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January 26, 2007 - Drug War Chronicle (US)

Editorial: Their Security Demands You Vote Repeal

By David Borden

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

This week a headline came out of Birmingham, Great Britain, of a type that particularly frustrates me. It's the type of headline that moved me to sign up with the fledgling drug legalization movement 13 years ago. "Criminal gangs are infiltrating Birmingham schools and children as young as nine are being used as drugs mules," as well as schools in Manchester and London, the Birmingham Post reports Education Minister Jim Knight as having told a House of Commons panel.

"It is an emerging issue we want to nip in the bud before it becomes something genuinely worrying for parents and pupils," Knight said after the hearing.

How much does he want to nip it in the bud? Enough to brave politics and defy ideology? There's one sure way to end the problem -- legalization. But while they do talk about legalization a bit more in Britain than our politicians do here in the US -- the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, has raised the issue before -- they still don't talk about it enough. At least not enough yet to actually do it, despite how obvious a good move it would be.

Make no mistake, it is obvious. If the primary fear in the drug issue is that drugs put kids in danger, what about the very real danger kids are placed in once drawn into illegal drug gangs, or even as bystanders? But that problem exists only because of prohibition.

For all the downsides of alcohol and cigarettes, for example, drugs as surely as any other, how often does one hear about kids selling them on the street, or in the schools to other kids?

It is an endemic problem, and "tough" enforcement is no solution. Back in the early 1990s, police in Boston, Massachusetts, did a major "sweep" of Mission Hill, a primarily African American neighborhood plagued by violence and disorder, much of it from the drug trade. A friend of mine spent a summer there as a teacher and mentor to a group of schoolchildren -- the summer after the sweep took place, as it so happened.

There was a difference in the neighborhood, he told me, it was a lot cleaner than before, at least for awhile. But even then, the kids in his group would still get accosted on their way to and from school by drug gang members wanting them to do work for them, a troubling and disheartening phenomenon.

The legalization question came up in conversation when he and kids and parents were hanging out together one night as they often did. He expected almost everyone to be against it, but interestingly it was split about half and half.

Also interestingly, the split was not generational -- there were kids who wanted the government to get tougher on the drug trade, and parents who wanted to legalize it all, and vice versa. His report made me wonder if we might have more support than we realize we have in certain communities.

Much is at stake here. If prohibition draws children -- as young as nine -- into the drug trade, at some point it also acquaints them with the guns that underground sellers use to protect themselves. Youth and guns don't always mix well, to say the least.

A young person has more probability (on average) of actually using such a weapon in the fear or passion of the moment, or through a misjudgment, than an adult does (again, on average), even an adult criminal.

Blumstein tentatively attributed the mid-1980s spike in violence, and the significant rise in youth gun ownership, to the combination of the crack trade -- which increased the number of sellers needed in the drug trade because the drug is short acting and addicts make more separate purchases of it -- and the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which increased the risk to adults in the drug trade and thereby the price they required to participate in it, and the incentive therefore to use minors who are not subject to the mandatory minimums and so would work more cheaply. Osmosing from that base, guns became more common in the youthful population at large. Unintended consequences, but not so unpredictable.

A famous poster from alcohol prohibition days depicts a motherly figure with children, reading, "their security demands you vote repeal." So it did then -- so it does now.

(WONPR poster courtesy Hagley Museum and Library)

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