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The Dutch police love to point to the impressive numbers of drugs gangs they "dismantle" each year, but this does not alter the fact that the Netherlands continues to be one of the world's major sites for the production and trafficking of Ecstasy.
What is ecstasy?
The little pill, with its stimulant and hallucinogenic properties, hit the big time when the "rave" clubbing craze started in the mid 1980s.
Its advocates say ecstasy produces positive feelings, empathy for others, extreme relaxation and eliminates anxiety.
It also suppresses the need to eat, drink or sleep, allowing users to dance all night.
Opponents say it can lead to exhaustion and dehydration, brain damage and death. Indeed, some users have "drowned" themselves by drinking too much water while trying to compensate for the dehydrating effect of dancing frantically for hours.
The drug is illegal.
The Dutch government is working hard to dispel the image that it tolerates hard drugs. But the fact remains that international drug agencies continually single the Netherlands out as one of the main producers of ecstasy.
The UN's International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) reiterated this point in its report published on 26 February 2003.
The INCB said that young people in Britain, Ireland and Spain are the biggest users of the Dutch export, but the Netherlands has worked with other countries to combat the surge.
The UN organisation noted that Western European countries, Australia, Canada and the US launched an international operation against the ecstasy trade in March 2002 and this led to the seizure of 335,000 ecstasy pills.
This is a drop in the ocean. The INCB also said that ecstasy was also being used extensively in the US and parts of Asia and that the former Dutch colonies, the Dutch Antilles, Aruba and Suriname, were the most important transit countries.
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in the US asserts that some 2 million Dutch ecstasy pills are smuggled into the US every week and that Dutch-produced ecstasy is the drug of choice for revellers in dance clubs all across Europe and the US.
The Dutch government knows the drill though. After the INCB highlighted the prominence of the Netherlands in the drugs trade in 2000, the Dutch authorities hurriedly pointed out that in one month alone (March 2002), the police broke up two major ecstasy gangs.
One was in the north of the Netherlands where three men, including two company directors, were arrested and about 100,000 ecstasy pills seized. Investigators also found a truck containing thousands of litres of chemical ingredients, enough to make a few million more ecstasy pills.
About a week later, Rotterdam detectives arrested nine people allegedly involved in another ring smuggling ecstasy to the US. About 18kg of ecstasy was seized.
The investigation started a few weeks earlier following a tip from the public prosecution office in Belgium. Two couriers were arrested in Belgium with kilograms of ecstasy hidden in a specially-doctored suitcase.
Police operations like these make for good news and give the impression the Netherlands has the ecstasy gangs on the run. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Back in 1998, the police closed down about 38 ecstasy production centres, but the party went on and continues to rave. When the police close down one laboratory, you can be sure two more open somewhere else.
There are several reasons why the production of ecstasy is centred in the Netherlands. Firstly, the Netherlands has long been a hub for international trade and transport.
Secondly, the country is traditionally tolerant when it comes to drugs. The cannabis coffee shops are an integral part of the country's tourist industry. Despite this, the government also asserts it takes hard drugs seriously and keeps them out of the coffee shops.
Certainty things have changed since the early 1960s when amphetamines were not a controlled substance in the Netherlands and were produced by Dutch gangs for export to Scandinavia and Britain.
It was easy for the gangs to switch to ecstasy production when the dance craze really took off in the late 1980s.
The government finally made the war on ecstasy a priority back in 1996. It set up a special police taskforce, the Synthetic Drugs Unit (USD), and set about closing down the ecstasy plants. It all sounded very Elliot Ness; until the presentation of the USD's annual report in 2001.
Public prosecutor Martin Witteveen said the unit did not have enough officers to follow up on many of the leads received from foreign police forces about the activities of ecstasy gangs in the Netherlands. And focusing on one case sometimes necessitated officers being taken off another case, he said.
Dealing with the drug rings
The drug gangs operating in the Netherlands are just as multinational as Philips or Royal Dutch/Shell. Eastern European and Russian "Mafia" gangs saw the potential in moving west soon after the Soviet Bloc collapsed.
There has been a lot of international co-operation in the past few years on cutting the supply of the chemicals needed to produce ecstasy. As a result, most of the chemicals now come from China. The Dutch are reluctant to co-operate too closely with the Chinese authorities because of their poor human rights record and their liberal use of the death penalty.
The Dutch authorities acknowledge that a large part of the world's ecstasy is produced in the Netherlands, but they also point out that it takes two to tango. There is a world market out there impatiently awaiting the next batch from the Netherlands. Each pill costs EUR 0.50 to produce, but sells for 10 times that amount or more. That is the bottom line.
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