When famed investigative journalist Peter de Vries was shot and killed on an Amsterdam street in July, it was a startling wake-up call to the Dutch about the scope of crime in their nation.
“When it was gang-on-gang violence, we felt annoyed and saw it as ‘their’ problem. Now it’s affecting lawyers, journalists, and family members,” says Judith Begeer, a Dutch cybersecurity analyst based in London. “In a politically liberal country such as Holland, that is a massive shock.”
The investigation into Mr. de Vries’ slaying is still ongoing. But it has highlighted the long-standing coexistence between the laissez-faire, open Dutch liberalism honed over centuries and a criminal underworld that uses the Netherlands as a hub for international drug trafficking.
Dutch society prides itself on being modern, tolerant, and “an open society with strong rule of law,” thanks to a pluralistic system of coalition government, a rigorous judiciary, and media freedom, says Daniela Nadj, research fellow at the British Institute for International and Comparative Law. Crime rates have been so low since 2000 that jails have closed because there are not enough prisoners to fill them.
Yet the Dutch tradition of tolerance and compromise may have unwittingly aided the development of a sometimes violent drug-running subculture, thanks to complex drug policies originally designed to protect individual rights.
Holland has “unconsciously created a criminal economy … a two-sided marijuana economy that power-charged money-flow to criminal gangs,” says Dutch investigative reporter Allart van der Woude.
Demand and supply
The Netherlands was born thanks to land that was reclaimed from the sea through collective efforts by locals in the medieval and early Renaissance era. In most of the rest of Europe at this time, the church was extending its control of land; in Holland, the religious authorities did not press their claims, but made way for ordinary people to buy and sell plots.
This attitude, alongside busy coastal trade, laid the foundations for Dutch liberalism, allowing citizens a certain leeway in their behavior so long as they respected the common good.
“Amsterdam’s 16th century policy of looking the other way has a lot in common with the modern Dutch notion of gedogen, or tolerance of illegal activity,” says Russell Shorto, a historian and author of “Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City.”
“Today’s gedogen, or multilayered tolerance, is about marijuana ‘coffeeshop’ businesses paying tax, just like anyone else, even though what they sell is technically illegal,” he adds.
Hans Nelen, a professor of criminal law at Maastricht University, dates the development of a criminal underworld to the 1970s, when it emerged as a byproduct of the liberal Dutch fashion for experimenting with drugs.
It was, and still is, illegal to import, sell, or possess large quantities of cannabis. “For 35 years, our drug laws have prohibited cannabis, but our criminal justice system allows it through a so-called opportunity principle, whereby a judge may refrain from prosecution if it’s not in the general interest to prosecute,” explains Mr. Nelen.
National guidelines ruled out prosecutions of individuals for possession of small amounts of cannabis, he adds, and that judicial leniency opened up commercial opportunities such as Amsterdam’s “coffeeshops,” cafes licensed to sell cannabis.
The authorities expanded the “opportunity principle” to include other drugs as well; it is illegal to import or sell most hard drugs in the Netherlands, but permissible to possess them in a “user’s quantity.”
Meeting the demand of a large number of individuals for their “user’s quantity” of drugs, however, requires import and distribution in wholesale quantities. That remains illegal and not tolerated.
Criminal traffickers, the only source of drugs in the absence of legal suppliers, moved in to satisfy market demand. Their existence and activities, which are illegal, are what keep coffeeshops open and casual drug users supplied, which the authorities still tolerate. That, in turn, keeps them in business.
Today, Holland’s busy coast and sizable ports present attractive opportunities for drug smugglers. For example, the Tito and Dino cartel, one of the most notorious Balkan networks, controls one-third of the cocaine that enters Rotterdam – one of the biggest ports in the world – and can rapidly send a container of drugs almost anywhere in Europe. Corruption among Dutch port officials is rife, Mr. van der Woude says.
Time to liberalize?
The very public nature of recent assassinations has begun to shift what had been a relatively muted discourse on how Dutch liberalism might combat its decades-old criminal underbelly. Before the shooting of Mr. de Vries, thought to have been a victim of drug barons, other innocent bystanders had been gunned down in drug disputes in recent years. In a lengthy cocaine-trafficking case, a witness’ family member and lawyer were murdered in April 2018 and September 2019 respectively.
But it is the de Vries shooting that has sparked new reflection on drug policy. A group of local mayors in July publicly advocated the legalization and regulation of drugs such as cannabis, along with support networks to prevent young men from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds in particular from falling into gang life.
“In effect,” says Mr. van der Woude, “it would take the product out of the criminals’ hands.”
Mr. Nelen, the criminologist, agrees with the initiative. “To legalize the [drugs] market even just a little bit more means that you can control it better,” he argues. “The moment you start criminalizing markets, they immediately go underground. Liberalization gets rid of the dark side.”
Hannah, a local government officer who prefers not to identify herself because of “the fear that some people have in Holland right now” about organized crime, says that rural Dutch citizens do not share metropolitan, laissez-faire attitudes to drug control.
“I have zero need for drugs and cannot understand why people need them”, she says. But she says that many people like her remain on the fence about further liberalization and await the results of recent legalization efforts in other parts of the world, including some U.S. states.
The way forward could be what Dr. Nadj says is a deeply Dutch value – pride in international cooperation and law. “They need to do more intelligence and infiltrate the gangs, working more closely with EU allies and crime agencies,” says Dr. Nadj.
She is optimistic that, ultimately, assassinations like that of Mr. de Vries “won’t change the fundamental beliefs of Dutch society.”
“It will remain a very liberal society, proud of its constitution but bound by international law and very much aware of its place in the world,” predicts Dr. Nadj, pointing to a plethora of nongovernmental and international organizations in the Netherlands, such as the International Court of Justice. “Its core values won’t change.”
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