The news that another man has been killed in a war fuelled by money made from drug dealing, begs the question how long are we going to tolerate the illegality of drugs. Yes, the word used is tolerate!

How long are we going to tolerate a situation where drug money is fuelling the murderous activity of drug gangs, while the use of drugs is not decreasing, but increasing.

Prohibition is failing us. The drug bosses are getting richer and the prisons and courts are full to the brim with petty criminals who are nothing but cogs in a vast criminal enterprise.

The definition of insanity according to Einstein is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We’ve been doing the same thing since I was a kid and drugs are not less conspicuous in our society but more available.

Is it time to change our drugs policy and begin moves to undermine these gangs by decriminalising certain drugs?

Here’s the reality. The war on drugs has failed. What we have now is not the “war on drugs”, but the “war of drugs”, where the profits central to the drug trade are controlled by a small but violent knot of mafiosi whose illicit cash gives them their power. Take the cash away and they’ll have no power.

The war on drugs has failed by any logical economic metric. There are more drugs now available than at any time in human history. Prohibition doesn’t appear to have had any material impact on drug use. The “war on drugs” has driven the price of the drugs upwards, making it a very profitable business. When the business is illegal, contracts are not enforced by law but by brute force and murder.

Prohibition always attracts criminals because the prohibition itself creates the business opportunity. Prohibition drives up profits by driving up the price. This is exactly what we saw in the USA during booze prohibition. Prohibition was a godsend for the mafia.

Similarly today, as the profits rise, more and more people are enticed into the business and deeper and deeper drug networks are forged, starting with the small-time dealer selling locally, right up to the big guy trading internationally.

Interestingly, at the bottom the profits are meagre, but the prize for the young guys getting involved in the drugs business is that one day, if they are violent enough, crafty enough and lucky enough not to be killed, they too can become the drugs baron.

But the truly interesting fact is that most drug dealers don’t live in some fine pad on the Costa del Sol, they actually live with their mammy.

In the book ‘Freakonomics’, which applies economic theory to diverse subjects, the authors proved that the vast majority of drug dealers in the US are small-time operators who live with their mammies, who probably make not much more than the minimum wage, yet take huge personal risks.

When the economists studied a notorious crack gang in Chicago, it turned out the gang worked a lot like most normal franchise businesses, such as McDonald’s. If you were to hold a McDonald’s organisational chart and the crack gang’s organisational chart side by side, you could barely tell the difference.

The crack gang was one of about 100 branches – franchises, really – of a bigger organisation. The franchise leader reported to a board of directors, employed three senior officers and, depending on the season, from 25 to 75 “foot soldiers” or street corner salesmen.

These foot soldiers lived with their mammies, making small money but all hoping to make it big one day.

If that’s the way American drug operations are set up, it seems fair to say that Irish ones are the same or broadly similar.

Therefore, the notion of the rich, off-shore, Ferrari-driving dealer is entirely false. The majority of people involved are at the bottom, like an economic franchise.

Except this business is illegal and therefore dangerous and the price of the drugs are much higher than they would be if the drugs were legal, like alcohol.

Four other specific implications flow from the high price of drugs. Addicts must shell out hundreds of times the real cost of drugs, so they have to rob to feed their habit. Petty crime goes through the roof. The higher the price, the more crime occurs just to buy the same amount of gear.

At the same time, those who deal find themselves carrying extremely valuable goods. Therefore, among the low-level dealers, crime, assault and murder increase because they are carrying extremely valuable cargo, despite not making much money personally.

The streets of the city become a battleground for turf among competing dealers.

This week, we saw what happens when these battles get out of control. When the returns are so substantial, criminals will do anything to dominate the business.

When drugs are legalised (and yes, I believe it is a matter of when, not if), the price will collapse, and so will drug-related crime.

Users will no longer need to steal to support their habit. Drug-related crime will fall to the same level as off-licence-related crime. When was the last time you heard about a person being killed at an off-licence for a bottle of vodka or being stabbed for a packet of 20 Marlboro Red?

Legalising drugs would also lead to a dramatic and permanent fall in our prison population. The majority of prisoners in Ireland are there because of drug-related crimes.

A few years ago, I went to Mountjoy Prison to talk economics to prisoners who were doing the subject in the Leaving Cert. These men were trying to get their act together, which must be almost impossible when you are inside. The vast majority of them were doing time for drug-related offences. These are only offences because, unlike fags and booze, drugs are illegal.

If the prisons are clogged up with drug-related offenders, so too are the courts. Legalising drugs would free up huge resources wasted in the legal system to enforce the war on drugs, which isn’t working at all. And think about the amount of Garda resources that would also be freed up.

Maybe the most obvious prize would be that legalising drugs would destroy the drug gangs. There would be no reason for them to be in business. This result alone has to be worth considering.

The only reason why these guys kill is because they are making a fortune.

There is no logical economic rationale for the present drugs policy. The war on drugs has failed, why not admit it and start rethinking this societal dilemma?


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