We from the police advise: more money and powers for the police

The inconvenient truth about an alarmist police report
Friday, September 7, 2018

The study 'The Netherlands and synthetic drugs: An inconvenient truth' by the Dutch police academy on the role of the Netherlands in the production of synthetic drugs has the sound of "We, the people at Toilet Duck, recommend Toilet Duck". The rather predictable conclusion of this investigation is that law enforcement needs more money and resources. In passing, competitors for limited government budgets, like those who advocate a public health approach to drug policy, are rendered suspect; they stand in the way of an “effective” policy of repression.

It is a well-known ploy. You seduce some "scientific" police researchers with an attractive budget; commission (and subsidise) research by "police-friendly" institutes like the Police Academy or a university police faculty. You seduce a journalist with a nice "scoop" – and, voila, the agenda has been set: uneasy ministers, questions in parliament, and at the end of the day, more budget and increased investigative powers for law enforcement. Perhaps there are some opponents and you don’t get the very best out of your tempest in a teacup, but in the end you advance your own repressive tunnel vision, all without having to go to the trouble of proving that this approach is effective.

The question of whether “more of the same” for the hungry caterpillars of the police and the judiciary will bring about any real social benefit is never asked. In fact, is has been clear since the establishment of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that a criminal approach will not solve the drugs problem. The latest United Nations world drug report speaks volumes: the production of heroin, cocaine and synthetic drugs is increasing worldwide, despite a decades-long war on drugs.

At the end of the last century, there was a similar hysteria surrounding synthetic drugs in the Netherlands. The result was a 'Synthetic Drugs Unit', with increased investigative powers and a higher budget. Did it yield anything? No, as the researchers of this report were forced to conclude. It is rather naive to assume that things will be different this time around. According to the researchers, the policy at the time placed too much emphasis on preventing negative health effects, with a public-health driven approach leading to a “too tolerant” attitude.

In the case of cannabis, the realisation that things can be done and should be done differently is finally dawning. The Netherlands is starting to look towards a solution that has already been embraced in Uruguay, Canada, and several US states: the legal regulation of the market to reduce crime and mitigate health risks. However, until now, the developments around cannabis closely mirrored what we are now seeing around synthetic drugs: "alarm bells" were sounded about infiltration of the cannabis market by serious criminals, preparing the ground for higher law enforcement budgets, special task forces and broader criminal and administrative powers.

All of this was hot air, as it turned out afterwards, born less out of on-the-ground observations than strategic meetings on how to influence public opinion and political decision-making. Where they felt it was necessary, the Justice department even manipulated research from the Scientific Research and Documentation Centre (WODC). Moreover, according to a thorough analysis of the figures presented by the police researchers, few of the claims are correct: the actual use of ecstasy in the Netherlands itself seems to be about 6% of what the researchers calculated.

Another academic concluded that, from a scientific and epidemiological point of view, the figures in the report are built on quicksand. According to the European Drugs Report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), the value of the retail market for ecstasy in the European Union was estimated to be around EUR 0.7 billion in 2013. According to the Dutch Police Academy, four years later, nearly that amount would be consumed in the Netherlands alone (EUR 680 million in 2017).  The report offers no explanation for this surprising discrepancy.

Do we have to go through this circus again, wasting hundreds of millions of euros to end up back where we started, concluding that criminalisation of drugs doesn’t work, and other solutions have to be sought?

The proposed criminal law approach is counterproductive. Police repression will drive criminal gangs to increased violence and more extreme tactics, resulting in more victims. The quality of ecstasy will deteriorate, resulting in more victims from tainted or toxic drugs. Other synthetic drugs will come onto the market whose health risks are unknown, resulting in more victims. According to the report the Netherlands should start a dialogue again with China, where the state is 'liquidating' citizens for drug crimes, to stop the chemical precursors produced there from being exported.

The 'inconvenient truth' - to quote the report - should indeed be mentioned: the proponents of this repressive tunnel vision will show no mercy in their quest.