Organized crime in America was essentially spawned in the era of Prohibition. Alcohol was illegal, people wanted to drink booze with a passion, and the market arose to supply the desires of drinkers from all walks of life. Prohibition was a failure because the people of this nation dearly like to get buzzed on hooch. But before Prohibition was repealed (by a Constitutional Amendment), a huge criminal hierarchy had formed around supplying a substance that was once legal and had become illegal.
Prostitution is illegal in many states. Sex probably rates higher than whiskey in desirability, and so organized crime moved into illegal prostitution. Demand creates supply.
Gambling is very popular, and is illegal in many states. Wherever you can't legally bet on a horse race or a ball game, you will find a bookie system that illegally provides the gaming customer an outlet for his or her needs.
And finally, mind-altering drugs are an American way of life. I guess you shouldn't take many of them. Pot seems harmless enough. Cocaine and heroin are insanely pernicious. Drugs are illegal and organized crime long ago moved to supply the lucrative market that illegal dope represents.
What would happen if tomorrow prostitution, gambling, and drugs (all drugs, even the really destructive ones) were legalized in America? Let's hypothetically leave the government out of the trade. No taxation of gambling, hookers or dope. Let the market seek its own equilibrium. Here's what I think would happen.
1. Prostitution would become healthier. I mean this in a strictly medical sense. I'm not making any psychological or moral judgments here. The customers, because prices were relatively low (because of increased competition), would seek out the cleaner pleasure palaces. Why pick up a hooker on a sleazy street corner when, for just a few bucks more, you can obtain services from an establishment that has a well-documented bill of health. The whore houses in Nevada are run like this now. Organized crime would have to simply move out of the sex trade because it had become illegal. Men and women who were once criminals would go into legitimate business providing the services they once supplied on the black market.
The fact of the matter is that prostitution is not going to go away. Ever. It is called the world's oldest profession. Obviously, there is some need that is being satisfied here. Legalized prostitution would drive the service fees of the working girl or boy down, and many young people might not be tempted into the flesh trade like they are now by the quick and substantial money that an illegal industry provides.
2. Criminalizing gambling is really dumb. I'll bet there's not a single American who hasn't bet a friend on a ball game or a trivia question at one time or another. So the first thing we are dealing with is rampant hypocrisy. Sure, people become obsessive gamblers. But millions of people are obsessive eaters and we don't make eating against the law. There are millions of obsessive drinkers. But we don't make drinking against the law anymore. Completely legalized gambling would inject competition into the industry. Casinos would post their odds charts, attempting to lure customers. Bookies would give better odds, maybe by shaving a point or two off their own advantageous spreads of games in order to increase their customer bases. More people would win more money if the gambling industry was unregulated and had to offer competitive reward incentives.
3. Legalize all drugs. The "War on Drugs" is not winnable, short of turning America into a complete police state. Illegal marijuana is really stupid if for no other reason than the fact that the hemp plant is a wonderful resource that can be substituted for petroleum fuels, lumber and paper pulp forestry, and very durable textile material.
I've got nothing good to say for cocaine, speed or heroin, but you either realize that this stuff is really bad for you, or you don't. Every fat person you see is evidence that eating can be bad for you if taken to extremes. Every meth head I see just reinforces my lack of desire to snort crank. Let's bring personal responsibility back into the picture here. If you abuse drugs, you ruin your body, screw up your family and social relationships, and blow money that you could spend on far more productive things. The burglary and mugging rate would plummet if drugs were legalized and the open market drove the prices down. Sure, excessive drug use is a form of slow suicide, but so is overeating. More people die of heart disease caused by bad diet and obesity than by drug abuse. Think about that. Again, do you want to illegalize chocolate cake, sugar, and French fries with the excuse that we'd be saving lives?
If the "sins" of prostitution, gambling and drugs were decriminalized, we would be left with a much leaner, understandable criminal justice system. Police would be freed to catch the thieves, murderers and rapists (and even a few more politicians). The American people would be challenged to act like rational adults living in a free society. Strangely enough, that seems to have been the plan when this nation was founded. Are we really willing to throw it away and hand our liberties over to the likes of the DEA, ATF and vice squad bureaucracies that thrive symbiotically on the criminal class? You see, the bottom line is that the criminalization of prostitution, gambling and dope has made an organized criminal out of our own government. Think about it.
Correction: In Kirby Ferris' last column, a typo occurred. Stalin was responsible for 20 million deaths in Russia, not 200 million as printed.