Dutch toughen up on drugs
By RNW.nl – Sept 18 2002
The Dutch Justice Minister is under fire from parliament over his perceived inaction in the face of an increase in drug smuggling from the Dutch Antilles to the Netherlands. A shortage of cells has prompted customs staff to release smugglers intercepted at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. This follows advice from the Public Prosecutor to detain only those smugglers who are carrying more than 1 kilo of cocaine. However, a women carrying 14 kilos was allowed to go free last week, causing a public outcry. Politicians are calling for urgent action, but legal experts say tougher punishment won’t solve the problem.
Customs officials at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport have arrested an monthly average of 125 drugs smugglers in recent months. That’s a 25 per cent more than last year’s figure for the same period. Dutch Justice Minister, Benk Korthals, puts the increase down to tighter customs controls. But he admits that it’s pointed up a major flaw in the Dutch legal system: there are simply not enough prison cells to detain all the drugs traffickers that are caught. The upshot of this is that smugglers caught with less than a kilo on them, or inside them, as the case may be, are allowed to go.
Focus on Drug Barons
Many drugs and legal experts in the Netherlands find this approach perfectly acceptable. Police should focus on drug lords rather than arrest the petty criminals who smuggle the drugs, says Prof Peter Cohen from the Centre for Drugs Research in Amsterdam.
“Most of these smugglers are poor people from Latin America, who are just trying to compensate for the economic problems they have. It’s useless to arrest them: there’s an endless reservoir of drugs smugglers as a result of the disastrous economic conditions in Latin America. They bring in a mere one to 20 kilos. Most cocaine comes into Europe through Hamburg, Rotterdam or other large container ports. Small-time smugglers only play a minor part in global drugs trade.”
Burden on Legal System
Professor Cohen argues that trying to detain all drugs smugglers would place too great a burden on the Dutch penal system. Besides, he says, traffickers are hit hardest by taking away their contraband. Decriminalizing cocaine would ultimately be the best option, he explains. Analogous to Dutch cannabis policy, the use and sale of cocaine should first be tolerated and then legalized. Professor Cohen believes that if the Netherlands led the way, other European countries would eventually follow suit.
“We’ve seen that the British, the Germans and the French eventually arrived at the same policy conclusions as the Dutch. It only took them 20 years longer. So, I am not worried about criticism from Holland’s partners within the European Union. We’re kind of accustomed to that type of criticism. If you wait long enough, it’ll just evaporate into thin air.’
No Legalization of Cocaine
However, when it comes to cocaine, it’s doubtful whether Europe or even the Netherlands wishes to follow the path of legalization. A number of European countries may have adopted a more liberal approach on cannabis, but they’re still cracking down on hard-drugs such as heroine and cocaine.
The Netherlands, too, is toughening up on its drugs policy. There’s certainly no political consensus in favour of legalizing cocaine. “It’s a serious problem of dramatic proportion, which cannot and should not be tolerated,” Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok was quoted as saying this week. The majority of Dutch society, he added, will find it unacceptable to allow drugs smugglers to go scott-free.
Two Suspects in One Prison Cell
Justice Minister Benk Korthals has now suggested allowing two people to share a cell. Up to now, detainees in the Netherlands have had the right to their own private cells. Rejected as undesirable in the 1980s, this controversial move is now likely to make it through parliament. Prison staff, though, say they fear for their safety.
The Dutch government is also seeking closer cooperation with the Netherlands Antilles. Drugs traffickers from Latin America have been using the Caribbean island group as a transit point. Up to 25,000 drugs smugglers are thought to take this transatlantic route every year. The Dutch government has called on the authorities of its overseas territories to tighten controls at airports. The Hague has offered the Antilles money, manpower and technical assistance.
The Prime Minister of the Netherlands Antilles, Miguel Pourier, has welcomed the additional financial aid, but added that the drugs trade is a two-way street. He urged the Netherlands to act against the massive Dutch exports of XTC to the Antilles.
The Dutch government has enlisted the help of its EU partners to tackle the problem. This coming week, the Dutch Lower House of Parliament is to debate the Justice Minister’s “plan of action”, which is expected to contain additional harsh measures. Given the current political climate, legalising cocaine seems a long way off.