Legalizing Drugs is no Panacea

While legalizing drugs such as marijuana would put a dent in Chicago street gang profits, it is not a magic bullet to end violent crime in the city.

A very thoughtful post from fellow Chicago Now blogger, C.M. Synder on Make No Little Plans proposed a variety of short and long term solutions for the current levels of violent crime in the city.

While many of the ideas are interesting and worth a further discussion, I want to take issue with one particular point. Snyder indicates that the long term solution is the legalization of some narcotics. The poster does not indicate which ones, but since Chicago street gangs rake in much of their profit from marijuana, cocaine and heroin, I assume he is referring to those.

Snyder's solution is based on the concept that if such drugs were legalized and put in the same class as alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, the industry would go above ground and cut off profits for street gangs and thus eliminate their intense clash over territory. New or existing corporations would create, package, market and deliver the now legalized substances to a market that would go to the corner store rather than the clandestine corner to get their fix.

While I do not disagree on the fundamental concept of drug legalization, I do not think it would dramatically break down the Chicago street gangs.

If federal or state leaders legalized the sale of marijuana, cocaine and heroin for recreational use, there would be FDA regulations on what such products could contain. For instance, Coca Cola uses caffeine to hook it's customers on it's beverage products. However, if they attempted to use a dangerous additive that boosted the effectiveness of the caffeine, it would likely result in a lawsuit or a new law banning such a substance.

Tobacco companies have been able to avoid many federal regulations on the substances they put in cigarettes; however, they are still vulnerable to civil lawsuits. The tobacco industry also benefited from a long period of American history in which the crop was not only domestically produced (bring in huge money for political interests) but was also engrained into people's everyday lives. Illegal drugs have neither advantage that tobacco had, thus federal regulations would likely be very strict on what additives could be used by drug manufacturers to create a "higher high."

Street gangs and their drug suppliers have no such regulation.  The black market marijuana sold on the streets of Chicago is far from pure and would never (and probably should never) be given FDA or Surgeon General approval. In addition to the mold, insect droppings, dirt and pesticides street weed often contains due to poor growing and handling methods, street weed is often laced with fillers. The fillers allow the street dealers to maximize their profits by stretching their supply of actual marijuana. Local labs have reported finding everything from talcum powder to crushed nutmeg in street weed. Occasionally, more potent and dangerous filler can be mixed in including compost.

Of course, cocaine has a similar problem with purity and fillers.

Heroin's primary medical purpose is for pain-killing purposes similar to Vicodin or morphine. With both of those already behind the prescription wall, it is hard to see how legalized heroin would not also be available through prescription only. Like other powerful pain killers, it has a tendency to be highly addictive if abused. Pain killer abuse has been a problem for as long as there have been pain killers. With a prescription wall in place, the drug would still be illicitly traded on the black market along with other pain killers.

The point is that while pure, organic marijuana is no worse than tampered tobacco, an addict is likely to seek a more powerful version of the drug that no responsible government or society would ever allow to be sold. A similar problem would occur with cocaine. Legalizing marijuana and pure cocaine would put a significant dent in street gang profits for a short period of time. However, it is hard to see how a gang would not adapt and make up for lost sales by creating more dangerous and addictive versions of any legalized drug and doubling down on other drugs like heroin, meth and PCP. Chicago street gangs are already involved in prostitution rings, gun trafficking, money laundering, fraud, identity theft, burglaries, auto theft and human trafficking to a limited degree. These other avenues for income can be boosted if street gangs start losing big bucks from current drug operations. Those illegal operations also require holding certain territories that will require those gang members to continue carrying firearms which will be used in violent crimes.

I am not suggesting that legalizing some recreational drugs won't hurt gangs. I am simply suggesting that it won't make a big difference for long and thus is not a long term solution to Chicago's violent streets.

It is also worth noting that not all confrontations that end in shootings are about drugs or criminal behavior. Very often it is about interpersonal conflicts over small amounts of money, a girl, an insult or a family dispute.

I believe that C. M. Snyder's 2nd proposal regarding a robust community organization funded like a non-profit would bear more fruit and do more to stem violence city-wide than any legalization legislation.

