Government campaigns against substances have a history of being misguided at best and at worst, a thinly-veiled means of persecuting communities deprived of state support and investment. The drugs that authorities have taken aim at in the past are rarely the root of society's woes and their threat has often been grossly exaggerated to political ends.
Though this isn't to deny the magnitude of Antwerp's cocaine problem, when it comes to dealing with it, the government is increasingly looking to the stick to crack down on those involved in the illicit trade. This is despite various practicalities limiting the success of such measures.
The situation in Belgium's biggest port city is beyond the strength of national authorities alone to tackle. As a transit hub for goods arriving from around the world before distribution across the continent, getting tough on local demand will hardly stem the tide of drugs destined for elsewhere in Europe.
With Antwerp's mayor calling on the army to police the port – an idea that was dismissed as ineffective by the home affairs minister due to a lack of specific training – an alternative measure has been floated which involves disincentivising users of hard drugs (primarily cocaine) with the threat of hefty fines (up to €1000).
The logic (if it can be so called) goes that anyone with the budget for a rather expensive substance – cocaine has a street value of around €50/gram – will also have the means to pay a reciprocal fine of several hundred euros. But would this puritanical brandishing of the law resolve tensions in the city?
It seems unlikely that treating the issue like a speeding offence will provide an effective deterrent capable of disrupting the city's drug-dealing cartels. Furthermore, it depends on having a legal force in place that can enforce the rule, something that seems doubtful given the city's continued cries for more federal support to this end.
Pertinently, raising the stakes is unlikely to quell the torrent of violence that has created a "warzone" in several districts of the city – most recently leading to the alarming death of an 11-year-old girl caught in the crossfire. On the contrary, it risks aggravating the problem further, with greater criminalisation proving time and again to exacerbate conditions on the ground.
As stated, the complexity of the issue presents no obvious solution. All the more reason against blunt measures that ignore international considerations and cultural influences that make drugs appealing in the first instance. If fines and the army are ineffective sticks, who can suggest some more promising carrots?
Let @Orlando_tbt know.
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21.5 million people used cocaine at least once in 2020 – a 32% rise in the past ten years according to the 2022 UN Drug Report. In Antwerp, cocaine use has more than doubled since 2018, which is little surprise given the explosion of incidents related to the highly valuable Class A substance that has fuelled drug wars in the city. Read more.
Belgium is in the thrall of a war on drugs, with its Antwerp port becoming a global hub for cocaine smuggling and drug crime spreading fear in the province. It is hoped that increased fines for drug use will help tackle the solution. Read more.
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