Drug bosses think they are untouchable in the Netherlands, that has to stop

The Dutch government does not seem willing to really curtail the gloomy drug world, say public administration expert Pieter Tops and journalist Jan Tromp in their new book Netherlands drug country. Proponents and opponents of legalizing use must jointly seek solutions that protect vulnerable people and undermine the criminals’ earnings model.

During our trek through the land of subversion, we met a prosecutor who wanted to vent anonymously. He said: ‘Drug trafficking is deliberately ignored everywhere in the Netherlands. Also with us, with the judiciary. The idea is that we will not get that drug trade back anyway. That is not right? Criminals first invest in a cannabis farm, that generates big money, then they reinvest, they switch to pills, to cocaine. What kind of society do we create in this way? How do you think terror is funded? How visionless can we be? As a criminal you have at a good time, and faster than we think, so much money that you can buy everything. You can buy equipment that makes it impossible to track you, you can engage in counterintelligence, hire hackers to paralyze systems, you can have liquidations carried out. You can raise a fat middle finger at the government in all kinds of ways. Money does that. Money corrupts everything. If we don’t see that, it will be a difficult story. ‘

In the Netherlands – large in the production of hemp, ecstasy and speed and in the cocaine trade – criminal activities mix with the daily lives of many people who do not necessarily have a criminal disposition. They are the auxiliary forces of the organizers of the drug industry, from home growers to couriers. They take their share and have hardly any moral objection to it.

In an economic sense too, drug crime has become insidiously embedded. Electricians and car rental companies, as well as financial advisors and solicitors – all decent people – are in their own way part of the carousel of services that drug lords need hard to get hold of to run things smoothly.

In this way, a parallel economy of unimaginable size has emerged in the Netherlands, led by people who think they are untouchable. Broadly speaking, the authorities have no control over it.

Drug War

Repeatedly, the claim is made that the Dutch government is waging a war on drugs, production and trade and against use. But the use of soft and hard drugs is not prosecuted in our country. Politicians admit it is tough, but the investigation and prosecution of the drug trade are neglected children. There is a lack of manpower and priority to roll up the networks behind hemp farms and laboratories for ecstasy and amphetamine. Usage is normalized and thus, more or less tacitly, also production and trade. We just want to say: there is no drug war in the Netherlands.

If we want to fight crime, the primary problem is not drug use, but the vast amounts of money generated by illegal production and trade. What to do? An absolute ban on drugs leads to an illegal market. There is agreement on this. More interesting is the reverse situation – we put it in the form of a question: will that illegal economy crumble with its billions in revenues if we legalize drugs?

The main thing is: in all variants of combat, the earnings model of the Dutch criminal drug economy will have to be destroyed. Most of the production and trade in the Netherlands is destined for export. This applies to an extreme degree for synthetic drugs. More than 90 percent of the production goes abroad. Therefore, whatever we legalize inland, the highly lucrative shadow world will continue to flourish. Internet distribution will grow, governments will continue to lag behind. The ‘foreign’ part of the production will also prove to be a strong competitor of a legalized domestic market. The prices are lower than those in the state shops, the range is more versatile and the active substances of the illegal drugs are more powerful.

All this is no reason to forget about regulation. The national government must then prepare for controlled legalization of drugs, no matter how much the notion may offend some political parties. Maintaining a paper standard that is not shared by a large part of society is asking for problems, we like to repeat criminologist Cyrille Fijnaut. It has opened the door to a powerful illegal market and has created unbearable overload of the judicial system.

We are left with a major problem: something will have to be devised so that a legal system can cope with the massive, well-organized and innovative drug crime. A regulated drug delivery system deserves protection. We have a device for that in the Netherlands: the police and the judiciary. These services must significantly strengthen the repression of the drug industry, the chance of being caught and the penalty must be increased. Otherwise it won’t work.

And then still. Repression only makes sense within a broad approach of the drug world that has burst at the seams, with attention for the economic, financial, social and moral aspects of the phenomenon.

Drug-Free Generation

We are looking for more commonality in drug policy. The minister declared in the House of Representatives that as long as he is a minister, legalization of drug use is not a subject. He means it. Columnists wretchedly wonder how long it will be before the minister and his supporters see the light of legalization. They mean it. We don’t get along like that.