I would add to Snyder's recommendations that a smarter approach to elementary and high school education for teens combined with a major investment from Chicago's business community in poor neighborhoods would improve the underlying environment in which violent gangs recruit and operate.

I hope to expand on my recommendations in a future post, but for today, I hope I have added something valuable to the discussion C.M. Snyder started.

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  • Thank you for your response. It's an interesting conversation, no?

    To me, the problem with this argument is that it rests on continued partial prohibition. I think you're pointing out problems that would result from possibly remaining prohibition, rather than problems that would result from legalization of some of what is currently prohibited. For example, the pain killer black market results from another form of prohibition.

    FDA regulations again highlight the dangers of some form of continued prohibition even while other forms are rolled back. The FDA might, as you say, effectively give the black market a monopoly on certain products. But I think that does underestimate free market competitors' ingenuity. It is, though, a good argument against the FDA. In a time when they ban raw milk even as information about products is more freely available online than ever before, it's clear they mostly curtail free choice, acting as a nanny rather than a protector.

    Banning some drugs and not others would indeed allow the black market to continue in certain areas. But still, meth for example is only a problem because cocaine is banned and is therefore so expensive. Meth is the poor man's cocaine. Prohibition created meth, and I think it's likely that repealing it would kill it.

    I think some of what you're saying is actually a good argument for legalization. For example, a store product may have a street counterpart, but will consumers really choose the street counterpart with no quality control and uncertain contents? Additionally, it's hard to believe that without the risks associated with contraband, but with a carefully designed supply chain and mass manufacturing process, that the price in the stores will not be significantly cheaper than the price on the street can ever hope to be. I also think the market would come up with ingenious ways of satisfying consumer demand for certain kinds of highs. I'm talking innovation here. Strains of Marijuana try to do that now, but I just see the market innovating like we can't currently imagine in order to protect their market share.

    As to other sources of gang revenue, they pale in comparison. Prostitution, although prohibition here is also the source of major problems, is too small a source of revenue to replace drugs. Gun trafficking is reduced with the need to protect territory. Drug money is what needs to be laundered, but it won't without prohibition. When it comes to gangs, fraud and identity theft are tiny problems compared to drug violence. Burglaries and auto theft result from the ease of preying upon a community already weakened by rich drug dealing gangs. Human trafficking doesn't result in enough revenue here in America to support itself without drugs. Everything pretty much falls without drugs to support all of it.

    I will admit that I enjoy arguing a little more than I should. But I think this discussion is very valuable. I would welcome more information about how you feel about the other ideas I mentioned. I really like your blog -- thanks for engaging mine as well!


  • Organic medical grade marijuana grown with care from superior genetics has no equal in terms of the highest high.there is nothing u can add to make it better.laced weed is a vestige from the 80s when Ron Reagan approved parquin posining and made a lot of unsuspecting people very sick n paranoid. Caused a lot of cancer.reagan was the biggest street thug when it comes to lacing weed...30years ago..have been living under a rock ..if cultivation was allowed that segment of street income would be permantly crippled.and the price would fall precipitously while quality would go up. Not a silver bullet for violence. But ur ignorance on this marijuana in 2012 is startling and part of the problem..I quit smoking years ago so I am not advocating it per say..just get ur facts right please.ignorance is how we got a 30billion $ war that are just say no policies created.crack was a CIA unitive, to sell more sounds like a conspiracy to everyone that doesn't know the history of the fake drug war.educate urself please..tonkken bay? The sha 1951?educate urself ..the gov. Props up Latin America with our successful campaign on raising the price of drugs through our arcane policy's ..cocaine and weed have nothin on a good crystall snifter full of bourbon..that's the most seriously debilitating drug I have ever done. U don't see street gangs selling laced moonshine. Duh..

  • @C M Snyder, I readily concede two points in your comment. First, legalization of marijuana and cocaine would put a considerable dent in street gang profits, some of which would never be made up by doubling down on other illegal activities. Second, a free market for these sales would indeed foster innovation that we can not possibly envision today. For all we know, a competitive open market could make the products safer for casual recreational use, provide researchers more opportunity to find medical uses and perhaps create industrial or commercial demand for the plants themselves. That last one seems like a stretch today, but honestly who thought we would be using ethanol from corn to make fuel 30 years ago?

