It was a low-key sign that the penny might finally have dropped about the vice-like grip of the drugs underworld on Dutch society, when two junior ministers were quietly dispatched to Rome this month to see how Italy had finally beaten the murderous mafia.
Relations between the two countries haven’t always been cordial. There were narky exchanges over EU cash for post-Covid restructuring. With impressively bad timing, the Dutch cast themselves as “fiscally frugal” and slated Italy as a nation with questionable “fiscal buffers”. It didn’t play well.
Still, when you’re in a pickle it pays to seek the counsel of those who know what they’re talking about. And arguably no other European country knows half as much as Italy does about how to extricate itself from the jaws of violent drug-dealing racketeers intent on undermining its society.
As it transpired, the timing of the ministers’ visit could hardly have been more auspicious.
At home, the mayors of Amsterdam and Rotterdam sent a joint letter to premier Mark Rutte demanding urgent action against the “Mafia-style” gangsterism that led to the gunning down of lawyer Derk Wiersum in 2019 and crime reporter Peter R de Vries, a year ago.
In Italy, the justice ministry was marking 30 years since a turning point in its own campaign against rampant criminality: summer 1992, when two of the country’s most determined anti-mafia judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, were shot dead in Sicily within weeks of one another.
That outrageous double assassination marked a step-change in the attitude of the Italian public towards the mafia, Italian justice minister Marta Cartabia told her Dutch guests. The appetite for tough new laws increased. The Mafiosi were never as powerful again.
Unfortunately, despite the equally outrageous killings of Wiersum and De Vries, the liberal and prosperous Netherlands hasn’t quite reached that point of irreversible anger yet, Dutch justice minister Dilan Yesilgöz acknowledged in reply.
Even so, the Dutch government is broadly correct: there is a growing mood for a well-thought-through response that will make a real structural difference — and that’s what the centre-right think tank, Denkwerk, aimed to offer in a radical new set of proposals launched last Thursday.
Harder to control
The government, it says, should prepare to “take over” the national market for cannabis and ecstasy as soon as possible, while clamping down hard on cocaine, first because it poses a greater threat to health, and second because it’s produced abroad and therefore harder to control.
A government-sanctioned system would mean that, primarily, the drugs would be safe, a health benefit for users and the economy that cannot be overestimated. A lot of what’s selling on the street is fake, adulterated, or low grade.
Under the Denkwerk proposals, supply and demand would be regulated, dealers would apply for licences, would be obliged to have fully transparent banking arrangements, and their incomes would be taxed for the first time — just like the rest of the economy.
The number of outlets would be restricted, the age and identities of users verified and a record kept of how much they consume — along with regular non-judgmental health checks.
The bottom line as far as criminality is concerned is that the gangsters would have their “livelihoods” obliterated at a stroke.
They and their pals and their international networks would be deprived of hundreds of millions of euro in “profits” every year — and the lifestyles that go with it.
The countless underprivileged kids the drugs underworld preys on as soon as they step out of school, if not before, might have the chance of a life without exploitation.
Illegal dumping of chemicals from ecstasy production in lakes and rivers, a growing environmental hazard, would end.
What’s different about the Denkwerk report is that one of its most vocal advocates is Barbara Baarsma, economics professor, chief executive of Rabo Carbon Bank, and council member of the Dutch Central Bank — who once said she likes a learning curve of at least 45 degrees.
Here she’s had one. Her team did bottom-up research, talking to police, customs officials, lawyers, doctors, addiction experts, port officials, journalists and academics before putting pen to paper.
Despite the lessons from Italy, she knows the reality is that the Netherlands is never going to engage in a paramilitary fight to the death with its own vicious criminal underworld.
But taking away the criminals’ business model, now that’s a sophisticated option with many attractive benefits, not least for an economist.
After all, even the Netherlands could do with the extra tax revenue.