Points Interview: Stephen Snelders

Stephen Snelders Points Interview card

Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Dr. Stephen Snelders, the author of Drug Smuggler Nation: Narcotics and the Netherlands, 1920–1995 (Manchester University Press, 2021). Snelders is a Research Fellow at University of Utrecht, and is a member of the Intoxicating Spaces project. He has written books on seventeenth-century Dutch piracy, leprosy in the Dutch colony of Suriname and LSD therapy in the Netherlands. The interview was conducted by Contributing Editor Peder Clark.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The recreational use of illegal drugs is quite common and a more or less accepted leisure activity in the city where I (and my bartenders before and after the lockdown) live. Just as common is media coverage of violence executed by “organized crime,” trials against “drug lords,” new record drug seizures in Dutch port towns, police raids on underground drug laboratories, and the “subversion” of the democratic state by organized drug gangs. Fifty years ago, all of these phenomena seemed to exist to a much smaller degree. The whole concept of “organized crime” was then unknown to the Dutch judiciary and police force. Furthermore, a hundred years ago, there were no laws against illicit drugs in the Netherlands. Since then, the Netherlands has become a key hub of the international drug trade.

My book basically asks the question, how did we get ourselves in this situation, and, especially, why did Dutch drug smuggling become so big and important? The book researches histories of smugglers and smuggling networks: drug users, criminal entrepreneurs, idealists from the hippie and XTC (ecstasy or MDMA) drug undergrounds, brokers from pharmaceutical companies, sailors, and others. They could all thrive in a social and cultural climate of what I call “criminal anarchy:” embedded and rooted in Dutch society, connected to a legal “upperworld.” Crucially, they were NOT organized in large hierarchical crime syndicates that would have been relatively easy targets for police activities, but rather the groups and networks were often transitory, vertically organized, and only seldom competing with each other. In short, the book shows why cutting off one head of the hydra of drug smuggling only led to the growth of new heads in new places.

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