The Drug War and Criminality

Thoreau, writing at Unqualified Offerings, has a couple of interesting posts about drug legalization: Stop worrying and love the bong? and More on drugs.

There’s one part that caught my attention and I wanted to discuss…

If I say that the drug war enriches criminals, I am suggesting that without the drug war the criminals would make less money. I have no illusion that organized crime would vanish, but at least they’d have fewer revenue streams, and riskier revenue streams. If they get money by selling drugs, the people that they get their money from will not call the cops. If they get their money by identity theft, somebody will most definitely call the cops. Even if they get their money by trafficking sex slaves, at the very least there’s a person who wants to call the cops, and now and then somebody will get away and call the cops. But nobody calls the cops to report “Officer, that guy just sold me a joint.” (At least not before getting stoned. Once he’s sufficiently stoned, well, I suppose anything’s possible.)

My friends, however, do not believe that legalization will have any effect on crime, or at least no significant effect in the long run. I think it requires a great deal of cynicism to believe that organized crime will not be hurt at all if a major revenue stream is eliminated.

The problem with Thoreau’s friends (and a lot of other people out there) is that they have this bizarre and mistaken notion that there is an identifiable and discrete subset of the population that are “criminals,” and that this subset is apparently automatically refilled naturally. Perhaps at birth, these individuals are marked with an X on their foreheads showing that they are unable to do anything in society except criminal enterprises. In such a society, removing a huge source of criminal revenue might not make a big dent in crime.

However, our society is not so black and white. All of us are criminals in one way or another (who hasn’t broken some law somewhere, perhaps even unknowing?). And while circumstances of birth can, in some instances, increase the likelihood that someone may end up involved in criminal enterprises, there is no X on the forehead.

The truth is that prohibition creates criminals. Not all of them, but a lot.

Here’s a scenario that repeats every day in this country…

A young person helps out his friends by picking up pot for them when he’s getting his. No big deal. He knows it’s illegal, but it’s not like he’s hurting anyone. Soon he starts getting a few bucks doing this and that’s really helping out. The money is better than McDonald’s, so he starts doing this full time. Nothing serious, mostly pot. No violence.

One of his customers gets caught with some pot and rolls on this dealer. He’s able to get by with probation, but hates giving up the pot sales — plus, most of his friends now expect that he’ll be able to hook them up. So he gets caught again and does some time.

Now, he’s an ex-con with most of his contacts being criminals. Can’t get a lot of legitimate jobs, and there’s a real demand in something that he knows well. Run-ins with the law have hardened him and he’s maybe willing to do some things that he wouldn’t have before….

You see where this is heading….

Long term, the absence of a black market in drugs simply means that new people aren’t being recruited into the business.

The same factor is at work in the larger, more violent, markets. The cartel heads in Mexico may be the worst of the worst, and it’s reasonable to assume that they won’t go into working fast food, but the money they get from the black market allows them to hire complete armies of people from foot soldiers to government officials. There’s a huge infusion of capital that’s on the criminal side of the market, instead of the alternate: a huge infusion of capital on the lawful side of the market. When people need jobs, they’ll go to where the money is.

Long term, there’s no doubt that legalization will lead to a reduction in criminality.

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21 Responses to The Drug War and Criminality

  1. Ned says:

    Not only do prohibitionists believe that any use, of any kind, ever, is abuse, but they also seem to think that every young person should absolutely never, ever, be tempted under any circumstance to profit in any way from cannabis prohibition. After all, not only should they know better, but a deterrent has been put in place to see to it that they don’t. The threat of criminal prosecution should be sufficient to deter anybody from allowing their life path to be diverted to working in the black market, right?

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  3. strayan says:

    People who sell drugs must have criminal minds. Or so the logic goes.

    If this logic holds true, then we can expect bartenders will turn to kidnapping and extortion should they ever lose their job.

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  5. malcolmkyle says:

    The wages of sin are higher than the national average!

  6. Maria says:

    I’m not too old but I distinctly remember the day I looked around and realized that a good many of the hard working, responsible and wonderful people that I know where in fact Criminals – all because they consumed a plant. At that point my bored “yeah yeah I know how the world works. whatchiagonnado?” apathy slowly channeled itself into constructive anger, so at least there’s that.

