A Matter of Substance

Fighting Drug Trafficking With a Substance–Oriented Approach
Ernestien Jensema
Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies Nr. 7
July 2010


This paper discusses the “substance-oriented approach” Dutch authorities implemented to to scare off potential small-scale cocaine smugglers. The focus was on the drugs, rather than the couriers, and on incapacitating the smuggling route, rather than deterrence by incarceration.

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The Netherlands Antilles, Aruba, and Surinam are conveniently located for Colombian traffickers shipping cocaine to Europe; there are many direct flights to one of Europe’s busiest airports, Schiphol in Amsterdam. Between 2001 and 2004 cocaine seizures in the Netherlands and the Netherlands Antilles increased dramatically. Confronted with large numbers of people attempting to smuggle drugs by using commercial flights, authorities implemented a “100% control” policy of screening all passengers for drugs on all flights at selected source and destination airports.

Rather than attempting to scare off potential smugglers with the threat of incarceration, the Dutch approach was based on increasing the rate of interdiction to the point that smuggling becomes unprofitable. In other words, the focus was on the drugs, the socalled “substance-oriented approach”, rather than the couriers, and was based on incapacitation of the smuggling route, rather than traditional deterrence by incarceration; and with result.


• Alternative measures
The alternative measures implemented in the Schiphol plan of action proved to be a good alternative to the deterrent effect of incarceration. Indeed, for internal couriers medically supervised delivery, followed by release with a travel ban to avoid recidivism is a constructive response aimed at health, rehabilitation and prevention of trafficking. At the same time a huge burden on the prison system and the judicial apparatus can be lifted allowing for more focus on the criminal organisation behind the drug trafficking.

• Role as a determining factor for sentencing
The Dutch sentencing guidelines are based on a combination of the role (i.e. mule, or organiser) and the quantity found on the courier. However, body packers and couriers carrying drugs in their luggage are often not informed of the quantity they are smuggling. Physical build determines the quantity mules are able to carry internally; therefore it is arbitrary to punish only on the basis of quantity. It would therefore make sense to weigh the role of the courier, his/her position and responsibility in the operation, heavier than quantity when considering a sentence.

• Drug couriering prevention
It has been proven that a substance-oriented approach is effective as a preventive measure against drug trafficking by couriers from the Dutch Antilles, Aruba, Surinam and Venezuela.

It is regretful the Dutch government abandoned this approach as soon as the numbers of couriers dropped to a level within the capacity of the judicial system and that they chose to resume the deterrent approach of incarceration, the effectiveness of which can be questioned. According to UNODC and the World Bank “this reluctance to promote substance–oriented interdiction is unfortunate, because the 100% control experiment represents an innovation worthy of further promotion and testing.”


After conventional methods proved unfit to address the enormous flow of drug couriers to Schiphol Airport the Dutch government chose a new approach focusing on the substance and aimed at incapacitating the trafficking route. At the same time the judicial system was spared from the huge number of drug courier cases. With the help of pre-flight checks the routes were incapacitated with an immediate effect: the number of couriers going to Schiphol airport decreased dramatically within months. The cooperation with airlines on blacklists for couriers proved to be helpful in countering local recidivism.

Unfortunately the success of the Schiphol Plan of Action also proved that taking out one trafficking route does not decrease the amount of cocaine smuggled into a country, let alone to Europe as a destination area. The 100% controls did not succeed to have a significant impact on the availability, purity or price of cocaine in the Netherlands or Europe as a whole. The Plan probably contributed to shifting trafficking routes to more vulnerable countries with weak institutions such as those in West Africa. We must ask, what can be done to prevent this shift of routes to other, more vulnerable countries with little to no resources to counter the negative consequences of increased corruption and violence that go together with drug trafficking?

As is the case with any other supply reduction effort, also this Plan has not been able to influence the availability of drugs. Sustainable market changes require a decrease in demand. Meanwhile negative consequences of interdiction need to be avoided as much as possible and the substance-oriented approach represents one of the more human friendly approaches within the current international drug control system.