In early October, a van full of XTC waste caught fire in Eindhoven, releasing hazardous hydrogen chloride right next to a major apartment building. In Nijmegen a drugs van left a huge trail (several kilometres long) of chemical waste left over from the production of drugs. And those were just two examples of chemical waste left over from the production of XTC pills being illegally dumped: there were another eight cases just this month.

It makes sense that the Netherlands should be a major player in the production of synthetic drugs such as XTC, says Damián Zaitch, a Professor of Criminology at Utrecht University and an expert on drug-related crime. “There are several reasons why the Netherlands is so important to the production of drugs. First and foremost, the Netherlands has a proper infrastructure and a strong position in international trade. This makes it easy for manufacturers to transfer drugs to other European countries. In addition, the target group is right here, in significant numbers. Many drugs are used in the world of electronic music, and many prominent DJs are Dutch. Lastly, the province of North Brabant has a tradition of smuggling. During World War II this manifested in the smuggling of things such as butter and cereal. They are continuing that tradition now, except they’re doing it with drugs.”


Damián Zaitch

According to Zaitch, there is a clear connection between the value of drugs and the amount of crime and violence. “The more expensive the drugs, the higher the violence and crime rates. The cannabis trade doesn’t involve much violence, because cannabis is relatively cheap and the growers are close to the consumers. XTC is produced for about eighty cents, while pills are sold for three to five euros each. On the other hand, cocaine often costs fifty euros per gram, which is why the cocaine trade involves a great deal more crime than the cannabis or XTC trade. In addition, XTC is subject to the following rule of thumb: the cheaper the pills, the closer you are to the manufacturer.”

The consequences of the drug trade differ from region to region in the Netherlands. For instance, XTC is produced in the southern provinces, particularly North Brabant. This is where all the drugs labs are, with all the attendant waste dumping and fires. Due to its extremely high level of drugs production, Zaitch calls the town of Tilburg (in North Brabant) ‘the Chicago of the Netherlands’.

In major cities like Rotterdam and Amsterdam you will find interpersonal violence, such as murders. Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, the Commissioner of the Amsterdam Police Service, told NRC that there has been a shift in the nature of the murders. In the old days, professional assassins used to be flown in from abroad to commit drug-related murders for roughly fifty thousand euros. Now these murders are committed by disadvantaged adolescents, who will do it for a mere two thousand euros. According to Aalbersberg, the murders that have plagued Amsterdam in recent years are ‘one hundred percent a cocaine issue’.

Corruption in the port

The Port of Rotterdam is absolutely vital to the Dutch drugs industry, particularly when it comes to the transit of cocaine. The cocaine is generally stored in gym bags which are placed inside containers that are shipped to the Netherlands. Once the containers arrive in Rotterdam, the bags will be removed by dealers. In the old days, pretty much anyone could open the containers and remove the drugs, but these days things are different. Zaitch calls it a paradox. “Nowadays people need ID badges to enter the port, and there are cameras everywhere. This might seem safer, but in actual fact it only increases the level of corruption. People working at the port, such as customs officers or employees of a random company, are paid to remove drugs from the containers. For five thousand euros you can hire an employee’s ID badge, which will allow you to enter the port for one day. Despite the corruption, the level of violence perpetrated in the Port of Rotterdam is quite low.”

But walk through the streets of Rotterdam and you will be able to tell that the city is a major player in the drug trade as well. Rotterdam police officer Evi-Ann Blom, who works in the neighbourhood of Kralingen-Crooswijk, has many stories about drug-related crime in her neighbourhoods. “We find drugs on the street on a daily basis. Unfortunately, we only find small quantities – generally little bags of cocaine or XTC. The law sometimes makes it hard for us to prove dealers’ guilt. We often deal with shootings or stabbings where both the perpetrator and the victim have disappeared by the time the police arrive on the scene.” Blom also says that there are many young dealers in the streets. “The big guys tend not to go out into the streets. Instead they will get boys to sell pills in the streets or at schools on their behalf. This constitutes a problem, since it means that teenagers enter the world of crime at a young age, meaning they will get in trouble with the law.”

Good thing for the economy

Ironically, the Netherlands greatly profits from the XTC trade, says Zaitch. “Yes, there’s no doubt about that. About fifty percent of the money earned through the drug trade will be pumped straight back into the legal economy. Not only through money laundering, but also in the regular way. Take restaurants, for instance – on sunny days, dealers and drug producers like to order a bottle of wine in a café’s outdoor seating area, just like regular people. If drugs could be manufactured without violence, it would only be good for the economy, in my opinion. The economy will not be impacted negatively until the violence starts causing multinational corporations to refrain from investing in a country. We saw that happen in Colombia, for example.”

Would legalising drugs result in lower crime rates?

Kees Kramers, an internist, clinical pharmacologist and professor at Nijmegen’s Radboud University Medical Centre, recently argued for the legalisation of XTC (being a party drug) in AD. Kramers stated that the legalisation of pills would result in reduced crime rates and less chemical waste being dumped illegally. For his part, Damián Zaitch does not agree with this point of view. “I do not support legalisation, or a free market for drugs. I don’t think it’s a realistic idea either. If you legalise drugs, you are basically saying that using drugs is fine. That is not a good thing. And we don’t need legalisation either, as long as the Dutch state regulates the market in a responsible manner. As far as that is concerned, there is a lot of room for improvement for the Netherlands. What is most important is that the government oversees the quantity of drugs produced, the quality of said drugs, the persons selling them and the price point at which drugs are sold. If we can bring about a situation like that, there will be less competition between dealers, which in turn will reduce crime rates.”

Zaitch would also like young people to be provided with better information. “Too much money is being allocated to the war on drugs, even though we should be allocating a lot more money to prevention. We can do this at schools, but I think the children’s parents should be involved as well. Telling kids not to use drugs doesn’t work. Adolescents will experiment. Large festivals should have a testing corner, for example, where pills are tested. And perhaps rave organisers should provide information on how many pills it is safe to take and the things you should and should not be doing. Organisers of festivals and raves know that people use drugs – it’s part and parcel of the music industry. They adhere to the idea that you’re allowed to use drugs. You’re just not allowed to deal them.”

“It’s all about harm reduction, about reducing crime and the damage done to consumers to the best of your ability,” Zaitch says in conclusion. “It’s better to have responsible consumers than to have a zero-tolerance policy. This will only result in more crime.”