On Monday, the Mayor of Brussels, Philippe Close (PS) renewed his call for cannabis to be decriminalised and removed from the Belgian penal code. Speaking to Le Soir, Close once again urged a 'great national debate' on this divisive subject in view of the upcoming 2024 elections.
The Brussels Mayor sustains that by taking cannabis out of the hands of criminal groups, the authorities can focus on the trafficking of hard drugs.
Close's comments come as Brussels has seen a wave of drug-related violence in recent months. Since the start of the year, 22 shootings have been recorded in the capital. According to the police, these often have a link with the drug market and trafficking.
While Close believes it is important to support the Federal Police in their operations, he also insists that this violence cannot be subdued with repressive police enforcement only.
Hypocritical war on drugs
Close insisted we, as a society, need to move away from this “hypocrisy.” Whilst acknowledging the need for police coordination, close urged other methods to tackle the drugs issue and highlighted that policing does nothing to reduce drug addiction and crime.
Pressed on what he would propose, the socialist mayor stated: “I call for a national drug plan which combines all competencies. The cities and municipalities (because they are the front-line actors), the Communities and Regions (which are competent in health and safety prevention), and finally the Federal Government, with the Ministers of Health and the Interior. We must stop dispersing these unnecessary police resources."
Close seeks to bring to Belgium what Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands are doing with regard to decriminalisation. “Let's have a calm debate. Cannabis is not a product that should be promoted, but something that should be managed," he added during the interview.
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A parliamentary debate on the topic will inevitably lead to concessions, but first of all, he believes Belgium should move forward with decriminalisation.
Close spoke in favour of legalisation in the long term but in the Belgian political context. With the French-speaking parties in favour and the Dutch-speaking parties against, Close supported a progressive legalisation that would start with decriminalisation, as in Quebec and thirteen American states.
Distribution of cannabis
Asked whether "simple" decriminalisation would be enough to curb organised groups that sell cannabis, the Mayor responded that without also looking into the legal distribution of the drug, the measure would be doing only half of the job.
Close cited the example of Quebec where the ‘Société des alcools du Québec’ also distributes cannabis. How far the state should go is still the subject of debate, as is currently under discussion in Germany and Luxembourg at the moment.
In the Netherlands, where cannabis is decriminalised, there have been issues in distribution and production. For decades, they have had the problem of the "back door": sales are regulated, but not production for coffee shops, who are forced to obtain supplies from the black market.
“Personally, I think we need to control distribution and control consumption,” Close said, adding that he hopes Belgium will have the courage to lead this debate.
Tackling social problems
Pre-empting accusations that he promotes drugs and their consumption, or has a laissez-faire approach, Close stressed that "I tackle societal problems and I want to get our young people – and not-so-young people – out of crime. The pressure will also come from citizens and parents who don't like their children smoking, but don't want them to be pushed into criminal circles either.”
"What I can't stand is when people want to make a problem invisible. I want it to be on the agenda so that I can free up time for my police officers to work on hard drug trafficking. How many people are convicted for simple possession of cannabis? Zero! You have to have a solid supply to be prosecuted," he said.
Judicial authorities explain that these shootings in Brussels are sometimes linked to organised crime but also to smaller-scale trafficking. Close does not believe that decriminalisation would make things worse with regard to these "small but sometimes armed" dealers.
He insists that the major national drugs plan must have a preventative element designed to educate young people both from a social and health perspective to stay away from drugs.
“When will we have a major national drugs plan, with a police component, a preventive component and a social and health component?” Close concluded.