"We're rolling back our policy of tolerance towards soft drugs which suggested that everything was allowed here. Well, it isn't." The Dutch decision to crack down on criminals involved in cannabis production is primarily a political decision, public prosecutor Kees van Spierenburg told Dutch media. "Politics is of course being fed by the call from the crime fighters, that this has become an important item in organised crime. We can't turn a blind eye to it."
Dutch police dismantle about 6000 illegal cannabis plantations per year, but the criminal gangs running them were left unaffected. Until now, the authorities limited themselves to tracking down and destroying the actual cannabis plantations. Individual cannabis growers were prosecuted. But it has become apparent that organised crime is also heavily involved in cannabis cultivation. Major criminals, who deal in hard drugs, weapons and human trafficking now also employ a whole network of cannabis growers. Ninety percent of the cannabis they produce is exported, and earns enormous amounts of money - 2.5 to 5 billions, according to the public prosecutor's office.
Police and justice officials intend to tackle soft drugs gangs just as rigorously as they do those distributing hard drugs. For decades such gangs were able to quietly earn millions of euros at minimal risk. Justice officials say they will try and seize this money, employing methods similar to those they use with hard drug dealers, such as undercover drug purchases, to arrest the criminals.
Police commissioner Frans Heeres told NOS television:
"It's not soft crime anymore, it is organised crime. They're no longer growing for personal use, but are organising plantations in ten or twenty places, which all yield profits. One plant produces a lot of money, so there is a lot of money in the business."
And where there is money up for grabs, crime tends to harden, the commissioner says. "We're seeing many rip deals, much violence between cannabis growers, but other criminals become interested too, because they see there is a lot of money going around there."
Society is not only suffering because of rising crime rates, there is more damage. Energy companies are losing 150 million euros a year because many plantations illegally tap electric power from the grid. Housing corporations are left with the damage when their homes turn out to have been converted into plantations.
The days of the quiet smoker growing a few cannabis plants in his attic for his own use are long gone. These days, it is wall-to-wall "weed" cultivation, in every room, using professional equipment. Director of one such corporation, Henk Rosendaal of Brabant Wonen, describes what his staff discover when unoccupied homes are inspected: "There's loads of damage to the buildings. Lots of piping and cables are put in, it's damp all over, it's usually a big mess. The damage often adds up to 500,000 euros per home. Overcoming the costs is one thing, but living quality in the neighbourhoods is severely affected. People feel threatened and intimidated. It's unsafe."
Researchers say that cannabis production has created a new lower class, which is totally at the mercy of criminal organisations.
Herman Klitsie, mayor of Oss, a midsized town in the southern Netherlands with many low-income citizens is witnessing how crime takes over. "People are in financial trouble and get into contact with criminals who have a knack of spotting vulnerable people. They are given financial help, but also coerced into starting a plantation at home. The first thing these people want is to solve their money problem, not realising that in doing so they are getting entangled in a criminal organisation which you can't simply get out of."
Police in Oss dismantle on average two illegal plantations per week. There are an estimated 30 to 40,000 such plantations in the Netherlands.
Police officer destroying cannabis (NOS screenshot)
Interviews by Ilan Sluis and Martijn Bink