  7. darkcycle says:

    Wow. I never got the idea that criminality was fungible.
    How is it that people don’t get that if an activity isn’t criminal, the people who engage in it aren’t breaking the law. Put it another way: if cheeseburgers are criminalized, only criminals will eat cheeseburgers.

  8. permanentilt says:

    That scenario happened to both me and my sister independently. I was always lucky but she died (in an unrelated accident) while being persued by the FBI for trafficking Meth, the ONLY reason she was doing this was because she had started getting a “little weed for some friends” from a Mexican drug cartel here in the US. A “little weed” became pounds and eventually Meth when the Meth boom hit. She was in school and “to busy” for a regular job. Her boyfriend is now serving 25 years because he refused to roll over on the cartel (lest he be boiled in acid alive or beheaded). I was sad for her death, but to think the hell that awaited her when she went down the same way makes it easier.

    Gateway drug indeed.

  9. claygooding says:

    My own experiences with dealing drugs consisted of picking up enuff when I found it to split with three or four other
    people when i got back to town. If I didn’t,they would just come to my house and smoke mine. So I too,was forced into crime.

  10. tumbleweed says:

    Czars came out of the drug war. Unelected unaccountable officials are neat aren’t they? (rhetorical) As long as everyone realizes the whole left vs. right is just more divide and conquer. It is two equal branches of the war/empire/corporate state. The average taxpaying private citizen has no representation. Epic fail and the revenge of Tricky Dick Nixon is all you can say for the drug war almost 40 years later.

  11. malcolmkyle says:

    Let’s not forget our criminal politicians:

    As you all well know, Jerry Brown, democrap candidate for governor of California, has come out against Prop 19. He’s also accepted more than $200,000 in campaign contributions from “beverage” companies, according to the California Secretary of State Campaign Finance website


    ALLIED BEVERAGES, INC. $25,900 5/13/10 1487716-16303

    MARKSTEIN BEVERAGE CO. OF SACRAMENTO $25,000 5/18/10 1488493-16496

    HORIZON BEVERAGE COMPANY 20000 5/18/10 1488493-16506

    BAY AREA BEVERAGE COMPANY $20,000 5/13/10 1487716-16310


    ACE BEVERAGE CO. $17,500 5/17/10 1488493-16448

    MARKSTEIN BEVERAGE CO. OF SAN MARCOS $14,900 5/18/10 1488493-16501

    MARKSTEIN BEVERAGE CO. OF SAN MARCOS $10,100 5/18/10 1488493-16502

    WILLIAM LAZZERINI $10,000 5/13/10 1487716-16306

    PACIFIC BEVERAGE $10,000 5/8/10 1486926-16155

    MISSION BEVERAGE COMPANY $7,500 5/17/10 1488493-16447

    HORIZON BEVERAGE COMPANY $5,000 9/14/10 1518320-33050

    Total: $211,700

  12. darkcycle says:

    Well, any surprise? Anybody?

  13. Winston Smith says:

    Amazing that info is still available to mundanes and serfs. In the future the best government money can buy will shut down that freedom of information.

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  16. Denjski says:

    During prohibition, 1919 to 1933 , you were allowed to brew your own beer and make your own wine, the amount being dependent on the size of the family. A lot of people did….selling it to friends and neighbors. Kind of like home growers today, the people who grow maybe 5 or 6 plants at a time. The thing is, with legalization you have grow acres of plants to meet the need, no more “mom and pop” growers…the corporations will take over the farming and selling..almost like the way the corporations did after the end of prohibition..

  17. EB in Maryland says:

    Crime will be reduced because wholesale and retail drug dealers and their clients will be able to enforce contracts in the courts rather than by violence.

  18. Michael says:

    Criminals will not disappear, some will focus their attention on other criminal activites, but some may decide to become legitimate producers or retailers. The key is that legalizing drugs will remove the low hanging fruit from available criminal revenue streams. There will be less money to be made by criminal enterprises and it will be more difficult to generate.

  19. Servetus says:

    Some laws are just too easy to break. In some states, passing a joint or pipe to someone makes the passer guilty of furnishing a controlled substance, a felony that’s treated as being the technical equivalent of drug dealing.

    Branding people as criminals when they haven’t even considered themselves as such is bad public relations. It risks the possibility that young impressionable people might actually take the criminal label seriously (or not-seriously) enough to adopt the criminal role in other matters.

