Opinion: Curb Chicago Gangs by Ending the Drug War

Drug Arrest Photo By Shane T. McCoy / US Marshals
Photo By Shane T. McCoy / US Marshals

By Andrew Freese

While there may still be snow on the ground, it will soon melt meaning spring and summer are already around the corner. While this is sure to improve moods and the weather, there is one thing that the onset of warmer weather always makes worse, violent crime. Despite an overall trend of reduction in things like murder, robbery, and assault since the 90s there was a recent uptick in these sorts of crimes both at a national level and in the city of Chicago around 2015 and 2016. However, while this increase in violent crime has stopped and reversed, Chicago still has a highly elevated homicide rate relative to other major cities like New York and LA. One of the places where there has been a substantial concentration in violent crime is the south side of the city. 

Just watch, three months from now right on que, Chicago local news will be inundated with story after story of innocent people being shot down in the street, and in their homes. As the summer progresses these stories will only grow numerous until the mercury drops once again as the leaves start to fall. There will be an outcry as always, and people will blame everything from gangster rap, to permissive gun culture, to inadequate policing. However, what most of the common explanations of this violence all have in common is they all ignore the motivations of these shootings. 

There are typically two ways that people think about the question of why people commit violent crimes. The first can be characterized as the conservative position which is that people who murder do so in a consciously malevolent manor and are responsible for choosing to kill the person, and therefore need to be treated with punishment. The second is the liberal conception that killers are simply unfortunate products of their environment that only kill because they have been brought up in an impoverished environment where they are left with no choice but violence. I find both these perspectives to be at the very least incomplete.

Ultimately, in the instance of any particular murder there is some kind of conflict between the parties involved that leads to one killing the other. Except of course in the case of psychopathy and sociopathy which I think can be disposed of for the purposes of this discussion, as psychopathy and sociopathy are evenly distributed throughout the population, and therefore can’t account for the localized intensity of murders in Chicago. So it would behoove us to ask, what are these people fighting over that’s so contentious they are killing each other over it. To understand this we have to look at the circumstances surrounding the violence.

Last summer in the first weekend in June 52 people were shot on the streets of Chicago and 8 of them died. On this CPD Deputy Chief Al Nagode reported to ​CBS News​ that the violence was, “‘​not random’ and motivated by disputes and tensions over an open-air drug market.” Despite the CPD arresting 18 people on gun related charges and removing 92 guns from the street in response to these shootings and making a point to continue to do so, by the end of the year there were approximately ​500 murders​ in the city. 

A majority of the homicides on the south side of Chicago are done by gangs targeting other gangs in disputes over the drug trade. In fact according to the ​Department of Justice​, “violence often results from disputes among street gang members vying for control of drug distribution territories or drug and money rip-offs by dealers or buyers. When violence occurs, retaliation typically follows, leading to increased hostilities and often homicides.” Furthermore, there is plenty of opportunity for these sorts of conflicts to occur as drug activity in the Chicago area is on the rise as a result of the increase in the heroin trade in recent years and there are 71 gangs in the city with over 100,000 active members competing for control over this growing trade. Also, historically Chicago has been the national center for trade in black market goods dating back to prohibition due to its central location. Approximately 80% of the U.S. population is within a day’s drive of Chicago making it an ideal location for national black-market smuggling operations to use as a distribution center, consequently meaning that larger volumes of illegal drugs flow through Chicago than the vast majority of places in the country.

So, when you consider all this together it’s easy to understand why Chicago has seen a localized surge in homicides. As the illegal drug trade in the city has increased with the national heroin and opiate epidemic opportunities for conflict between gangs has increased therefore leading to more gang violence and homicides. Now that we know the basic motivations behind these murders, we are left with the question of what to do about it. 

For decades we have tried to combat gang violence all across the country by attempting to shut down the illegal drug enterprises they make their money on. Despite our best effort’s drugs are as readily available, widely used, and profitable as they were when we began the War on Drugs in the 70s. Every drug dealer we arrest and incarcerate is replaced almost immediately, and the gangs many of them belong to continue to grow. So clearly our policy of systematically arresting people trading in drugs hasn’t worked, and we need to craft a new policy. 

One really simple and proven way we could remove the drug trade from the list of variables contributing to gang violence would simply be to take the drug trade out of the gang’s hands. We’ve been trying for decades to simply eradicate the trade with no effect. If we were to legalize and regulate drugs it would effectively take the trade out of the gang’s hands. Historically whenever a trade is made illegal it is taken over by organized crime, because they

are the only ones who are willing to operate under those conditions. But when it is made legal legitimate businessmen take it over, and outcompete the gangsters.

For example, during the days of prohibition Chicago was even more violent than it is today because of disputes over the alcohol trade and this enabled Al Capone to become one of the most powerful people in the country. But when prohibition ended the trade was taken over by licensed and regulated businesses that organized crime couldn’t compete with. Consequently, you never hear stories in the news today about someone being shot over a liquor deal dispute, because whenever liquor businesses have disputes the solve it through the court system, which they were previously locked out of because of prohibition just like modern drug dealers are locked out of because of the drug war. So if we were to allow those in the drug business to operate legally they likewise would solve their disputes with lawyers rather than guns. 

In addition to taking away a major motivation for gang violence, legalizing drugs would also reduce the prevalence of gangs in general. This is because gangs aren’t just held together with neighborhood or racial, they require money both to operate as well as attract new members. One of the reasons gangs do so well on the south side is because they are able to make massive amounts of money through the drug trade. In fact, the ​DEA​ routinely seizes millions of dollars in cash and assets along with thousands of pounds of drugs worth millions of dollars whenever they make a high-level gang bust in the Chicago area. 

With these millions of dollars gangs are able to offer highly lucrative employment to poor kids with limited options in the drug trade through membership in the gang. However, if drugs were legal, they would lose this source of revenue to licensed businesses. This would reduce gang’s capacity to recruit thereby reducing the size and possibly number of gangs overtime. Also if gangs can’t attract young people with easy and plentiful drug money fewer people will get involved at an early age and get caught in a cycle of incarceration where they get arrested for drug crimes and can’t get a job when they get out of prison because of their record, so they continue working for the gangs. 

While legalizing drugs wouldn’t solve all the problems on the south side of Chicago it would go a long way toward reducing the prevalence of gangs and the violence they create in the black market. It would also reduce the number of people joining gangs, because the gangs would have significantly less money to attract new members with. So while more would still need to be done doing this could only help, especially when you consider that the War on Drugs has had no impact on the availability and use of drugs.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.