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Ending the War on Drugs Won't Pacify The Cities

John McWhorter at The Root has an interesting piece on the recent flash mobs in Philadelphia. Rather than viewing the violence as a result of poor parenting or institutional racism, McWhorter sees the root of the problem as the relationship between Black communities and the police in the war on drugs:

Cops trawling their neighborhoods and housing projects, pounding on doors, interrogating people, pushing some against walls. Some of the cops are bad ones, hurting people for no reason. And all of the cops, good and bad, are there because they are assigned to fight the “war on drugs.” It’s their job, and sometimes they catch people selling, sure. But that requires spending vast amounts of time just being there. Bothering people.

What makes these mob kids mad at white people is not something as distant and cerebral as “institutional racism.” It’s that most of their interactions with white people are edgy, starkly real, face-to-face conflicts with cops. If the cops had no reason to be in their neighborhoods, new generations of black teens would grow up with no reason to think of whites as an enemy.

According to McWhorter, legalization of drugs could pave the way for better race relations in the cities.

I disagree.  The end of the drug trade won’t dissolve youth gangs, create jobs or turn young people from crime.  In the social order of American cities today, aggressive policing of inner city youth isn’t a bug; it’s a feature.  Kids without fathers, skills, guidance, work, prospects in life, positive role models or strong religious values are going to have trouble with cops whether or not they are selling drugs.  Policing under these conditions won’t always be culturally sensitive or even just; that’s a regrettable but inevitable consequence of human nature.  Legalizing drugs won’t change any of this.  Drug gangs will shift to selling whatever drugs are still illegal, to illegal sales of newly legal drugs to underage kids, or to other illegal activities like loansharking, protection rackets and burglary.  The police will still be in their faces, and the issues will still be there.

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  • Robert Morris

    Wrong. This question one of the very few in history that has already been conclusively answered. Yes, we still had a Mafia post-prohibition. However, criminal organizations that corrupt unions and run cigarettes are nothing compared to the ones that owned the city of Chicago in Al Capone’s day.

    The organized crime that prohibition gave us lives on in dramatically weaker form. The violent youth gangs will survive the end of the war on drugs as well, but that is no reason to delay the end of their main motivating factor, funder, and murderer.

  • Jim.

    @Robert —

    Please provide some evidence to support the assertion that the end of Prohibition had a more significant effect on organized crime than other factors, such as stepped-up policing.

  • Kenny

    “The end of the drug trade won’t dissolve youth gangs, create jobs or turn young people from crime.”

    Exactly right.

  • Steve Smith

    Maybe we should outlaw more things then? We could create a black market for high fructose corn syrup, boats, or maybe all guns. I’m sure with higher revenues these kids will straighten up and fly right. We’re just not giving them enough of an illegal economy.

  • M. Simon

    Uh. Jim. Stepped up policing was only possible because the police weren’t chasing alcohol any more. And still the crime hang over lasted for about 20 to 25 years after the end of Prohibition.

    Another example is the Swiss and their voting for heroin legalization – twice. One of the reasons was crime reduction. Or look at the work of Dr. Robert Marks in England/Wales. Police found that his distributing of heroin cut addiction rates and crime in the neighborhood by more than a factor of 10X.


    I’m always amused by the “now the gangs will prey on ordinary citizens” argument. All I can say is that it serves you right. Why did you let prohibition go on so long? It only trains people to be lawbreakers.

  • Robert Morris

    @jim It struck me as common sense, but here are the fruits of 10 minutes of googling:

    I provide the link to the quote, but the stats can’t be found there. Pages 38 and 39 of the PDF linked at bottom provide the historical murder rate data. In 1933 we changed the dumb law and halved the Murder rate within a decade. 30 years after the last peak, we have finally attained the same result with $50 Billion of annual policing, more people in jail than Communist China(not proportionally, in real terms!), and the creation of drugs like Meth that would never have occurred if people could get more traditional stimulants. All due respect to William Bratton and Eliot Ness, but I think changing dumb laws is the right approach.

    “Roughly speaking, therefore, there have been two periods with high homicide rates in U.S. history, the 1920-1934 period and the 1970-1990 period (Friedman 1991). Both before the first episode and between these two episodes, homicide rates were relatively low or clearly declining. Prima facie, this pattern is consistent with the hypothesis that alcohol prohibition increased violent crime: homicide rates are high in the 1920-1933 period, when constitutional prohibition of alcohol was in effect; the homicide rate drops quickly after 1933, when Prohibition was repealed; and the homicide rate remains low for a substantial period thereafter. Further, the homicide rate is low during the 1950s and early 1960s, when drug prohibition was in existence but not vigorously enforced, but high in the 1970-1990 period, when drug prohibition was enforced to a relatively stringent degree (Miron 1999).”

