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Looking for cocaine in Antwerp on a warm mid-summer evening

Antwerp has been gaining in reputation as a party city in recent years with cocaine use very common in nightlife settings. A recent study, which analysed the wastewater of two different areas within the city, suggested that the concentration values are much higher in district containing discotheques, and during the weekend, while during the week, concentrations are often higher in other cities.

World famous for diamonds, Antwerp has now hit the number one spot for something else entirely – as the unofficial cocaine capital of Europe. This dubious distinction is based on the findings of a scientific analysis of wastewater samples in 19 EU countries. The study, weighted against the size of their respective populations, concluded that the Belgian port city of Antwerp has replaced London as Europe’s cocaine capital.

The research was conducted by the European research network (SCORE) in collaboration with the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). They analysed wastewater, with samples of sewage taken in different areas. Most of the chemicals that enter the body leave it unchanged or as mixture metabolites, and drugs are no exception.

The research revealed that with 1,950 milligrams per 1,000 head of population, cocaine consumption in Antwerp was the highest in Europe. The European average was 700 milligrams while in Brussels the figure was only 500 milligrams.

Antwerp also tops the list for amphetamines and comes in second behind Eindhoven in the Netherlands for ecstasy. It appears that the city’s “taste” for cocaine is partly shared by the rest of the country. According to the recent Global Drug Survey, Belgians are the most enthusiastic consumers of cocaine in the world. And Belgium is the cheapest country in Western Europe for the drug.

Lies Gremeaux, head of the research team on illegal drugs at the Belgian Scientific Institute of Public Health, told The Brussels Times she accepts that the latest results of the SCORE analysis “indicate that Antwerp releases the most cocaine per person into the wastewater.”

She explained, “Upon consumption, residues of illicit substances are most often traceable in urine samples. Therefore, the wastewater was checked for specific metabolites of illicit substances such as
cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamines and ecstasy.”

According to Gremeaux, there are two important explanations for the remarkably high concentrations in Antwerp.

“First, Antwerp Port is known as being one of the most important gateways for the import and transport of illicit substances towards other European countries. In addition, the quality and purity of cocaine sold on the Belgian market is quite high. Again, this is also probably due to the fact that Antwerp is involved at the base levels of the import routes.”

She added that another factor is that Antwerp is gaining in reputation as a party city with cocaine use very common in nightlife settings.

“The analysis of the wastewater of two different areas within the city clearly supports this, as the concentration values are much higher in the district containing discotheques. In addition, it is especially during the weekend that high levels are detected, while during the week, concentrations are often higher in other cities.”

However, Johan Vermant, a spokesperson for the mayor of Antwerp, told us that the data should be treated with caution, saying, “These studies are, of course, quite limited in the number of cities they examine.”

“Antwerp is, you should recall, the second largest port of Europe and the first port of call for services from Latin America. So, drugs trafficking is a major challenge, but it is one that is taken very seriously by both the local and federal governments.”

Antwerp Port is the second largest port of Europe and the first port of call for services from Latin America. It is estimated that 25% of the cocaine moving from countries like Colombia and Ecuador into Europe passes through Belgium, most of it coming through Antwerp’s port. With 140,000 employees and 160 km of quayside, it is not an easy place to police or to detect the drugs, and it is thought that only around 2% of the 8m containers passing through the port each year are screened.

Vermant pointed out that the municipality and local police in Antwerp are responsible for public order and safety. “Since 2013, we have strictly followed national drug regulations, and we do not believe in gedoogbeleid (policy of toleration). We have arrested over 2,000 dealers. However, we are not responsible for judicial affairs, the fight against international criminal organizations or customs affairs.”

So far this year, an estimated 14.5 tons of cocaine has already been seized in the port of Antwerp, which indicates that 2017 may become a record year in seizures. The size of cocaine seizures in the city varies widely from year to year. In 2012 for example, it trebled compared with the previous year, to 17.4 tons (up from 6.4 tons) but the following year, 2013, cocaine seizures were down to 4.7 tons.

It is estimated that 25% of the cocaine moving from South American countries like Colombia and Ecuador into Europe passes through Belgium, most of it coming through Antwerp’s port. The drugs are often loaded into shipping containers and come in on everything from marble slabs to wood beams.

A few years ago, customs officers at Antwerp Port intercepted more than eight tons of cocaine hidden in a shipment of bananas originating from Ecuador. The cocaine, with a street value of more than €500 million, were found in a container in what is the largest drugs haul ever in Belgium, and the second largest ever in Europe.

Port staff has uncovered a number of drug smuggling plots but inevitably do not have the resources to stop it all. With 140,000 employees and 160 km of quayside, it is not an easy place to police or to detect the drugs, and it is thought that only around 2% of the 8m containers passing through the port each year are screened.

To find out why a city of 500,000 appears to have a bigger drugs problem than, say, world cities like London or Paris, the port of Antwerp seemed a good starting point. As part of a Brussels Times investigation, I went “undercover” to probe the shadowy world of drug dealing.

On a mid-summer evening, I based myself at a smart looking bar at the sprawling port, which is a mere 20-minute walk to the city centre.

It took just 15 minutes before I was approached – totally unsolicited and for no apparent reason – by an unshaven man, sitting in a corner, who said he could offer a range of substances, including amphetamines. I asked for cocaine and the man, who appeared to be in his late 20s, disappeared briefly into the toilets, reappearing a few minutes later with what he said was both cocaine and ecstasy.

“I’ve got LSD-tabs as well at €65 each. It’s good stuff,” he told me. He proceeded to provide a “shopping list” of drugs, which he said he could obtain on demand. I declined the offer but was shocked by the apparent ease and speed with which I had been able to obtain Class A drugs.

Later I spoke with several Antwerp residents, including Dirk, 39, who claimed that he spent up to €1,500 a week on cocaine. He said, “You can find cocaine quicker here than in other cities. It’s easy to get hold of and, at about €55 a gram, it is much less than the price in most other places. The quality is good too.”

A waiter at a city centre restaurant believes Antwerp’s rising affluence had seen it become a popular weekend destination for Europe’s upwardly mobile, for which cocaine “is a part of their tourist

So, what’s being done to tackle the problem?

Well, Antwerp (as other Belgian cities) boasts some so called “cannabis social clubs” where adults are legally allowed to grow the cannabis to meet their personal needs.

On the law enforcement front, Belgian law reflects a “get tough” approach, punishing the possession, production, import, export and sale of drugs (for drugs other than cannabis) with three months – 5 years’ jail and fines of between €6,000 – €600,000.

There are a range of harm reduction projects to help those seeking to kick the habit while, in Flanders, a new state reform is being applied for the drug treatment sector.

A Belgian police spokesman said, “We take this issue very seriously. Anyone who uses illicit drugs is playing Russian roulette with their lives.”

Aside from the “trendy” image cocaine use may have for some, the lethal impact it can have on health should not be overlooked. While drug-related deaths in Belgium have been declining, in 2016 almost 900 people were admitted to clinics as a result of non-fatal intoxications related to illicit drug use. And cocaine is the drug most commonly linked to admissions. Given the relative ease with which I was able to purchase cocaine and other drugs in Antwerp, that should perhaps not come as much of a surprise.

By Martin Banks

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