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September 30, 2007 - Los Angeles Daily News (CA)

Column: Take Away Illegal Drug Demand, Ax Gangs

By Mariel Garza, columnist and editorial writer for the Los Angeles Daily News. She blogs at

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The political leaders of Los Angeles say they want to, finally, dedicate the resources to tackling the city's long and storied history of gangs and gangsters. To do this, they are planning to ask voters -- probably on the February ballot -- to approve a $40-a-year parcel tax to give them $30 million a year for gang-suppression programs.

If Hollywood gangster Mickey Cohen were alive today, he might have a good laugh over the idea that $30 million in government programs (which, after funding the useless bureaucratic structure that comes along with any new program, means $15 million) could stop the likes of him. Considering the city already wastes $100 million on anti-gang programs -- so much that we don't even know what all the programs are! -- and gangs are just as dangerous and prevalent as ever, Cohen's hilarity would be quite appropriate.

There's a reason I'm mentioning Cohen, as opposed to say, Stanley "Tookie" Williams, one of the pioneers of modern day L.A. gangsterism. I'm making a historical analogy.

See, Cohen got his start at age 9 running moonshine during Prohibition. Prohibition was a huge boon for gangsterism as rumrunners like Al Capone made fortunes supplying the alcohol once it was made illegal. In fact, he and gangsters of his era made themselves rich on the profits of peddling vice of all sorts: alcohol, gambling, protection and whatever else was illegal and in hot demand.

What Cohen knew is that the heart of gangsterism is capitalism. If there's a demand, there's money to be made. And if that money is to be made in the outlaw trade, then outlaws are going to make it. No amount of crackdowns or well-meaning political programs warning of the danger of gangster life is going to stop that essential equation. In fact, when Prohibition dried up, gangsters had to scramble to find new ways of making money.

Luckily for them, there were drugs.

Los Angeles' gangs of today are really no different from the crews of Cohen and Capone. And unless the supply simply dries up, which is unlikely, there's really only one way to stop these moneymaking machines, particularly those profiting from the poor, politically disenfranchised 'hood, where there aren't a lot of legit opportunities for making substantial cash: Take away the demand for the product.

Which brings us to the obvious solution to seriously damaging the power that Mara Salvatrucha, the 18th Street Gang or Canoga Park Alabama wields. Make drugs legal -- all of them -- and suddenly the income that funds gangs' operations dries up, and the power of gangsterism fades. Who wants to join an impoverished gang? Drive-bys are hard to do on bikes -- and with sticks. Tagging with chalk takes too long and washes off too easily.

As simple as this may seem, it's where logic always breaks down. We can't allow drugs to be legal because then kids could run down to Rite-Aid and buy a pack of crystal meth. All they'd need is a fake ID, right?

Never mind that right now kids can already buy meth and heroin -- and drugs I probably don't even know exist - from any number of people just down the street. And in so doing, they are interacting with dangerous people and are funding organized crime.

The problem is, other than the pothead lobby and Libertarians, what sane person would take on a politically untouchable issue?

The day after the City Council had voted to move forward on the gang tax, and the very day I was contemplating the futility of throwing away more money for the new generation of "Just Say No" to gang programs, I got an answer: Jack Cole, a retired police lieutenant from New Jersey who heads a growing organization -- Law Enforcement to End Prohibition (LEAP) -- of former and current cops and other law-enforcement people who are fighting to get drugs legalized.

Cole came to the Daily News recently to preach the end of America's other war, the War on Drugs, which he said has only increased the use of dangerous narcotics and packed the country's jails with users. What he said resonated in my gang-obsessed mind. The only way to control drug use (because you just can't stop it; a trillion dollars spent to fight drug use has proven that) is to make it legal, tax it and use the money for prevention programs. A happy byproduct is that gangs suddenly lose the majority of their revenue if people can go down to the brightly lit safety of Rite-Aid to buy their fix.

So there's the real solution, if the Los Angeles City Council members are willing to put their political careers at risk to take it on. If they truly meant what they say about ending the reign of gangsterism in Los Angeles, they would.

Think they will? I can hear Mickey Cohen laughing at that one, too.

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