Opinion Top Story

Dutch Drug War Isn’t Working. Politicians Would Escalate It

Police budgets and interdictions in the port of Rotterdam are up. So is cocaine use.

Dilan Yeşilgöz
Dutch justice minister Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius inspects a prison in Vught, June 9, 2022 (LinkedIn)

The Dutch city of Rotterdam has been rocked by attacks on homes and stores. More explosions were reported in the first four months of this year than during the whole of 2022. The perpetrators, suspected to be drug criminals, have used fireworks, improved explosive devices and hand grenades.

According to local politician Vincent Karremans, who is in the same liberal party as me, one in four of suspects are under the age of 18.

Here in Amsterdam, police have also seen in an increase in teenagers selling drugs and taking part in drug-related violence, even assassinations. They are usually boys of Moroccan, Turkish or another immigrant descent.

The knee-jerk reaction on the right is to escalate the drug war. Give more money to customs and police. Weaken privacy rights, so police can tap phones without a warrant and share information on suspects with non-judicial agencies. Lengthen prison sentences for drug crimes.

But even Karremans, who is in favor of repression, knows: “that also causes unrest.” When the police get better at their jobs, so do criminals. The recent attacks in Rotterdam — some have been on the homes of family members of suspected drug dealers — follow the arrest and prosecution of prominent drug lords.

I argue in the Dutch newsletter De Nieuwe Vrije Eeuw that it’s time to rethink our policy.

Decriminalizing cocaine

“The war on drugs isn’t working,” the mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, told a conference of Western European justice ministers last year.

Her city has seen an increase in cocaine use since the pandemic. Indeed, many European cities have, according to an analysis of wastewater conducted for the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Of the 66 cities sampled for cocaine, 38 saw an increase from 2021 to 2022, with the highest concentrations found in Amsterdam and Antwerp. Eighteen cities reported no change. Only ten saw a decrease.

A record 160 tons of cocaine were interdicted in the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam last year, yet a gram of cocaine still sells for €50 in Amsterdam, which suggests that for every shipment European customs interdict, Latin American cartels send one more. According to the UN, cocaine production is up 35 percent in South America from last year.

Argentina, Brazil, Greece and Portugal have stopped prosecuting people for possessing small amounts of cocaine. British Columbia, a province of Canada, and Oregon, on the West Coast of the United States, have decriminalized all drugs. Halsema would do the same in the Netherlands. Former liberal party leader Frits Bolkestein has called for outright legalization.

Pilot for legal weed isn’t working

Justice minister Dilan Yesilgöz, a liberal like Bolkestein, Karremans and me, would argue the Netherlands is primarily a transfer state for cocaine. If we legalized the stuff here, drug cartels would have a field day. They could legally import cocaine to Rotterdam and would only have to find ways to smuggle it into France, Germany and other EU member states.

But would that be so different from what is happening now? Yesilgöz raised spending on drug repression by hundreds of millions of euros per year, but the smuggling increased.

Cannabis and MDMA, the two most commonly used drugs in the Netherlands, are home-made. By Yesilgöz’ logic, we should be able to legalize and regulate those in closed chains.

Indeed, there is a pilot to do just that for weed in ten medium-sized cities. Amsterdam has proposed to join with one of its seven boroughs. The program is meant to demonstrate if weed can be legalized, but the growers and sellers who want to participate can’t get bank accounts and retail permits while cannabis remains illegal. (The Netherlands doesn’t enforce a ban on cannabis use and retail. It does enforce a ban on cultivation.)


Yesilgöz’ other argument against legalization is another Catch-22. Drug criminals bribe and extort public officials, and assassinate rivals, lawyers and journalists in broad daylight. As long as their crimes are so awful and socially disruptive, decriminalization, much less legalization, is out of the question.

“I’m not fighting a war on drugs,” Yesilgöz insists. “I’m fighting a war on drug criminals.”

But criminals only exist because we criminalized drugs. The severity of the drug crime isn’t an argument against legalization, it is an argument for it.

Legalization doesn’t reward criminality, it would be the end of criminality. Bolkestein, who was the European commissioner for the internal market from 1999 to 2004, knew:

Once the domestic drug market has been regulated, drug gangs won’t be able to earn a penny.

Alcohol is worse than some drugs

We didn’t ban drugs in the Netherlands because there were criminals. The government banned drugs, because it thought they were a menace to public health.

Half a century later, we know better. Criminalizing drugs hasn’t reduced drug use. Some drugs, like ketamine, LSD and MDMA, may even be useful in treating bipolar, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Cannabis and MDMA are less addictive than alcohol and tobacco.

Half of under-35s in the Netherlands have tried MDMA (also known as ecstasy). Yet only 4 percent of the entire adult population took MDMA last year.

The Dutch Trimbos Institute for mental health estimates that .7 percent of the population — 130,000 out 17.5 million — are addicted to drugs. Half a million people have a drinking problem.

Cocaine’s addictiveness is comparable to alcohol. Heroin is far more addictive, and more deadly. Of the 300 drug users who died of an overdose in the Netherlands in 2021, half died of opioids like heroin.

By comparison, 1,800 people died of alcohol abuse that year, many in traffic. Some 20,000 smokers died of lung cancer.

Drug lords may be violent, but drug users seldom are. 23 to 45 percent of all violence in the Netherlands is alcohol-related. Excess cocaine use can cause aggression. MDMA never does. Yet alcohol is legal and MDMA isn’t.

Police give priority to drug war

“No matter the amount of drugs that are interdicted or the number of drug lords who are arrested or killed,” writes Hans van Duijn, the former head of the Dutch police union, “public health hasn’t benefited nor has public safety.”

In fact, public safety has deteriorated due to the enormous police capacity that is devoted to “fighting drugs” and therefore unavailable to more relevant police work.

Dutch police spend between 20 and 30 percent of their annual budget on fighting drugs. Three in four detectives are working on drug cases, according to chief detective Andy Kraag.

There is some effect. Registered drug crimes fell from 18,000 to 12,000 in the last ten years. They are now a mere 1.6 percent of all crimes.

Yet 9 percent of all prosecutions are drugs-related, up from 7 percent in 2010. Nine in ten cases lead to a conviction. Judges have been handing down stiffer sentences. One in five prisoners are drug criminals.

Other crimes go unpunished

There is a cost. In Gelderland, a Dutch province on the border with Germany, 1,500 prosecutions had to be canceled last year for lack of capacity. Another 130 cases were dropped in Haarlem and The Hague.

Police have asked victims to think twice before reporting a crime. The judicial system, a spokesperson said, is “clogged up”.

With drug cases.

Most victims don’t report crimes anyway. The Dutch Center for Sexual Assault estimates that 100,000 men and women are assaulted or raped every year. Fewer than one in ten report their attack to police. Of those, half lead to an arrest. A third of suspects are brought to trial within six months. In drug cases, the share is two-thirds.

Before we put even more money and manpower into the drug war — Karremans wants to prosecute instead of fine drug runners who are caught in the port of Rotterdam — let’s (finally) listen to Bolkestein and Van Duijn. The criminalization of drugs has caused more harm than it prevented.