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Cohen, Peter (2000), Tackling drug related crime. What can we learn from our partners in Europe? Keynote address at the Conference 'Partners in Crime 2000', June 8 and 9, organised by Kent County Council, Ashford International Hotel, Kent, UK. Amsterdam, CEDRO Centrum voor Drugsonderzoek.
© Copyright 2000 Peter Cohen. All rights reserved.


Tackling drug related crime

What can we learn from our partners in Europe?

Peter Cohen

The topic of my presentation I was asked to give here is worded as a question: "Tackling drug related crime. What can we learn from our partners in Europe?"

The answer is that drug related crime is tackled nowhere in Europe in any significant way, not even in the Netherlands. In all European and non-European countries, drug use and drug distribution are related to a sizeable proportion of crime. What exactly this relation looks like, how is it socially constructed is still a topic of heated discussion for some. I will give some of my insights into the crime-drug connection below.

We know, however, that there is no one and only relationship between drugs and crime, but that the relationship varies per country, period and type of drug use. Although my profession is to generate numbers, and to look at them for trends, I will give you very few numbers in this presentation. Often in our political culture, these numbers are used to feed rather boring accusation matches, in the fashion of "your drug policy is far worse than mine". So, for my purpose now it is sufficient to stress commonalities within Europe, and show that the differences between our countries do not really make all this battling legitimate or productive. I will end however with some recommendations, asking for enough curiosity to be willing to look, and to learn, instead of an eternal repetition of the 'home grown' drug policy mantras.

Why are we seeing, in all Member States of the European Union, that 20 to 40% of all prisoners are convicted for some type of drug related criminal activity or another? The answer is manifold:

  1. In all our countries the use and distribution of cannabis and a range of other recreational drugs is criminalized. This criminalization had its origins in the tendency to criminalize the use of alcohol in the 19th century that never really caught on in Europe. (Though it did — for a short time — in the USA). Instead, we criminalized recreational drugs that were alien to our culture and social habits, leaving legal the drugs that were already integrated into our western culture.
  2. Since the use of culturally alien recreational drugs is often associated with people living more or less deviant lifestyles, (thieves, artists, homosexuals, homeless, ravers), this class of people is exposed to a higher than normal level of scrutiny by the forces of law and order, making their chances of being caught in some sort of illegal act larger than the rest of the population. This expands the image of a nexus between drugs and deviance/crime.
  3. Since the early dawn of the prison system, the probability that poor people are being caught and imprisoned is much larger than for richer strata of the population. Our jails are not filled for the most part with the successful high level money launderers, smugglers and 'Euro-subsidy' crooks. Except for serious violent crime, prison is the poor man's fate, the fate of the petty criminal roughly speaking the likelihood that poor people are caught for low level drug use and drug distribution activities is greater than for others. Poor people also have more reason to use and trade drugs in ways that help them adjust to adverse conditions, than richer people. Opiates for instance are a good downer, helping one to feel less social and mental pain — much better than alcohol can do that. Trading heroin provides some income for those who find no productive position in the labour market. Summarizing, the drug crime nexus is partly constructed via poverty, and is therefore related to more general issues of wealth distribution.

So, drugs are related to crime for a series of reasons, that are not tackled easily. These reasons are deeply embedded in our cultures and economies, and we can only hope to modify the connection between drugs and crime in a series of (small) steps.

Let us look at two countries that have vastly different systems of wealth distribution, the USA and the Netherlands. In the USA around 50% of the gross national income is distributed over 20% of the population, according to the Worldbank, in a political system that leaves a third of the population near the poverty line or below, and without any health insurance. Unemployment or workers disability benefits are very low and force people to accept even very menial jobs making crime a viable alternative for income generation. In the Netherlands, around 40% of the gross national income is distributed over 20% of the population, still very skewed, but less unjust. However, health insurance covers all of the population, like a decent insurance against unemployment and disability. This enables people to stay unemployed if attractive jobs are not available, making crime a less attractive income generating activity.

These vast structural differences are reflected in the rates of incarceration. In the US the present incarceration rate is around 800 people per 100,000, against 75 per 100,000 in the Netherlands (and versus 120 in the UK). Drug use is somewhat higher in the US than in the Netherlands, but not very much. As an illustration: last month marihuana use in the Dutch population is about 3%, versus 6% in the US (1997 data). You see, we speak about very small minorities that use drugs with any regularity.

I already said what I want to say: the structural economic and political factors that determine levels of poverty, wealth and care distribution have such a large impact on levels of crime, and the way some drug-crime nexus is built up, that any simple measure in the drug policy area may seem almost trivial. But, we can do a series of things that, even leaving the structural factors untouched, can change the relation for some people between drugs and a criminal status. If we do enough of those small steps, we can realise a real and perceptible impact on the severity of the drug-crime nexus.

