Those are the words of the notorious ex-gangland boss Charlie Richardson on the seminal album Product of the Environment by Gareth Bowen – a record I heartily recommend. Richardson’s comment was in response to how you go about reducing crime. His view was that most crime is drug-based so that if you legalised drugs, you’d have no more (or much less) crime.
Now, you might not take a convicted torturer’s word for anything much, but you might take the word of a law-enforcer.
I have recently read Neil Woods’ book Good Cop Bad War about his years as an undercover drugs squad detective in Britain’s provincial cities. It is a compelling read which I finished in 24 hours. Woods spent years infiltrating gangs and putting dealers behind bars. He reckoned to have sent people down for a total of more than 1’000 years, making him very good at his job. But his conclusion is that, upon reflection, not only did he think that his professional career was a waste of time, but that it was in fact counterproductive and it would have been better had he done something else. He is now a vocal advocate for the legalisation of drugs and he makes a lot of sense.
You don’t have to think that drugs are harmless fun to side with him; just look at realities. What you have to consider is whether the sum total of harm is greater if drugs are legal or illegal. Here are a couple of the arguments.
The drugs trade is the basis of a truly massive global parallel economy. The money made corrupts everything because there is so much of it. With uncountable riches, you can buy almost anyone and the rare people you can’t buy you can afford to kill. Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian narco trafficker had a policy of plata o plomo – silver or lead. What this meant was that he either bought you off or if he couldn’t, he’d kill you. It was as simple as that. People might not want to be corrupted, but they want to be dead even less so they would do whatever Escobar wanted. In this society, you have no friends, no one to whom you can turn. The police are corrupt, the army is corrupt, government is corrupt. The drugs trade is a cancer that metastasizes throughout the whole of society. It is why half of South America has not been able to progress, why Mexico is becoming a failed state instead of a holiday destination. Democracy collapses because it is no longer the will of the people that is paramount, but the will of the drugs trade.
When stakes get very high, people will go to great lengths. In other words, when vast sums of money are involved, violence is an inevitable adjunct. If someone wrongs you, you go to a court to get redress. But if your activity is illegal in the first place, you’ll have to take the law into your own hands and that means coercing people through violence, or just rubbing them out. Violence begets more violence; it’s bound to. Savagery will increase. This is exactly what Woods found during his career: the more efficient the police became, the more violent and paranoid the criminals became. Things got worse, not better.
Capone and his gang and The Valentine’s Day Massacre were the result of Prohibition in the States. When alcohol was legal again, many of the problems and people of Capone’s ilk melted away.
What would gangs be doing if drugs were legal and there was no street trade? Not much. Burglary is becoming decreasingly attractive because everyone has everything. What is the point of stealing a flat-screen TV? Everyone has one. Its market value is next to nothing. But the little market value a stolen TV might have may be just enough to buy the next fix. If the addict was given the drugs for nothing, it wouldn’t be worth breaking in to people’s houses. Addicts account for the massive majority of theft.
Illegal drugs are a great product because addicts always need them on a daily basis, so the market is assured. That just isn’t the case for anything else with the possible exception of prostitution, which can also be legalised. If you take away a criminal career path for the young, you are bound to have fewer criminals and people will find a more productive outlet for their energies to make money. There will be no more glamour, no attraction in crime once the money disappears.
Criminalising the drugs trade also means locking up thousands upon thousands of people and sending them to a university of crime where, once they are out, they will be better equipped to commit more (drugs-related) crime. It’s expensive, economically counter-productive and makes no sense.
So then you have to wonder what is bad about drugs in the first place. The answer appears to be that they are bad for your health and your relationships – your long-term happiness. Fair enough. In the western world at any rate, there are at least three legal drugs: alcohol, tobacco and gambling. Alcohol is a product enjoyed by many or even most of the population with few serious downsides. It’s not good for you but it is unproven that teetotallers live much longer and happier lives than those who imbibe moderately. It is problematic for a small section of the population, leading to violence, often domestic, and ruined lives. In this regard, it is probably no worse than taking cocaine, for most users. Woods says that drug-taking tends to create serious problems for 10% of users which is similar to the amounts of people affected by alcohol or gambling. Constant cigarette smoking is probably more dangerous. The only drug where these figures are worse is for heroin, which Woods and his pressure group of international ex-law-enforcement professionals estimates at 20%. And of course, many of these 20% find themselves in trouble because they are self-medicating in the most squalid of conditions with a product that varies hugely in terms of its lethality.
Although you can legally smoke cigarettes, the percentage of the UK population doing so has fallen to 17%. It just isn’t seen as an interesting pastime for 83% of the population. The number of smokers is still falling. How many people would be interested in becoming a heroin addict if they were allowed to? Probably not very many.
Smoking is falling because of societal pressures. It’s a loser’s activity and not many people want to be a loser. Would everyone start smoking dope if it was legal? Quite likely not many more people than smoke it already. And even if more people did start smoking marijuana, would it really matter? Would it be much worse than opening a bottle of wine when you get in from work?
You’d be far more effective in controlling drug-taking by applying the same strategy that stops people smoking. People aren’t going to be taking LSD when they have a job to hold down, or smoking dope in their lunch break. They aren’t that stupid. They don’t tend to go to the pub and get ratted at lunchtime either for the same reasons.
There might be more hospital admissions and drug-related mishaps, it is true, if drugs were readily available from the local chemists. But you have to weigh that against all the harm that is currently done by making drugs illegal. Perhaps peasants would be growing coffee rather than coca if the price of coca fell through the floor, as it would after legalisation. Who’d be interested in growing opium poppies if the refined product was just given away by governments to those unfortunate or stupid enough to get themselves addicted to it?
The real war on drugs should be economic and to put people out of business or remove a market, you just make it worthless. Drug distribution should be state-run with no visibility and no advertising. Consumers aren’t going to be buying dodgy packages from criminals when they could just go to the local Boots.
The current War on Drugs is not working in any way at all and something far more radical needs to be done. A different sort of victim would no doubt materialise. Perhaps initially a few more people might be admitted to rehab establishments or psychiatric institutions. It’s quite possible. But that might be a smaller price to pay than overdoses in bus shelters, systematic violence, corruption of officials and prisons bursting at the seams.
I suspect that this viewpoint will gather momentum in the coming decades, but they will be decades with mounds of bodies and fractured lives in droves. Most of which could be easily avoided.