    It doesn’t help the situation that persecutory drug enforcement is already deemed a crime against humanity by its millions of opponents, people whose numbers increase daily with every drug arrest.

    There has never been any coherence to American drug policy, which is part of the reason it survives and is promoted by the incoherent.

  20. Robert Faber says:

    I don’t think the corporations would completely take over the pot business if we were to see complete legalization. After the US lifted restrictions on home brewing in 1978, microbreweries exploded, and some have snatched considerable market share. I think the same thing will happen with pot. Sure, you could get a cheap, mass produced joint from Altria, or you could buy the organicly-grown specialty weed from a local artisan. I hope to see that day, as this war has already been lost.

  21. Duncan20903 says:

    I’ve never met anyone that took up the profession of bootlegging alcohol or smuggling tobacco. I know they still exist as I knew a woman back in the ’80s who was serious about her alcoholism and she knew where to go buy it on Sunday and in the middle of the night, and I read about the tobacco black market from time to time. The tobacco black market mostly relating to Native American reservations and mail order from places with lesser or no excise taxes. I guess technically I was a black market tobacco monger because I’d buy cigarettes cheaply and then resell them to customers at the retail outlet. But these customers were never aware that their were purchasing black market tobacco.

    I’m always amused when I hear the know nothings with no exposure or knowledge of how and why the black market functions commenting on black markets. OK, so riddle me this: If the crims are simply born that way and will engage in whatever criminal mischief they can find to make a buck, why weren’t the current set of Mexican criminals active before the Colombian cartels mole got whacked in the head? Are the Mexican criminals simply displaced members of the Colombian cartels who had to move to continue their life of crime?

    I’m available for consultation at reasonable rates if anyone wants to be clued into the realities of the black market. I’m not holding my breath waiting for job though as it seems all sorts of people with no experience or direct knowledge consider themselves experts on the subject.

    Here’s an example of a criminal created by opportunity. Our hypothetical criminal is a hard working Mexican national with a family to feed. There is no work in his corner of Mexico, but he’s heard there are opportunities in the US if he can get in. Unfortunately our hard working family man is without resources to pay a ‘coyote’ to get him across the border. Mr. Loco Grande from the local Mexican cartel offers to pay the man’s coyote if he will carry a package across the border in payment for the ‘coyote’s’ services.

    So, is our hard working Mexican who is only concerned about feeding his family and perhaps offering them a few creature comforts, who had no interest in drugs or drug smuggling actually going to become a criminal anyway, it’s just a matter of time?

    When I was a younger man there was always opportunity for a guy with a few bucks to buy a 1/4 pound of cannabis, sell 3 ounces and get one ‘for free.’ There were were a lot of guys willing to do that back then I find it hard to believe much has changed in the last 30 years since the drugs black market has always operated using an Amway/Avon business model. None of my peer group back then took up bootlegging liquor, there simply wasn’t enough money in it. It was also my observation that almost everyone in the black market back then were people trying to mitigate the artificially increased prices foisted on them by the idiocy of the war on (some) drugs. It could be different now because the last time I checked on the availability in the drinking alcohol market the drinking age for beer and wine was 18. There are lots of 18 year old people in High Schools across the country. Sometimes I wonder if my argument that cannabis is wrongly thought to be a ‘gateway’ drug because alcohol is almost always the first illegal MAD that people try since it does seem to be consensus that it is harder for the under aged drinker to get alcohol than cannabis. Not that that would lend any validity to the idiotic ‘gateway’ theory, but it could have changed the dynamic of which illegal drug is tried first in the progression. I discount including tobacco because while addictive it is not a MAD of any significance. I actually believe that tobacco could be prohibited by law and that prohibition would work and I base that opinion from having observed the jails and prisons making tobacco contraband without much problem. Certainly it went through a lot easier than I predicted when it first started happening.

    Did everyone know that

    “by 1921, the year after alcohol prohibition, 14 states had laws prohibition cigarettes, and 92 anti-cigarette bills were under consideration in 28 more state legislatures (Brecher, 1972).

    The most absurd part of the ‘crims will be crims’ philosophical wax

    It’s the equivalent of pissing on my head and telling me it’s raining. Ah life! Without doubt it is better to be pissed off than pissed on.

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