Damage control – harm reduction – has become the defining feature of Dutch drug policy. Several hundred people die from drug use every year, but we have overcome the sad wave of heroin addiction with its countless victims in the 1980s. That was the success of an intensive program including needle exchange and methadone supply. Classic damage control illustrations.

Discouragement – use reduction – has traditionally played a small role in Dutch drug policy. Note the striking difference with the policy on alcohol and tobacco. Nowadays drastic reduction of use is the mantra. Lovers of the alcoholic treat are told to drink sensibly, in moderation. Smokers are increasingly counted among the sad countrymen. We are working towards ‘a smoke-free generation’. For drug use, the admonition appears to be much less valid. Discouragement of use and safe use are obscure. There is no clear social norm. Less supply – supply reduction – is the primary task of the police and the judiciary. Fine. But they cannot do it alone. There is a central area of ​​municipal administration, welfare, community work and education that must focus on concrete local policy.

Image Jan Hamstra

Our advice is: stop tribal warfare and let supporters and opponents of legalization look for commonality. We think it is possible to develop fruitful policies in such a context. Forms of legalization can then make a useful contribution to the control and monitoring of use. That is not paradoxical. Legalization – we prefer to speak of regulation – is part of a broad approach. Controlled use, control of use and legalized use go hand in hand here, as the final piece of new policy.

Drug policies cannot aim to place use under suspicion. We must maintain that use is not punishable. At the same time, drug crime must be tackled without compassion. It is a complicated maneuver: tough and repressive action against organized crime, preventive towards users and non-users and socially against vulnerable groups.

Such a diverse, but essentially coherent drug policy can have effects on different sides. It can make the criminal drug world less attractive, so that young people and vulnerable people are less likely to choose the fast money and the criminal path. It can limit the unlimited availability of drugs and offers the opportunity to emphasize the problematic aspects of use, such as health damage. It will also make this wonderful phenomenon of normalized drug use somewhat questionable. Of course, progress will require a lot of effort. But in our view a lot can be achieved if one recognizes the commonality of interests and organizes oneself accordingly. Now everyone is just slogging on in their own domain, with partial successes, but without a grip on the bigger picture.

Our question is how we can tame the proliferation of the drug industry with its gigantic amounts of illegal money in order to maintain a generally fair and ethical society. The moral question about which society we envision is not receiving sufficient attention in the political and public discussion. We believe that as long as that is the case, the legal forces of criminal prosecution will continue to wage a struggle that is as persistent as it is futile.

Wild West situations

Good drug policy is more than the sum of personal preferences. Because then you will not get much further than ‘I am entitled to it’ or ‘I am against’. At least two uncomfortable issues are not resolved if you see drug use only as an individual choice. In any case, individual drug users contribute to a thriving, bleak criminal world. And furthermore: drugs – just like alcohol – are used in all layers of society, but their problematic characteristics (addiction, disruption of life, disappearance of the future perspective) are mainly used at the bottom. Shouldn’t drug users be asked to exercise restraint in claiming their highly individual right to enjoyment? To take into account the social effects of their individual choices? And conversely, should not opponents be asked to give space to the preferences of drug users, provided that this can be socially responsible?

What if we accept that drugs cannot be ignored in a society? And that there are also problematic and dangerous sides to it? Seriously controlled production and use of drugs can then be a way out. Not prohibiting, not releasing, but controlling. This is better than maintaining the current situation in which drugs are formally prohibited, but where Wild West situations occur in practice, both in terms of use and production.

Everyone has to leave their foxhole. This requires opponents to overcome their rejection of drug use and accept that there is a need for narcotics in our society. It requires proponents to be prepared not to view their drug use merely as an individual choice and to consider the social effects.

We have known a policy of poldering, compromising, tolerating, messing around and muddling about drugs for decades. We have never taken responsibility as a society. The moral shyness, the carelessness, has to give way to honesty, purpose and commitment. Otherwise it will not be possible in the Netherlands to resist the lure of the large drug money.

Pieter Tops and Jan Tromp: Netherlands Drug Country. Balance € 21.99.

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