Vancouver has been shocked by the city’s increasing gang violence. Sadly, the gunplay on Dec. 12, where 10 people were shot exiting a restaurant on Oak Street, is an occurrence that has become increasingly common in Canadian cities, and gang violence has long been a fact of life in most large U.S. cities. While reasons for gang affiliation are complex, there is no arguing that urban gangs — and virtually all other well-funded organized crime groups for that matter — derive their primary source of revenue from the trade in illegal drugs.
This violent reality has emerged as an unintended consequence of a more than a half-century long experiment aimed at reducing illegal drug supply through aggressive law enforcement. Remarkably, despite the U.S. taxpayer spending an estimated $2.5 trillion since America’s “War on Drugs” was launched by former president Richard Nixon, drugs remain more available today than at any time in our history, while drug market violence has continued to worsen. A recent international example is the upsurge in drug-related violence in Mexico, which has claimed more than 30,000 lives after Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown on the cartels in 2006.
Around the world, virtually all leading economists who have considered this issue have stressed that any effective enforcement effort that successfully imprisons drug dealers has the immediate perverse effect of making it that much more profitable for new drug dealers to get into the drug supply business. Whether it’s coffee beans or cannabis, if you cut off supply, price goes up. Scientific research has also proven that successful law enforcement interventions that remove key members of drug gangs often lead to an increase in bloodshed as lower level members or competing gangs fight to maintain or gain market share.
Given the key contribution of cannabis prohibition to the growing success of organized crime in B.C., we must ask if there are measurable benefits of this extremely costly and violence-producing policy. With respect to limiting cannabis availability to young people, surveillance systems funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health have concluded that over the last 30 years of cannabis prohibition the drug has remained “almost universally available to American 12th graders.”
These U.S. data are undoubtedly applicable to Canadian youth given that these statistics were derived in a setting that spends an estimated $10 billion each year enforcing marijuana laws. Research funded by the U.S. government also clearly demonstrates that, even as federal funding for anti-drug efforts increased by more than 600 per cent over the last several decades, marijuana’s potency has nevertheless increased by 145 per cent since 1990, and its price has declined 58 per cent. For many of the above reasons, as well as the potential to generate a massive amount of tax revenue, a 2004 Fraser Institute report called for the outright legalization of cannabis, and a recent Angus Reid poll found that two thirds of British Columbians would legalize cannabis to reduce gang violence.
Despite a long-standing federally funded “public education” campaign aimed at shoring up U.S. public support for the nation’s war on drugs, a regulatory framework for cannabis was narrowly defeated in California this fall when a statewide ballot initiative proposing to “Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis” was supported by 46 per cent of voters.
In 1937, the year the U.S. criminalized the use of cannabis, the Commissioner of U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger testified to Congress, reportedly saying that “marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.” In fact, there is clear consensus in the medical and scientific community that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.
In fact, it is cannabis prohibition rather than the drug itself that has fuelled the mounting violence. British Columbia is in desperate need of political leadership to promote a regulated system for cannabis control rather than the violent unregulated market that only benefits organized crime. Without a regulated cannabis control system to starve gangs of this financial windfall, we will without question see more gun violence and the continued growth of organized crime in this province.
Evan Wood is director of the Urban Health Research Initiative at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at UBC and founder of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy.
– Article from The Vancouver Sun.