Brussels has a crack problem — and it’s a lot bigger than the city’s main international railway station.
In an exclusive interview with POLITICO, Ine Van Wymersch, Belgium’s first-ever drugs commissioner, painted a grim picture of illicit narcotics deluging the EU capital.
“The situation is bad” because there are a lot of affected people and no immediate solution, Van Wymersch said after her newly established national drug agency conducted a preliminary analysis on the drug issues around the city’s Midi train station.
Drug use across Belgium has soared in recent years. In particular, crack cocaine — a highly addictive substance which first boomed in the U.S. in the 1980s — has started flooding the streets, becoming increasingly popular among drug users.
The drug czar’s draft analysis, based on open sources and data from local police officers, finds that crack addiction “seems to be on the rise in Brussels region,” adding that the consequences are “strong and dangerous.”
While the dire warnings are nothing new, there is no short-term solution in sight and that’s an issue as community anger grows over a drugs problem which is seeping across the entire city.
“It’s not a problem only related to Gare du Midi,” Van Wymersch said, pointing to similar issues at the city’s Nord station, where she said they are also collecting data to see to what extent both stations face the same problems.
A new citizens’ movement, consisting of more than 40 neighborhood committees, this week sent a letter to the Brussels government, highlighting escalating drug problems in many of Brussels’ districts.
While police have boosted security and conducted blunt crackdowns at Midi in recent weeks after POLITICO and Belgian media reported on the squalid conditions related to crack use around the station, Van Wymersch wants to find a broader solution at the crime hotspot.
The station combines a number of factors that “exacerbate the problem,” including its status as “a transit point par excellence” and a poor neighborhood with a high presence of vulnerable groups, including homeless people and undocumented residents — a drug dealer’s favorite customers, the draft analysis says.
“It’s a complex problem, which asks for complex solutions,” Van Wymersch said. At Midi, she added, an effective fight against drug-related crime needs to be multidisciplinary and include security as well as preventative measures, such as social support. It also needs a safer infrastructure inside the train station, which currently offers many hiding places.
While it can be hard to snare dealers and make a legal case against them as they usually only carry small quantities of drugs, users are usually “isolated” and in “socially disastrous” positions, according to the drug commissioner.
“The solution here is not higher penalties for users,” she said.
Van Wymersch’s analysis, which is expected to be finalized in the coming days and handed over to Brussels’ top security official Sophie Lavaux, is designed to provide decision-makers with a full picture, so they know about the reality on the ground and can design proper tools to tackle issues.
The national drug agency’s role is to provide as much data as possible so that any political action is based on a deep understanding of the real problem, Van Wymersch said.
And that includes the fact that it all starts in countries like Colombia and Ecuador, where cocaine is produced and then shipped to European ports including Antwerp, which shuttles through vast quantities of illegal drugs every year.
“I really think we need a European strategy to avoid that cocaine comes to Europe,” Van Wymersch says.