Imagine the following: A recreational drug has been in use for quite a while and has enjoyed relatively widespread use. A lot of people use the drug in social or private settings, with some people developing an addiction and some people using the drug inappropriately and causing property damage or loss of life to other people directly as a result of their drug use. Government agencies respond by making consumption, possession, and sale of the drug illegal. An underground market of suppliers, buyers, and places to enjoy the drug pop-up, along with gangs to enforce rules and norms that are hidden from formal legal structures or the police. Gangs compete for territory and distribution, and a few top gangsters make tons of money, while street level thugs are shot up.
That scenario played out with alcohol prohibition in the Untied States, and we could easily apply the same perspective to the widespread war on drugs which launched in full force in the 1970’s and is still with us today. Forcing alcohol underground created gangs, just as making everything from weed to crack illegal today has produced gangs. As Johann Hari wrote in his book Chasing the Scream, “Professor Jeffrey Miron of Harvard University has shown that the murder rate has dramatically increased twice in U.S. history – and both times were during periods when prohibition was dramatically stepped up. The first is from 1920 to 1933, when alcohol was criminalized. The second is from 1970 to 1990, when the prohibition of drugs was dramatically escalated.”
Gang violence is related to black markets, to social structures that are disconnected from the rule of law and acceptable law enforcement. We look back at the time of prohibition and the gangs that appeared at that time in a somewhat nostalgic manner. We almost think highly of the mafia crime syndicates that were murdering people in the streets to control illegal alcohol distribution chains. But it is unlikely that their violence and viciousness was really much different than what we see in gangs today. What is likely very different, however, is the color of the skin that we associate with gangsters of the 1920’s compared to the gangsters of today.
Youth gang violence is a huge problem, and it is deeply connected with the war on drugs. Hari writes, “The National Youth Gang Center has discovered that youth gangs like the the Souls of Mischief are responsible for between 23 and 45 percent of all drug sales in the United States.” The violence we see is directly related to the gang’s control of illegal drug markets, markets that our policies and our war on drugs create.
I would agree with anyone who said they didn’t want widespread use of drugs in society and didn’t want people simply using drugs rather than contributing to society in constructive ways, but is the gang violence, our nation’s high overdose rate from unsafe drugs, and the social out-casting of anyone who makes a mistake and uses drugs really worth the prohibition we force on the country? Do we want to accept the high levels of incarceration for minority inner-city youth which creates a positive feedback loop of more violence, less opportunity, and more illegal drug activity? Perhaps giving people a safe space to use drugs sold openly and legally, in legitimate markets that take away from the black market has fewer costs to society than our prohibition efforts which create more gang violence and death. This was a trade-off our nation made with alcohol when it ended prohibition, but is it a trade-off we are willing to make with a vast suite of drugs today? For Johann Hari it is, and his book gives us plenty of reason to believe that it is a trade-off that might be beneficial for all of us.