A Tale of Three Eras – Testimony on Organized Crime

The material below (with the exception of the bulk of “The Third Era”) was the essence of my presentation to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights’ inquiry into the issue of organized crime.

I testified as a member of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association Board of Directors and the Chair of the Association’s Drug Policy Committee (though with the caveat that the Association had no “official position” on organized crime thus the views presented should be primarily regarded as my own). The short presentation was followed by questions from the Committee.

It got a bit testy near the end as one of the Conservative Members took issue with my repeated statement that prohibition is a failed policy. He wondered why I would say that. I explained that I presumed prohibition’s goals to be reduction in drug demand, drug supply and associated criminality and, as none of the above has occurred despite 100 years of prohibition in Canada, it was clear that failure was the correct description. He suggested that because murder still occurred we should legalize murder. I tried to control my immediate reaction to such a ludicrous strawman and pointed out that murder involves…killing people…and that there was not a lucrative black market in murder contributing to the rise and profit of organized crime…though murder rates are surely inflated due to prohibition. Minutes are not yet available but should be posted at the Committee website within a few weeks.

A Tale of Three Eras


“Three key points to remember”

The primary funding source for organized crime is the illicit drug market. Don’t take my word for it: The Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada 2008 Annual Report makes this very clear.
Law enforcement activity, including the disruption and dismantling of specific organized criminal groups, is not a permanent solution to the problem nor is it an effective long-term strategy. Again, the CISC 2008 Annual Report is clear on this fact.

Organized criminals use tactics to control the drug markets that disrupt the social fabric of our communities, cause the loss of innocent lives and create chaos on the streets. The last few months here in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia have been proof enough, but again the CSIC is instructive on this point.

The First Era: National Alcohol Prohibition in the United States

Proposed as a measure to reduce drunkenness and crime, the Noble Experiment did exactly the opposite. Serious crime increased markedly. Alcohol became more available and more dangerous both in terms of adulterated moonshine and due to a move from less potent beer and wine to more potent (and easier to smuggle and conceal) hard liquor. The unintended negative consequences of prohibition ultimately became the major impetus for its repeal. The result was an almost immediate and significant decrease in serious crimes such as assault and, in particular, homicide.

The Second Era: The rise and continued rise of the cocaine cartels.

The second era begins in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The rise in popularity of powder cocaine, the invention of crack cocaine as a method of getting the too expensive powder to a less wealthy market base coupled with Ronald Reagan’s renewal of the drug war first declared by Richard Nixon led to the rise of the Medellin cocaine cartel headed by Pablo Escobar. The response, primarily in the US, was to initiate a global drug war the like of which had never been seen before. Domestically, the US brought in severe mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences (many of which are now being repealed).

Escobar, at the time of his death at the hands of Colombian police, was a billionaire many times over and controlled much of the lucrative global cocaine trade. Escobar’s death marked a run of apparent successes for drug warriors primarily pushed by US policy: 16 cartel leaders had been arrested or killed recently and it was widely felt that a turning point had been reached. And it had. The tragedy is that the turn was for the worse. Cocaine became cheaper and more pure. Where a few cartels had once dominated, dozens sprang up to replace them – using violence to secure turf and distribution lines. Diversification means that the cocaine routes now threaten to disrupt the very governance of West African nations. And domestically the fighting over turf continues unabated, or increased, across all of North America.

The Third Era: The Road Ahead

The third era in this tale begins now. The ending is not yet written. There are two paths ahead: one takes us down the roads already traveled, by us, by our American neighbors. This road is one of increasing militarization of police forces, exponential growth in prison populations, more violence, more death, more social decay. The Americans began on this path more than 20 years ago and the results are on view each night on the TV news. Tragically, Canada appears poised to emulate these failed and harmful policies. Ironically, we do so just as the international community begins to move toward a consensus that a criminal law/enforcement based approach to drugs is useless or, worse, counter-productive.

But we have the power to change our future and to take a different road. Ending drug prohibition is a critical first step. Depriving the gangs of their primary source of revenue will deal a significant blow and reduce their power. It will remove the incentives for much of the associated violence and social disruption. Let’s be clear: It is not an easy road and there are no magic solutions. It will require vision, courage and true leadership to admit the failures of the past and to implement new approaches. The fight against organized crime will not be won by ending prohibition. It will require additional steps including real and substantial investments in treatment, prevention, anti-poverty initiatives and the provision of opportunities to all Canadians. But ending prohibition is a critical first step.

I can make no guarantees except one: that unless we have the courage to take that first step we will most surely fail and, in doing so, we will harm the very people we hope to protect.