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June 13, 2007 - National Post (Canada)

Put The Gangs Out Of Business: Legalize Drugs

By Michael C. Chettleburgh, Special to the National Post

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Childhood and adolescence should rightfully be a time of love, learning and life. But for thousands of young Canadians, their journey to adulthood is marred forever by street-gang involvement, which almost always means an active role in the massive business of illicit street drugs, too.

I have seen and heard of too many cases to count demonstrating the connection between gangs, drugs and youth. Consider these: eight-year-old gangsters on BMX bikes dealing crack and crystal meth in North Winnipeg; 14-year-old gangsters on the west coast, driving prepaid rental cars for $100 per eight hour shift, delivering drugs through widespread dial-a-dope operations; 16-year-old First Nations gang members travelling from big cities to remote James Bay communities selling "dime bags" of marijuana cut with oregano for $50, five times the going street price in the south; young Ontario and Quebec ecstasy cooks making colourful $20 pills of uncertain composition for the urban club scene, thus generating massive profits for their street-gang masters; and murder after countless murder of young men in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, a majority associated with street gangs and the drug trade.

Many allocate blame to street gangsters for this sorry state of affairs -- the idea being that if it weren't for these aggressive and money-hungry "pushers," we wouldn't have such a problem. However, this reasoning is incomplete: It fails to consider the demand generated by millions of Canadians of all ages who, at least once this year, will act on their desire and make a back-alley purchase of an illicit drug.

Millions -- that's right: So says Health Canada and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse in their March, 2005 Canadian Addiction Survey. Despite prohibitory laws, societal scorn, unsavoury gangster salesmen, the risk of debilitating addiction and dubiously doctored substances, millions of willing consumers are supporting thousands of willing sellers -- street gangsters, that is -- across the country. And with consumption rates for many illicit drugs having doubled or tripled in the past 15 years, it's clear that the drug problem, and therefore the gang problem, is about to get a lot worse.

This should come as no surprise to anyone concerned about street gangs in the dozens of Canadian communities where they are active. If you're young, poor, marginalized, inadequately supervised, surrounded by violence and neglect in crumbling communities, and consider your economic prospects to be stark or non-existent, the pull of the gang can be quite magnetic. The street gang offers troubled youth a family, a contrived identity, a perverse form of "love," a gritty rite of passage, protection and excitement. Perhaps most compelling, it offers young gangsters the chance, however dangerous, to make money, and quite possibly lots of it, in a giant and growing street tournament called the drug trade, lubricated by demand from everyday Canadians.

The street gang and associated drug trade problem in Canada won't be solved by a get-tough, criminal-justice-system response, nor should we expect young homies to just say no. Look to the United States for proof of this. Over the past 30 years, the U.S. has employed the most aggressive and expensive anti-drug and -gang measures ever conceived. In the process, 800,000 street gangsters under the age of 21 have been created. Moreover, more than two million Americans now call prison home, the majority of which are young black and Hispanic men. About half of them are serving time for relatively minor drug offences. Today, things are so bad that the FBI has made street gangs and the underlying drug trade their number one priority, even over domestic terrorism. The failure in this campaign is a testament to the abject failure of the U.S. war on drugs and gangs.

Canada has the opportunity, but perhaps not the courage, to employ a different approach on street gangs. To be sure, we must tackle the underlying socioeconomic causes of the street-gang problem, including poverty, income inequality and persistent discrimination. At the same time, we must equip our police agencies with the resources they need to take out the hardcore 20% or so of all street gangsters who are responsible for the majority of Canadian street violence. We must spend much more money on early prevention and diversion, because this is not a problem that we can arrest our way out of.

Finally, we need to embark upon drug legalization, which will starve gangs of their principal oxygen supply and serve to upset the attractive risk-reward proposition that every new gangster now faces.

Rather than continue to incur only the massive costs of the drug trade -- addictions, policing, corrections and loss of life -- why not also capture the massive financial benefit (over $400-billion in North America alone), which we presently reserve for the exclusive enjoyment of street gangs and other criminal organizations?

Like other drugs we deem socially acceptable -- nicotine delivered in cigarettes and alcohol for instance, which collectively kill about 50,000 Canadians every year -- we ought to control the production and distribution of illicit drugs and tax their consumption.

Let's start with cannabis, Canada's favourite drug by far. This move alone will generate a multi-billion dollar fiscal dividend that can be used to cover the costs we now incur despite prohibition, enforce more stringent laws against sales to minors, and invigorate Canada's meagre prevention and harm-reduction initiatives. This step would also go far to restoring public trust in law enforcement, which has been diminished by their involvement in imposing futile drug laws.

There is no contradiction in being pro-drug-reform yet anti-drug use. In its present form, the war on drugs is both bad public policy and a fight we cannot win. All drug users should have the right to harm themselves if they so choose. Recognizing that we cannot eliminate their demand, I would much prefer that drug users purchase their wares in a controlled setting rather than from young gangsters, who effectively control what gets sold, where it gets sold and to whom it gets sold.

Absent a robust underground trade in drugs, just how are Canada's estimated 14,000 street gangsters going to make sufficient money to offset the dangers inherent in the job of gangster? Sure, they may turn to other criminal enterprise, but there is not another in the world so alluring, so profitable, so vibrant, than the drug trade. Drug reform will not solve the drug problem entirely. But it will go a long way to solving what has been termed the "drug-problem problem," which is the pull of the gang and its associated crime and violence.

Michael C. Chettleburgh is one of Canada's foremost authorities on youth gangs. Since 1991, he has run a consultancy specializing in criminal justice issues. He researched and wrote the 2002 Canadian Police Survey on Youth Gangs for the federal government. He has also developed street-gang awareness training programs for law enforcement agencies and is a keynote speaker at many conferences on youth crime. His new book is Young Thugs: Inside the Dangerous World of Canadian Street Gangs.

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