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Legalize drugs: gang expert

by Archives April 7, 2009

VANCOUVER (CUP) – The government should control the drug trade, not criminals, according to one of Canada’s leading specialists on street gangs.
“What Vancouver is dealing with are problems that have been in the making for 15 or 20 years,” said Michael Chettleburgh, who is the author of two books on gang culture and is a consultant for government, police, and community agencies. “When you look at the extent of gang affiliation and the size of the drug trade in the lower mainland area, when you look at the strength of organized crime and you put a number of other factors into play, what you have been having is the perfect storm of gang violence over the last few months,” he said.
He said that Vancouver’s location as a port city close to the United States border has played a part in making the city a hub for organized crime and a very lucrative drug trade.
“You know it is a number of those factors, but you can’t really understand the gang issue in Vancouver without really understanding how large the drug trade is in your province. [It] is estimated between $6-and-$8 billion.”
Chettleburgh said organized crime and street-level gangs all try to get a piece of the drug money.
“When you have that kind of money that can be made on a product where the demand is going through the roof, both in terms of people who want to consume it in Canada . . . but also the international demand for B.C. bud and B.C. meth, it is no wonder that Vancouver is experiencing the violence that it is right now.”
He said the American-style war on drugs is not the answer. “If we want to look at a case study of what not to do in terms of the gang issue, then we do have to look at the United States.”
Chettleburgh says it is as simple as looking at the numbers from American cities, like Los Angeles, to prove that the war on drugs is a failure.
“Back in 1980 there were approximately 100,000 gang members in the United States and about 300,000 prisoners in the federal and state system. In 2005, there were well over a million gangsters and 2.4 million people in jail. So if tough-on-crime, tough-on-gangs worked, you would expect to see it in the numbers, but what we do know is that it has led to this explosion of the drug trade and consequently the size of gang memberships,” he said.
“We need to look past these quick-fix solutions that might play well for voters.”
This doesn’t mean Canada should be soft on crime or gangsters, he says, but instead we should focus on legalization.
“With [drug] prohibition, we are allowing gangs to control what gets sold, to who it gets sold, and where it gets sold. I would rather, myself, take that estimated between $12-and-$15 billion dollar a year fiscal dividend that comes out of the gang trade, and rather than let organized crime and street gangs enjoy that money for their exclusive benefit, I would rather take that money through some kind of legalized regime,” he said.
“Put proper money into prevention and harm-reduction – which is a dirty word in this country right now, dealing with the consequences that arise from drug use.”
He would at least like to see the discussion about legalization start in Canada. He notes that alcohol and tobacco are both dangerous and deadly substances already controlled by the government.
Chettleburgh advocates an approach that both punishes and prevents.
“What I advocate for is very much a balanced approach that you need both the carrot and the stick if you want to deal with the gang situation,” he said.
He says a united approach across Canada would be more effective, but is a long way off.
For the immediate future he sees gang violence being cyclical, operating in peaks and valleys.

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