“Failing to report a suspicious delivery is breaking the law”

Customs officer Laura Verborg reflects on the monitoring of bona fide traders in the light of the Abuse of Chemical Substances Act.

In the service of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, Dutch Customs enforces the Abuse of Chemical Substances Act. Laura Verborg, account manager at the national POSS team*, reflects on the monitoring of the bona fide trade in chemicals. “Acetone and hydrochloric acid, for example, are misused in huge quantities to make drugs.”

“As the word implies, a precursor is something that comes before something else,” explains Laura Verborg, account manager at the national POSS team*. “The term refers to chemicals that can be used as raw materials in the production of chemical weapons or illicit drugs. But these substances are usually manufactured and supplied for legal purposes. That’s why it is so important to monitor the bona fide trade in them: the legislator’s aim is to prevent them from being abused. That’s what the fourteen special investigating officers in our cluster are working on. In cases involving drug precursors, we work in the service of the Ministry of Public Health, Welfare and Sport. One of the most important obligations is set out in Article 2 of the Abuse of Chemical Substances Act: entrepreneurs who notice anything unusual in the chemicals trade must report this to the competent authority. In practice, this is a reporting point for unusual transactions, managed by the FIOD – the Fiscal Intelligence and Investigation Service. Economic operators, for example, are obliged to file a report if customers pay in cash, do not ask for an invoice or do not have the goods in question delivered but collect them in person. A company that fails to report this is breaking the law. That’s one of the aspects we look into.”

“The law recognises four categories of chemicals. The first two present the highest risk, which is why trading in them is subject to strict rules. These are substances that can be used as a raw material for synthetic drugs, either directly or after minimal processing. For example BMK and PMK – used for amphetamine and XTC respectively – which fall under category 1. Companies with Category 1 or 2 substances under their control must hold an activities permit or registration certificate. When a company applies for such a permit or certificate, our team first conducts an integrity investigation. With our approval, the Central Import and Export Office issues the required document. The goods in question may then only be delivered to parties who are also registered. However, the chemicals we most frequently encounter in our work fall into category 3. These include acetone, sulphuric acid and hydrochloric acid – produced and imported in bulk and used in huge quantities for common applications, but also widely misused as an auxiliary agent in drug manufacturing. Controlling these substances is made more difficult by the fact that trading them – other than for exports – is not regulated. Otherwise the chemical industry would not be able to exist.”

“We oversee a pyramid of companies in the chemicals industry. The peak consists of producers and importers, and the broad base of many thousands of small traders. Such as the corner shopkeeper, who sells a few bottles of garden maintenance products that come under the law. We administer a database of all these companies, in which we differentiate between active and passive clients. In view of the volumes and nature of the substances they manufacture and trade, we focus on the approximately 2,000 active clients. These parties receive a routine inspection visit from us about once every five years. This frequency may be increased if a company has previously been in violation, or if it carries products that pose an enhanced risk. Apart from regular supervision, we can initiate investigations in response to signals given by third parties, such as our colleagues at the FIOD reporting centre. If for any reason they are unable to respond to certain signals themselves, they can ask us to take them up. We always have the option to switch from supervision to investigation. There may also be another reason for this. When a drug lab is uncovered and drums of chemicals bearing the labels of a certain trader are found, for example. In that case we try to trace back the chain of deliveries to establish the origin.”

“When our people establish a violation, they report it to me. I then contact the Public Prosecution Service directly, and consult with the public prosecutor about the consequences for the company. If it is the company’s first offence, it usually gets off with a warning. If there is any repetition, the Public Prosecution Service conducts a criminal investigation and our people will immediately draw up an official report. Such a process usually ends with the company being handed a hefty fine.”

* POSS: Precursors, Strategic goods and Sanctions legislation

This interview also appeared in our recently issued overview ‘Dutch Customs in 2019’. Click here to read the full publication.

Navigate further, and also read ‘One unusual transaction after another’.

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