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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