    I also agree that government prohibitions give rise to underground markets and a full repeal would indeed end most of them. My post was more of an attempt to paint the picture of the most likely outcome of any repeal that would take place in the current regulatory regime as opposed to spelling out what a more fundamental market reform would look like.

    You did a very good job starting a discussion and getting me to take a closer examination of my own views on the issue of both government regulation of recreational drugs and the impact legislation can have on the street gangs that perpetuate so much of the violence that afflicts our neighborhoods.

  • To the windy city...the industrial competition the "plant" proposed on Lamont DuPont and William Randolph Hurst is why the "drug" is illegal in the first place..u have that backwards..the economic coup d etat fostered by "citizen cane"(the Rupert Murdoch of the era) and his crony capiltilst led to the silly racist "refer madness" and ultimately the 1937 marijuana tax act wich effectively outlawed cannibals sativa\indicas benign industrialiously competitive cousin cannabis hemp..the patent for polyester from DuPont as well as the chlorine they sold to pacific timber holdings to remove the lignin in the wood to make newspapers were both threatened by the low lignin iner bast of hemp and the outer fibers as well..the machine that separated the two patented in 1928 was destroyed with the blueprints and the Chinese Kentucky hybrid genetics that brought in 11 to 14 bushels per acre were destroyed as well. We got cancer causing chloro-organos in our rivers n streams near wood pulp plants(aka cancer valley in Maine etc..) and polleyster instead of hemp..this abuse of power and propaganda 3 generations later sounds like a conspiracy to those who don't read history..again educate yourself..the constitution is written on it. The sails n ropes that got us all here were made of it. The gov. forced farms to grow it to support the navy in all of our wars till ww2. The mass destruction of our forests and pollution of our water for the profit of a few antiamerican industrialist..n 75 years later we think the maybe the plant could be used??? READ HISTORY PLEASE! We will continue to trash this great nation if we don't in the name of wanton reckless greed. Greed that gives 8 yr olds leukemia. Wake up!

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    "it is hard to see how a gang would not adapt and make up for lost sales by creating more dangerous and addictive versions of any legalized drug and doubling down on other drugs like heroin, meth and PCP. "

    Drug dealers can not create a demand out of thin air. There are good reasons why cannabis is much more popular than heroin, meth and PCP. Saying drug dealers will merely make up for lost cannabis revenue by selling more hard drugs is like saying McDonald's could make up for lost hamburger revenue by doubling down on salads.

    In reality, it is prohibition that causes consumers to gravitate to more potent products and more efficient, addicting and dangerous means of ingestion. More potent forms are easier to smuggle, and the high prices discourage waste.

    For example, alcohol prohibition caused drinkers to shift from beer and wine to spirits. Prior to heroin prohibition, the typical consumer was a middle-class housewife sipping laudanum.

    Studies from Dutch "coffee shops" have found that, given a choice, cannabis consumers prefer middle-of-the-road cannabis, rather than the most potent cannabis, hashish or oil available, in much the same way that drinkers are not that keen on over proof rum.

    Most consumers are willing to pay a bit more for the comfort of knowing that they are using a legally regulated product, rather than a product of unknown provenance, potency and purity. This is especially true for casual users, for whom their annual recreational drug budget is relatively insignificant. It should come as no surprise that most consumers are not looking for "more dangerous and addictive versions."

    The "street value" and profit margin of illicit drugs are so high that a profit could still be made at half the price, and half of that price could be sin tax.

    In terms of heroin prescription, the Swiss have been doing this for years.
    It has also been tried in Vancouver, B.C. with great success.

    Yes, to the *extent* that consumers are prevented from buying their drug of choice from a regulated source, an unmet demand may be met by black marketeers, (if the profit margins and demand are high enough), but to the *extent* the market is moved above ground, the problems caused by drug prohibition; prison crowding, clogged courts, crime, violence, the spread of infectious diseases, corruption, overdose fatalities, etc., will be reduced, as will the river of money flowing into the underground.

  • In reply to Matthew Elrod:

    Right on the money elroy!

  • D

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