Montreal, December 15, 2005 No 161




Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.




by Bradley Doucet


          Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper recently accused Paul Martin's Liberal Party of being in cahoots with organized crime. I don't blame Harper for ragging on the Liberals. It's good fun, and they richly deserve the derision with the recent scandal and all. I laughed when the conservative Western Standard insinuated a similar mob link on May 16th with their "Libranos" cover, a satire of the popular HBO series The Sopranos.


          But who will be clapping the loudest if a newly elected Stephen Harper follows through on his promise to crack down on drug offenders by "imposing stiffer penalties, halting the decriminalization of marijuana and throwing doubt on Vancouver's safe injection site experiment?(1)" No, it's not churchgoers and schoolmarms and puritan pleasure haters. It's organized criminals, who will see their profits multiplied and their influence expanded. The uncomfortable truth is that cracking down on drug offenders a perennial favourite among social conservatives is the best way to increase the power of the mob.

A Brief Look at Prohibition

          We all know the story, right? In the 1920s, the United States banned alcohol and everyone peacefully changed their evil ways and became upright citizens. Domestic abuse plummeted, drunk driving disappeared and productivity doubled in the first month alone. Canada and other nations quickly followed suit, and soon the whole world was a peaceful, if somewhat less interesting, paradise.

          Ah, but if only it were so. Alas, human nature is not so pliable, and alcohol prohibition in the 20s was a colossal failure, playing right into the hands of organized crime. As supplies of alcohol were restricted despite continuing demand, profits went up. As the business of supplying alcohol became more dangerous, again profits went up. Organized crime lords took full advantage of their increased power, and many cops took full advantage of the chance to supplement their salaries by looking the other way. Alcohol use did not dry up by any stretch of the imagination, but the city streets did become more dangerous for law-abiding citizens.

          Does alcohol have potential negative side-affects? Of course it does. Do most users succeed in avoiding or managing those side effects? Of course they do, which makes the futile attempt to outlaw this vice all the more ridiculous. History's lessons are unequivocal on this score: alcohol prohibition doesn't work, and it entails serious negative side effects of its own, not least of which is increased corruption and increased power for organized criminals.

          All of this is just as true for today's illegal drugs and our own attempts at prohibition. Drugs do have potential negative side effects, but most users (at least with soft drugs) do succeed in avoiding or managing those side effects, and the illegal status of those drugs does nothing to curtail use and everything to increase corruption and entrench organized crime networks.

The Moral Case for Toleration

          Even in the absence of the above practical arguments, banning drugs would still be wrong. Let us make the altogether reasonable assumption that a drug like heroin has negative side effects that are unavoidable and unmanageable, and let us also make the (much less reasonable) assumption that it can be effectively banned without helping organized crime and corrupting the police force. Should it then be banned? For reasons of both justice and compassion, it should not.

"Someone who gets high on heroin is harming himself, and indirectly his loved ones as well, but he is not initiating force against anyone, and it is simply not up to anyone else to decide if the benefits he is deriving from the drug are worth the costs."

          Vice crimes are sometimes referred to as victimless crimes or consensual crimes. This is because they do not involve the initiation of force against anyone. Someone who gets high on heroin is harming himself, and indirectly his loved ones as well, but he is not initiating force against anyone, and it is simply not up to anyone else to decide if the benefits he is deriving from the drug are worth the costs. We may be quite convinced (as I am) that the costs far outweigh the benefits and we may justly try to persuade other adults to agree with us. We may not, however, rightly prohibit them from making their own choices in the matter or incarcerate them for making what we consider to be the wrong choice.

          Drug warriors will advance the argument that addicts must resort to theft in order to be able to buy their next fix. If there were a drug that reliably turned 100% of its users into thieves, there might indeed be grounds for banning it, but I don't believe that even hard drugs like heroin lead to this kind of automatic kleptomania. It is of course perfectly acceptable to arrest and incarcerate drug users who steal, but until and unless the drug user initiates the use of force against someone, we should all just take a pill.

          Tolerating drug use by legalizing the drug trade is also the compassionate thing to do. It allows addicts to seek treatment instead of incarceration; it allows charities to offer things like needle exchanges; and it allows for monitoring of the purity and strength of the narcotics available. The use of psychoactive drugs is never going to go away, and it is not up to you or me or the government to make it go away. Many people enjoy taking drugs and judge the benefits of doing so to be worth the costs. Some people judge incorrectly, but the negative effects of prohibition make it an extremely uncompassionate way of addressing that fact. Furthermore, trying to forbid an adult from making his own choices with regards to drugs is just one more way of infantilizing him, eroding instead of building the character that would allow him to improve his judgement.

The Vagaries of Politics

          To be fair, clamping down on drug laws is not the only way to help the mob while making life more difficult for the average person. There are plenty of dumb ideas to be heard in the corridors of power, and they're not all coming from the Conservative Party. Other parties would love to ban cigarettes and "unhealthy" food. It seems almost inevitable that organized crime would then take over the provision of tobacco products, to be followed shortly thereafter by some young Al Capone making his name and his fortune providing contraband donuts to all of us trans fat junkies. Organized crime can rest easy: we will be handing them more power, one way or another.

          But what, exactly, has happened to Stephen Harper? Wasn't he the guy who, a year and a half ago, was promising to lower both corporate taxes and corporate subsidies? That policy was principled, smart and practically bullet proof. Cracking down on drug offenders, on the other hand, is meddlesome, stupid and probably scaring away any voters who just want to live and let live. Of course, these days Harper seems to care less about principle and more about getting elected(2). In this, Stephen Harper is looking more and more like Paul Martin every day.

          Come to think of it, maybe I mistook the sentiment behind Harper's comment about the Liberals and organized crime. Maybe he wasn't so much criticizing the governing party as he was unintentionally revealing his own plan to court the organized crime vote. After all, his harsh stance on drugs might scare away the libertarians, but it will sure appeal to the mob.


1. Allan Woods, "Drug crackdown may cut safe-injection site funds," The Vancouver Sun, December 05, 2005.
2. See Martin Masse's recent radio interview on this topic on Le Blogue du QL.