  • Pete Dellas

    Illegal activity will always be where poverty exists. However, I agree that the war on drugs would greatly diminish the violence in those neighborhoods. The amount of profit in selling illegal drugs drives the violence. Gangs of shoplifters don’t usually do drive by shootings. Drug dealers and Al Capone did.

    Also, many of those kids’ fathers wouldn’t be in jail if they weren’t involved in the drug trade. Not simply drug laws, but murders, robberies, prostitution and all sorts of mayhem come together on this issue to cause a huge percentage of these people to end up in jail. And I would add that the corrupting influences of the drug culture brings down the entire culture of that neighborhood–even to those who have nothing directly to do with drugs.

  • M. Simon

    And you might ask yourself why the homicide rate has gone down since 1990? Around that time police nationwide changed tactics. What was the change?

    Before that time police would take out whole gangs. They did that in my town. In fact one of the guys they took down was my next door neighbor where I was renting. Quite a shock to be heading for work (large aerospace company) and be surrounded by police, DEA, and FBI. Well the murder rate in our town spiked. In fact the FBI had predicted that. Citizens were pissed that policing caused more violence. That was in about ’88. There hasn’t been a similar raid here since. That would be around 23 years on.

    It is now obvious that the authorities are not going after whole gangs. Just the worst actors.

    In other words we surrendered in the drug war in 1990 (or so). All we have now is a holding action. And we aren’t holding much.

    We doubled jail capacity in our town about 3 years ago. We are already running out of space. There are always enough dopers (5% to 10% of the population) to overflow anything we could afford to construct. They added 1% to the sales tax to pay for the new jail. Which we will be stuck with for at least 30 more years. The locals in power are already talking up a new bigger jail. I don’t think the locals will be voting for that this time. BTW I predicted that we would run out of capacity in short order in a letter (published) to the local paper. Not enough listened.

    What ever the merits of Prohibition (research shows it to be a vector for the spread of drugs) we can’t afford it.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Ending the WOD will end the incarceration of well over 10% of young black males in prisons where they get their graduate degrees in violence, islam, and subterranean alienation. You want more Black fathers? Stop graduating Black ex-cons.

    I do not believe that there is one person alive in America who wants drugs and cannot get them because of the WOD. And I do not believe that one person who now does not want drugs would begin to after legalization. So what is the purpose of the WOD?

    If people’s lives are so miserable they want to escape into a world of chemical dependence, address the misery, not the chemicals. Or leave them alone to deal with their misery as best they can.

  • JerryEpstein

    To understand the impact on the Afam community read The New Jim Crow by M. Alexander … the ripples are massive.

    You argue that an edict from the federal govt. (prohibition) will control drug addicts but removing massive profit centers (regulated sale to adults) will have no impact …. curious logic.

    Having proved the drugs are everywhere now, we have chosen to have them with drug lords and drug dealers
    rather than without them … why ????

    Your argument is that if we take the gas pumps from the gas stations they’ll just sell more Twinkies …uh, no … it takes DEMAND. Demand for prohibited drugs by people who abuse or become addicted is confined to less than two percent of us (and most of that is marijuana, much less of a problem than alcohol.

    The simple ABCs of drug abuse statistics are unknown to the public. It would be nice if these disputes started with the same basic facts: see
    Drug Use, Abuse and Dependence (Addiction) In America

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    There have always been criminals, even before prohibition, and the war on drugs. But, removing most of the funding from the criminals would reduce them in the same way attacking the funding of Terrorists has reduced them.
    A basic human freedom should be the right to decide what you put into your own body. Drugs should be treated in the same way that Tobacco and Alcohol have been, responsibly like we were adults.
    “Down with the nanny state”

  • Luke Lea

    If McWhorter is right, then don’t use white cops to do the heavy stuff in the ghetto. Use them instead to do community policing — i.e., patrolling the neighborhoods to protect the property and persons of law-abiding citizens who live their.

  • Robert Morris

    @ Luke Lea, that would trigger instant, successful discrimination lawsuits. Petty Drug Busts are the bread and butter of Urban Police. The over-time a police officer gets by bringing a case to court is considerable. This is such an issue that jurisdictions that have tried decriminalization have been obstructed by their police forces.

    The Drug War is so corrupt it makes police officers violate the rule of law.

  • lostinspace

    Lurker here, trust me I tried arguing with these guys…Ive lived in a ghetto and let me tell you drugs are not good and I dont think they should be legal…I didnt say the way we are doing things is perfect but trust me we need somehow to crack down on it its a moral issue…did you know mothers kill children on drugs just debunked the myth of drugs dont hurt anyone else and many people who vote for drugs are so sheltered they have never witnessed children losing loved ones due to just taking drugs or people hurting others on drugs (just by taking it) Im sure any of these legalization fans will be singing a new tune if they caught their own son messing up and hurting himself on acid or their daughter raped by being on crack or date rape drug so i fight for the kids NO DRUGS EVER!!! DRUG FREE FOR LIFE

  • Robert Morris

    My final word on the subject here:

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