Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis
By Yan Graf
The year 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s declaration of the “War on Drugs.” Since then, the United States has spent trillions of dollars fighting drug production and international distribution. Whether hunting down kingpins, destroying drug fields, or training foreign governments in drug eradication tactics, U.S. Government and pop culture attention has been predominantly focused on drug trafficking as it relates to impoverished Latin American countries like Mexico, Colombia, and Peru. Despite this imbalance, the winds of the global drug trade are shifting, and new countries have blossomed into centers of drug production and trafficking. The drug trade in Europe is increasingly centered around one country that many are calling the world’s newest “narco-state”: the Netherlands.
The Netherlands has had strong connotations of liberal views on drugs since the 1970s. During that time, the Dutch government decriminalized marijuana use under a policy called “gedoodbeleid”, or “tolerance policy.” The sale and consumption of marijuana was no longer a crime, so long as users confined themselves to so-called “coffeeshops,” which were permitted to sell marijuana. This, together with the legality of so-called “psychedelic truffles,” or psilocybin-containing hallucinogenic fungi as it would be known outside the Netherlands, has turned the country into a mecca for drug tourism. For decades, hundreds of thousands of tourists from all around the world have flocked to cities like Amsterdam to try Netherlands’ famous high-quality and high-potency marijuana.
However, while the Netherlands has a thriving decriminalized drug trade, it is the thriving illegal drug trade that has attracted the moniker “narco-state.” On the surface, apart from its loose laws on psilocybin and marijuana, the Netherlands has little that makes it a hub for global drug trafficking. Unlike countries like Mexico or Colombia, the Netherlands is one of the richest and most developed economies in the world. It has a sound rule of law, low levels of corruption, and a very low murder rate. And yet, the Netherlands has recently surpassed Spain to be the number one destination of cocaine entering the European market. A recent seizure of cocaine heading to the Netherlands is estimated to be worth $4.3 billion dollars on the street, which would make that one seizure alone around 3-4% of the world’s annual cocaine industry.
The Netherlands are not just leading drug importers, but also leading drug producers. The Dutch are the world’s largest producer of MDMA, also known as ecstasy, with estimates placing the size of Dutch MDMA and related amphetamine production at over $22 billion a year. Most of this ecstasy is meant for the export market, which is primarily facilitated by sales over the dark web. In fact, most of the MDMA ending up on American streets originates in the Netherlands. The Netherlands is also becoming a major source of methamphetamine production. Many authorities suspect that Mexican meth cooks have been brought over to the Netherlands for logistical support and expertise as part of transnational crime cooperation. The first Dutch meth lab was discovered in 2015, and in 2020 alone, Dutch police shut down a staggering 32 meth labs across the country.
The Netherlands’ status as a hotspot for marijuana, cocaine, MDMA, and methamphetamine smuggling is not lost on broader Dutch society. The application of the term “narco-state” to the Netherlands was popularized by Jan Struijs, the head of the country’s largest police union. A staggering 59% of the Dutch public agree with Struijs’ sentiment. While the Dutch drug trade has not made the country lawless, a recent series of shocking murders by organized criminals have sparked fears that the Netherlands needs to get its drug smuggling problem under control.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Most strikingly, earlier this year, prominent Dutch crime reporter Peter de Vries was shot in broad daylight by suspected members of a Dutch-Moroccan gang called the “Mocro Mafia,” which trafficks cocaine and hash from Morocco into the Netherlands. The “Mocro Mafia” is believed to control nearly one-third of the cocaine entering Europe, which would make it one of the most powerful drug trafficking groups in all of Europe. In response to the murder, the Dutch Prime Minister, who in the past famously biked around Amsterdam without security, has been assigned a special police detail for his protection.
Reasons for the Netherlands becoming an epicenter of the global drug trade are numerous. One of the primary reasons the Netherlands and its southern neighbor, Belgium, have attracted the attention of major drug traffickers is the Europoort Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and Belgium’s Port of Antwerp. These ports are the two largest in all of Europe, and they rank as some of the busiest in the world. These ports represent an easy path through which to ship drugs into Europe, with the vast size of Rotterdam’s and Antwerp’s ports making it difficult to catch shipments containing narcotics. The Netherlands is also centrally located in Europe’s most densely populated regions, which include the rest of the Low Countries, Germany, the United Kingdom, and northern France. Once the cargo has entered the Netherlands, it is easy to distribute given the Netherlands’ advanced infrastructure and its inclusion in the Schengen zone, which means smugglers don’t have to contend with border patrols when crossing international boundaries. Additionally, as Andy Kraag of the Dutch Criminal Investigations Unit explains, due to the tolerant drug culture of the Netherlands, sentencing for those caught trafficking is extremely lenient compared to its neighbors. Combining these factors with the large number of tourists who visit the Netherlands solely for carefree access to drugs makes the country the perfect place to set up operations for pan-European drug trafficking.
Given the myriad of reasons why drug traffickers target the Netherlands as the gateway to Europe, the reputation the country is developing as a “narco-state” should come as no surprise. The more interesting and beneficial question to ask is whether the country will double down on its tolerance for drugs or will it respond by launching its own war on drugs. Which option the country chooses to go with and how the effort pans out will have important implications for how the United States deals with its festering drug problem, especially as its efforts to decriminalize and legalize substances like marijuana gain steam across the country. Regardless of how the Dutch tackle their drug problem, one thing remains sure: no country is precluded from becoming a narco-state.