What harm? A comparative analysis of drug trafficking and organised crime in the Netherlands and Belgium

Two highly regarded researchers in the study of drug trafficking and organized crime presented a radical analysis at last week’s conference of the International Society of the Study of Drug Policy in Ghent. Letizia Paoli (Univeristy of Leuven) and Victoria Greenfield (George Mason University) have a record of contributing to our understanding of drug markets and the modus operandi of organised crime.

Using a military style risk assessment approach they have assessed the risks caused by organised crime involved in drug trafficking in two of the most important entry points for cocaine into the European market. Harms are classified along the dimensions of functional integrity, material interests, reputation and privacy, as it is inflicted on individuals, the private sector, government and the environment, both physical and social. Using the measures of severity and incidence, they then consider the occurrence of cocaine trafficking and related activities in the two countries. Next they use a two stage approach to asses “distance between the harms and the primary activity” and the way in which the harms that are associated with criminal activity arise from the policy environment, including the prohibition of the criminal activity and the enforcement practices. It is made clear that harms arising from cocaine use are not included in this analysis.

Summarising the findings the authors conclude, surprisingly that the harms are overall low. There are associated fatalities and other violence in the Netherlands, but the incidence is rare. In neither country does the infusion of laundered proceeds affect distortions to the private sector, there is very little harm to government entities through corruption, and the reputational loss to governments’ resulting from their inability to enforce their own laws is considered persistent but marginal.

In spite of large flows and organized crime involvement the harms are overall low. The greater incidence of violence in the Netherlands derives largely from differences in role. The Netherlands play a much more important role as hub and exchange for cocaine distribution than Belgium. Where the harms do occur, they accrue largely in relation to the risks and opportunities for compensation in both countries. Those harms that do occur are then related directly to law enforcement practices.

The authors argue that law enforcement interventions insert a compensable risk that makes related harms unavoidable. They conclude that the Netherlands policy of 100% checks might have driven risk to point of non-compensable status and reduced violence in the Netherlands. But at the cost of displacing the trade to other locations.

“The Harms of cocaine trafficking in the Netherlands and Belgium: Policy Insights from a Comparative Assessment.” Letizia Paoli and Victoria Greenfield