, it’s quite crucial to understand how the herbs, mushrooms, [and] different products work,” he said. He’s systematically testing every product in the store one by one, “so I know what I’m selling to advise people correctly.”

In the end, the healing Mosbach and Achula have experienced themselves and witnessed in others makes navigating this complicated landscape worth it.

“Accidents still happen in traffic … and on airplanes, but we are still driving cars and flying,” Mosbach said. “We do it because it’s useful and beneficial, setting rules and guidelines for all involved. Like pilots and flight attendants, we just have to minimize the risks.”



All photographs by Holly Regan

Holly Regan

Holly is a freelance journalist covering the intersection of culture, identity and consciousness-altering substances through a queer and gender-diverse perspective. They publish a newsletter and digital zine, post on Instagram, and in 2022 received the Curve Award for Emerging LGBTQ Journalists. They live as a nomad.

Disqus Comments Loading...