To begin with, we can do as the Germans. The Germans used to marginalise heavy drug users to a high degree, making them into some kind of fugitives in their own country, now, in the larger cities, provide these much harassed people with so called user rooms. They now can go somewhere, where they have some status, where access to health care and a shower is easy, and where their drug use is turned into something accepted. This will change the exposure to police, and thus to prison. If the Germans would add a decent and easy access heroin and or methadone distribution system, as the Dutch and the Swiss (and the Brits) already have in place somehow, and add social work to the treatment system as is done in the Netherlands, the Germans would greatly influence the drug-crime nexus for a small but highly visible part of the drug-using population. It would then change the perception of drug use, quite probably away from it being a problem.

The UK, like Italy, arresting and cautioning thousands of people each year for simple use, distribution or possession of marihuana or other recreational drugs, should look at the Dutch police. In the Netherlands the police does not bother to suppress individual drug use or small scale drug distribution, unless it creates unsafe areas or housing estates. If UK police were to follow this example, the work load of the UK police would be a lot lighter, their prisons less populated and their drug use levels would not increase.

When in the Netherlands responsible medical abortion was tolerated, a period of around 20 years before it became legal in the eighties, illicit abortionists vanished, and the abortion-crime connection disappeared completely, never to return. For drugs this ideal end state is impossible, because even with drugs totally decriminalised, drugs (among which alcohol) are so much part of everyday human life and culture, that a proportion of all activities, among which criminal ones, will always be undertaken while under the influence of drugs. For instance, an alcohol intoxicated driver is potentially dangerous, although less so than a driver using pharmaceutical tranquillisers mixed with alcohol. The connection with crime is not difficult to imagine. Driving while high on marihuana or cocaine is less dangerous, and even quite doable, albeit still not really wise. Mistakes are made, so crime always lurks around the corner of drug use, licit or illicit. But, as I said, it is very well possible to lessen this nexus and make it less strong, less threatening and less automatic by selecting certain drug related life events as no longer being criminal. I will not use my time here to give all possible little steps into that direction. In the UK there are enough people who know.

In a speech last March, Gerry Stimson, one of the UK's prime specialists on drug policy, deplored the new emphasis on the drug crime nexus, which he thinks will deemphasize the drug problem as a health issue and a culture issue. I agree with him. The present Government in the UK seems to ignore the fact, that very much of the drug crime nexus is a socially constructed one, dependent on the degree to which drug use is depicted as deviant, and then criminalized.

In the Netherlands a large group of city mayors (just over 60) have proposed to decriminalise the growing of marihuana plants, and trading marihuana to cannabis shops. This very important lobby towards decriminalising a sizeable portion of what is now considered as crime, is opposed by the Dutch Government. It argues that international agreements, and the governments of allied nations like the UK, or France, would create enormous problems for the Dutch. This is of course partly right. But, here in this audience could be people who argue: "why not let the Dutch try that, and run an interesting real life experiment for us, so that we can see what would happen! The Dutch already showed that allowing uncluttered consumer access to a large choice of marihuana and other cannabis products did not raise use levels, or did not raise problematic use of any drug over the levels of other countries. It left use levels even lower than those in the UK, or the US and the same as in Germany or France. Let these bold Dutch run some more experiments that for us are difficult, and let them show that their thinking on decriminalisation is sound." This would imply, that some countries are undogmatic enough to allow themselves to really learn from other countries in Europe.

At the moment, most countries are against learning from other countries. The reason for this is, among others, that drug policy is much more an arena for politicians in which they show off their "sound" value systems, than their problem solving capabilities. Politicians use the drug problem for a sort of 'value exhibitionism' and for the purpose of showing a strong political identity in a time of economic or cultural fears. Problem solving, they seem to think, we do in other areas!

We do not have to educate large parts of the public about drugs; most — except the Swedes — know they are dangerous or non-dangerous as licit drugs, and like those, consumed in moderation by most users. In the larger metropolitan areas of our countries, occasional drug use among people of 40 years and younger has become normalised, structured and accepted. Access to all illicit drugs is well organised, easy, and less costly all the time. Drugs are used at particular times, for particular kinds of recreational activity, in well integrated social settings. Preparing for the future means that we will have to regulate drug use instead of continuing our Victorian and futile attempts to stamp it out. We should educate our politicians, ask them to choose other ways for value identification or suggesting to us they are 'strong, tough and reliable'.

I want to conclude with the following: Leaving intact my remarks about the importance of wealth and care distribution for the development of the drug problem, I emphasize that as long as drugs are left unregulated, and as long as the issue is a main stage for conservative political bravado tough talk and war mongering, drug policies will not tackle — even marginally — the drug-crime connection. On the contrary, the connection will flourish.

Last update: May 25, 2016