Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Counting the cost of bad politics (published earlier on opiumwars blog)

The Netherlands have been a byword for tolerant and realistic drug policies for years. It took some courage to do that because it provokes some pretty rough criticism from its partners in Europe and around the world.
The Dutch system effectively suspends its own drug law (drugs remain technically illiegal) and tolerates both drug use and the sale of cannabis in a regulated way through the "coffeeshops". These are regulated, legal (and taxed). Their supply is not. When the system started decades ago the "back door" was supplied by green-fingered "hippy" types and other amateurs. Now that cannabis has become a mainstream consumer product in much of the world - although production remains illegale - organised crime has stepped in.
It is a good illustration of the point I made in my post of 4 April (Power sharing with the Mafia). There is no easy option for weak politicians: all-out prohibition doesn't work (anywhere in the world) nor does the half-hearted tolerance policy of the Dutch (and, incidentally, quite a few other European countries).
As demand for cannabis grew in Holland - boosted by drugs tourism from neighboring countries - the volume of the  cannabis trade overtook heroin and cocaine somewhere around 1995 and is still expanding. The police has responded by creating special teams, sentencing is now tougher, but the profits to be made are totally irrisistable and the business plan of a serious canabis producer includes prison as a calculated risk and lethal violence as an essential management technique. Take a look at the fundamentals: a 1000-plant cannabis plantation with grow lights and automatic irrigation yields up to five harvests a year worth 700.000 EURO. The electricity and water are free because they are illegally tapped from the public networks.
What does this lead to? An unprecedented growth in organised violent crime in a country that has a firmly non-violent tradition. Drive-by shootings, public assassinations in bars and people's homes. Although much of this is gang warfare, the degree of intimidation of private citizens who are "pursuaded" to make a room, garage or cellar available to the growers is such that they rarely go to the police to complain. One mayor of a Dutch town is in hiding under police protection. Dutch police claim they destroy 6000 plantations a year or 2,5 million plants (one plant produces app. 40 grams). And yet, cannabis production is not thought to have decreased significantly.The market however is becoming more violent every year.
The problem has now spread over the border into Belgium, which has a weaker police system than Holland and less experience with the drugs trade. Belgian police recently claimed that more tha, 90% of plantations discovered were linked to Dutch organised crime. A Belgian criminologist, Prof. Decorte, describes the (Dutch) police tactics as "hit and run" raids on plantations, but which do no significant harm to the organisations behind the trade itself. Going for the top criminals would take resources that are simply not available and are likely to remain so for years to come. Meanwhile, others are moving into the business. Turkish, Bulgarian and Moroccan networks are increasingly active, to say nothing of the Vietnamese, already dominating the Canadian market and expanding rapidly in the UK.
How long will it take for our feeble and election-hungry politicians to take their eyes off the economy and to recognise that the bells are tolling for traditional prohibition of drugs and for the UN Conventions on drugs, at least in their present form. If they persist in "fighting" rather than regulating and reducing the side effects, we should expect a gradual slide into a form of society in which organised crime plays a major part in mainstream politics and in ordinary people's lives. Try to explain that to your children.

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