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.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

In the past, other historians and criminologists have taken issue with the myth of powerful organizations ruling drug markets, but drug and alcohol historians might be interested in how the particularities of the “real” story have developed in the specific historical and sociocultural climate of the Netherlands. After all, our little country has some reputation for reputedly liberal drug policies and for being (to many) a “hedonistic paradise.” So, what about drug smugglers and criminals in this paradise?

Moreover, I think that my book shows a number of very interesting global connections. First, the important role of colonial drug policies in creating global illegal drug markets. Second, the first mythologies about and wars against (in a very real sense), “organized crime groups” such as the Chinese Triads beginning in the nineteenth-century Dutch East Indies. Third, the role of pharmaceutical companies in shaping illegal drug markets in the interwar period. Fourth, instances of “co-management” of the drug problem by police and criminal groups. And, finally, the embedding of drug smuggling in existing criminal cultures including alliances of Dutch nationals with foreign drug smugglers starting with Greeks and Chinese in the interwar period leading up to today’s alliances with Mexicans.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

I am fascinated by the adventures of smugglers and their pragmatic and opportunistic (if not always very clever) mind-sets—especially the charismatic figures like one bank robber who became nicknamed the “Robin Hood” of the south (of the Netherlands) at the end of the 1960s and who, indirectly, became one of the founders of the underground synthetic drug industry. But what particularly struck me was how the activities of this character and his kind, rather than being parasitical, actually offered a real economic and even cultural contribution to Dutch society—regardless of our value judgments about their contributions! These smugglers have been essential in what one could argue is the process of “normalization” of the use of drugs like cannabis and XTC in the Netherlands. A story of how deviance leads to normalization.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I would love to take the story further. Currently, I end it in 1995, when a police scandal and parliamentary inquiries had finally given general credence to the idea that society was threatened by organized drug crime. But how has the drug trade developed further in the twenty-five years since? Also, I would like to devote more research to the opposite side of the dialectical contradiction that rules illegal drug markets: law enforcement and the judiciary. My obvious hunch would be that their activities have also been more messy and anarchical than we often think.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

I think the subject can do with a little Cockney irony. So, how about Michael Caine?

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