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November 14, 2007 - Coquitlam Now (CN BC)

Column: One Solution To Gang Woes: Legalize Drugs

By Keith Baldrey, chief political reporter for Global B.C.

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

It's not often that gang warfare makes its way into the legislature as the main topic of debate, but that's exactly what happened this month as the Lower Mainland seemed to morph into something out of The Untouchables.

Gangland shootings -- almost a dozen deaths in recent weeks -- have dominated the headlines and newscasts, and politicians on both sides of the house found themselves grappling with an issue usually far from their bailiwick.

There was a lot of talk about amalgamating police forces in the Lower Mainland into a cohesive regional force, the need for tougher sentences for gang members and frustration about immigration polices that allow some convicted gang leaders to avoid deportation.

But one issue wasn't raised: whether or not the legalization of drugs might at least be considered a viable option in the face of apparent unstoppable growth of organized crime and gang activity in this province.

Neither the B.C. Liberals nor the New Democrats want to go down that road, and prefer to yell at each other about which party is tougher on criminals.

The police, and Solicitor General John Les, initially tried to downplay the outbreak of violence as nothing more than an unfortunate statistical spike in such behaviour. After a few days their attitude seemed to change, culminating in a showy news conference featuring all kinds of police officers trooping into the same room to show they have a united front against the bad guys.

But does anyone actually believe the police are winning this war? Law enforcement authorities themselves have acknowledged that organized crime and illegal gangs are increasing -- not decreasing -- their presence in communities.

Drug trafficking is the economic backbone of those organizations. There are enormous profits to be had in the procurement and sale of illegal substances, and the primary reason for those profits is the fact they are illegal in the first place.

The recent spate of gang shootings invoked more than one comment that the Lower Mainland was becoming like Chicago of the 1920s. Most of those comments were made tongue-in-cheek, but the comparison is apt in an important way -- back then, the illegal substance fuelling the criminal empires of people like Al Capone was alcohol.

When Prohibition was repealed, the gang wars died down. When the illegality of alcohol was gone, so too was the profit margin for the gangs.

And now one has to wonder whether the current war on drugs is doing more harm than the actual use of those drugs. Can the police really point to huge success stories in their relentless, ongoing clash with drug kingpins and low-lifes?

More importantly, who should control the use and distribution of drugs - -- criminal organizations or the government?

These are not idle questions. In fact, key people in both health and law enforcement circles are advocating a radical new attitude towards drugs.

In the United States, a group of current and ex-police officers have created an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP; check out their website at

That organization, to which many ex-narcotic officers belong, makes credible arguments about how the current approach to illegal drugs is an abysmal failure.

And the controlled use of drugs has crept on to the public health scene in recent years. The safe injection site in Vancouver is an example of the tacit acknowledgement that there is a role for the state when it comes to the control and use of certain drugs.

Some public health advocates say we should go even further and actually medically prescribe the drugs to addicts, many of who are so desperate they will routinely break the law to finance their habit. Giving them secure access to something they need presumably would greatly reduce their criminal activity.

The amalgamation of police forces may indeed help combat the activities of gangs and organized crime. But then again, it may prove to be no more effective than what is being done now.

However, eliminating the profit margin from the gangs' core economic activity -- drug trafficking -- may do a heck of a lot more than shuffling the police bureaucracy.

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