How to Get Tough on Gang Violence? Legalize Drugs

Gangsters murdering each other in public. Innocent bystanders gunned down. The police demanding more power and money. The government responding with tougher laws. Yes, it’s 1997 all over again.

Twelve years ago, the government was Liberal, the minister was Allan Rock, and the thugs were biker gangs fighting over Quebec’s lucrative trade in illicit drugs. Today, the government is Conservative, the minister is Rob Nicholson, and thugs belong to an assortment of gangs fighting over British Columbia’s lucrative trade in illicit drugs.

It’s not hard to spot the common denominator, is it?

I feel a certain, strange nostalgia watching all this unfold. It was 12 years ago that I became a journalist and one of the first things I wrote was a series of editorials calling for the legalization of drugs.

Just look at Quebec’s biker wars, I argued. It’s not the drugs that cause the violence that is endemic to the drug trade. It is the drug’s illegality. Al Capone didn’t kill people because he was drunk. And the violence associated with alcohol prohibition didn’t end when Al Capone went to jail. It ended when alcohol prohibition ended.

“Allan Rock’s laws will fail,” I predicted. Yes, lots of bikers will go to prison. But the enormous profit margins of the illicit trade will recruit plenty of replacements. “Long, hard experience shows that criminalization will never eradicate the sale of illegal drugs.”

Lots of bikers did go to prison. But cocaine and other illicit drugs didn’t suddenly disappear from the streets of Montreal. New people stepped in to claim the abandoned market share and the flow of drugs was as smooth as a glass of legal scotch.

The gang violence did abate, fortunately. But gang violence is cyclic. It comes and goes depending on a range of factors, the arrest of participants being only one.

In fact, in stable drug markets, arrests can actually spark gang violence by removing established traffickers and the control they exercise: Put a big chunk of the market up for grabs and gangsters will battle for it.

This is precisely what happened after the Mexican government took down the leaders of major cartels. Why did almost 6,000 Mexicans die in gang violence last year? Why is the situation so bad American experts are worried that the Mexican state itself is in danger? Because law enforcement succeeded.

But decades of failure doesn’t seem to matter to policy makers.

In 1998, the Canadian government signed on to a United Nations declaration that solemnly committed the nations of the world to “eliminate or significantly reduce” the production of drug crops. The UN slogan: “A drug-free world — we can do it!”

Today, the world is not drug free. In fact, drug production is greater than ever, distribution is wider, and prices lower. The conclusion could not be clearer: Drug prohibition is the most futile public policy since the Persian emperor Xerxes ordered the Hellespont — the narrow strait separating Europe and Asia Minor — to be whipped.

And yet, when gang violence once again flares up and innocent people are gunned down, virtually no politician or senior official will even ask whether the current approach is doing more harm than good. Instead, they will talk about doing more of the same. Tougher punishments. Great surveillance powers. Whatever. The details don’t matter any more than it matters what type of whip Xerxes used.

In the United States, law enforcement budgets are massive. Powers of search and seizure are sweeping, particularly when organized crime is involved. Punishments are so savage a dealer with a bag of pot and a handgun may face life in prison with no chance of parole — while traffickers who fire their guns may face the death penalty.

It has accomplished nothing. The laws of economics cannot be defeated by the laws of legislatures.

As the civil servant in charge of the United Kingdom’s anti-drug office, Julian Critchley learned that lesson. Criminalization has produced “no significant, lasting impact on the availability, affordability, or use of drugs,” he said a few months ago. “The drugs strategy does not work, can not work, because we have no way of controlling the drug supply.”

If we’re serious about fighting crime, Critchley argued, we must legalize and regulate. “There is no doubt at all that the benefits to society of the fall in crime as a result of legalization would be dramatic.”

Critchley retired eight years ago. Many leading politicians and officials have made similar observations — after retiring.

When politicians and officials make comments like these before retiring, we may finally hope for change. Until then, blood will continue to flow. And history will repeat again and again.

Dan Gardner blogs at and writes Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

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– Article from The Ottawa Citizen on February 28, 2009.