A summer of drug violence in Antwerp rekindles the debate about whether or not to legalize drugs. Is it outdated to not tolerate any drugs in society in the year 2022? Can legalization bring down the criminal circuit? And should hard drugs then be discussed alongside cannabis? We asked some experts these questions.
Firework bombs, grenade attacks, shootings and arson: as far as we know, this summer alone more than 20 drug-related incidents took place in Antwerp. It raises increasing questions about the effectiveness of the so-called war on drugs that Mayor Bart De Wever launched in 2013 to tackle “the unacceptable peripheral crime and nuisance” in his city.
The calls to change the gun’s shoulder are loud. Not only the hunt for drug criminals but also the drug laws – which date back to 1921 – need to be revisited, according to many. The law now states that it is “illegal to possess, cultivate, purchase, sell and trade psychoactive substances.” Is it time to take the debate around legalization to the next level? We put the question to a couple of experts. Below you’ll find a summary.
Antwerp and drugs
Charlotte Colman, professor of Drug Policy and Criminology at UGent, starts off with an important nuance. “People sometimes perceive legalizing drugs as a license to do whatever you want, but making them legal goes hand in hand with regulating them: imposing rules and restrictions around possession and supply.”
This can be done in a variety of ways. Uruguay, for example, has legalized the consumption, cultivation and sale of cannabis. Residents there can buy marijuana in pharmacies, grow a limited amount at home and join “social clubs.” Sales to tourists are prohibited; coffee shops are not found there.
Colman is keeping a low profile on how far Belgium can go. “If this were to be put on the political table, then a thoughtful debate about the preconditions must take place, taking into account research results and experiences from other countries.”
“Beware of commercialization”
Steven Debbaut, criminologist at UGent and spokesman for the Flemish citizens’ movement SMART on Drugs, speaks out more fiercely. He advocates a step-by-step approach. “A first step is to decriminalize personal use. It makes no sense to keep the small possession of drugs in the criminal law. Next I would move to regulating cannabis, then we can talk about other drugs like cocaine. The more risky the drug is, the more regulations should be attached to it.”
As far as Professor of Criminology at UGent Tom Decorte is concerned, there are no taboos. “I would find it a pity if all drugs were not immediately considered. Even the regulations on alcohol – at the end of the day the most dangerous drug of all – may be tightened as far as I am concerned. Spirits can be advertised, but ecstasy remains illegal? That could be more consistent.”
Not everyone is eager to legalize cocaine, ecstasy or heroin. “If you overdose, you don’t get a second chance,” echoes toxicologist Jan Tytgat (KU Leuven). “We can’t expect everyone to have enough knowledge to handle hard drugs wisely. And let’s also be careful with commercialization: coffee shops and billboards, none of that is necessary.” An opinion widely held.
Antwerp and drugs
How far legalization can – or should – go is one thing. But does it actually solve anything? “We have allowed mafia organizations to have their way for decades. Legalization doesn’t just eliminate that,” Decorte realizes. “Indeed, there is a chance that there will be more violence initially. Currently, drug criminals are not afraid of the war on drugs, but when drugs are offered legally, they will have real competition. That may very well provoke reprisals.”
That doesn’t mean we should look the other way, both Decorte and Debbaut believe. “Just because something runs with teething problems doesn’t mean you have to maintain a terrible system,” said the SMART on Drugs spokesman. Colman also suspects that violence may initially increase given that the playground of drug criminals is shrinking, “but over time, according to research, that would stabilize and possibly decrease.”
The drug violence plaguing Antwerp is largely related to cocaine. The countries where drugs are regulated, or where that possibility is being considered, are limited to cannabis. Is the legalization of cannabis in our country enough to make a difference in drug crime? “No, but there is an overlap between clans dealing with cocaine, and clans dealing with cannabis,” Decorte knows. “In Uruguay, an estimated 60 percent of drug trafficking is legal and 40 percent is illegal. Surely that’s a big win.”
According to Cyrille Fijnaut, Dutch criminologist and professor, the illegal cannabis industry is also “not a market for softies.” “You will find violence there too, only that reporting does not prevail.” According to him, it is a utopia that the black market can be completely wiped off the map. “In the past I did research on illegal gambling in the Netherlands. Part of the market was laundered by official casinos and lotteries, but gambling addicts still found their way to illegal gaming houses. A phenomenon of all times.”
Public health first
All experts stress that solving drug violence should not be the main reason to legalize drugs. “That is public health,” also stresses Tessa Windelinckx. As a street worker and coordinator of Health Promotion at Injecting Use, she has more than 25 years of experience with drug users, and sees the consequences that contaminated substances can bring about firsthand. A phenomenon Tytgat confirms. “As a toxicologist, I examine cannabis plants from illegal plantations on a weekly basis, and I can tell you: there’s a lot of junk being smoked, full of bacteria, pesticides and heavy metals.”
There’s only one way to really be safe
If you cannot wait for cannabis to be legalized or if you live in a country or state in which this is already the case, we can tell you that there is only one way to really be safe when smoking. And that is if you grow your own plants. Of course you need to get your seeds from a reliable seed bank, but once you do that there’s no going wrong. One strain that we can recommend is the El Patron strain. It’s not without reason that it won several awards and it’s easy to grow for beginners. So it will allow you to get a new hobby and enjoy the product of it later.