Prohibition makes a life outside of school or work far too easy
On Friday, the Independent published a profile feature I'd written of a man, Ali Niaz, who used to be a drug dealer and is now about to finish a postgraduate course at Cambridge University, via prison.
The turnaround is remarkable and commendable, a result partly of support by a businessman (charity and individuals have been plugging the state's leaks since long before an ironically top-down rebranding as the 'big society') and partly through the opportunity to change his life and the sheer will to do so.
If the latter part of the story is an unusual one, the beginning is all too common: young men growing up in poorer areas, in need or want of money, starting off peddling a little weed as teenagers and then graduating to class-A drugs later – and eschewing school or straight work. Take a spoonful of avarice, heat it up and inject it directly into a vein of hopelessness that pervades these estates, and you're cooking up the perfect environment for illicit activity to flourish, at the expense of education or (legitimate) enterprise.
“There's no real opportunities to do anything," Niaz explains. "You come outside and you want things that you see on TV, and the only way of getting them is to do what you see outside your house. All the old guys on the estate, they drive around in their nice cars, nice clothes, chains and everything. Basically that's what you want, and the only way to get it is either to steal or to sell drugs. And I chose to sell drugs."
It's certainly no help that there are few job opportunities. But prohibition, a futile attempt to legislate against the laws of supply and demand, has created the temptation for young men to decline to work hard and sell drugs instead. Many will inevitably find it irresistible.
"Why would you want to work a 9-to-5 and get five pound an hour?" Niaz asked when I first interviewed him last September. It's a fair question. "I used to make £4000 a week profit. I spent a lot of money. Now, I get £200 a week wages and I fucking work hard for it. I've got a son now and I don't want to go back to jail and I've got certain opportunities, but who would want to work for £200 a week when they can sell drugs?
"And a lot of people can't even get jobs, especially with what's going on in the world now. People without qualifications can't even get jobs let alone us with no qualifications. And then they tell us 'you shouldn't sell drugs'. What else are we supposed to do? You're not giving us any income, you're not giving us any jobs, it's on our doorstep to be able to sell drugs and make a good living and live a lifestyle like we see on TV. Why are we not going to do it? It's easy."
Life imitates art right here. Niaz's comment closely echoes the 2000 social-drama film Traffic, in which the head of the Office for National Drug Control Policy, played by Michael Douglas, is out searching for his addict daughter in a part of Cincinnati, Ohio that can at best be described as “rough”. His daughter’s boyfriend – or more probably ex-boyfriend, given that by this point in the story the girl has become a crack-whore – is asked how he could have brought her to this place, and responds with:
“Why don’t you just back the fuck up man? ‘To this place’? What is that shit? Right now, all over this great nation of ours, 100,000 white people from the suburbs are cruising around downtown asking every black person they see, ‘You got any drugs?’ ‘You know where I can score some drugs?’
“Think about the effect that has on the psyche of a black person, on their possibilities. I guarantee you, if you bring 100,000 black people into your neighbourhood – into fuckin’ Indian Hill – and they’re asking every white person they see, 'You got any drugs?’ ‘You know where I can score some drugs?’… within a day everyone would be selling. Your friends, their kids. Here’s why: It’s an unbeatable market force, man; it’s a 300% mark-up value.
“You can go out on the street and make $500 in two hours and come back and do whatever you want to do with the rest of your day, and, I’m sorry – you’re telling me that white people would still be going to law school?”
In at least some of the US, the lure of the illegal drug trade is far greater than here in the UK, and children are reeled into its net with some particularly attractive and targeted bait. Neill Franklin, formerly of the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department, compares it to growing up in, say, a mining town.
"When you have a community, when you have kids growing up in that community, first of all they are absolutely 100% products of their environment," he says. "The drug trade is, in many neighbourhoods, the number one single employer, the number one single employment opportunity, for the people in those communities.
"Now, you have the kids growing up in these communities. They see, and therefore know, that most of the money made is by way of the illegal drug trade. It would be like a kid growing up in a mining town where most of the people there are miners. All the people in that mining town are miners, or involved in the mining business. So unless you move up out of that community, you can probably say you're going to be a miner."
Not only can the seemingly easy money appear attractive, but the neighbourhood kids are actively, and manipulatively, recruited too.
"When you have a young male and say that this young male has been doing very well going to school, but then, one day – and it's going to happen – one day this young male is going to be approached by one of the neighbourhood drug dealers," Franklin says. "And they're going to give him $100 or a couple hundred dollars, and tell, him, you know 'those tennis shoes you have are pretty old; why don't you go and buy yourself some of the latest and greatest?'. And I don't think you're going to find too many kids who are going to turn down a couple hundred dollars.
"And they don't understand that they're being trapped and that they're being set up, so they take the money and they go to the local shoe store and from that moment on they've been had. That young man has just been recruited and they don't even know it." Frankiln says they'll either enjoy the money and come back for more, or be forced to pay it off by carrying a package or acting as a lookout.
Now, not every kid who sells a few drugs is potential Cambridge material, just as only a minority will ever go to prison or be party to, or victim of, the violence that often accompanies the trade. But from the perspective of wider society, they'd always be better off in a legal (and therefore taxed) job than working in a criminal underworld, and it would even be preferable to have them on benefits rather than in jail.
Much of the time, children from poorer backgrounds need incentives to stay in school. The ease with which they can make money by illegally selling drugs gives them an incentive not to. For all the handwringing about the use of drugs possibly causing young people to waste their potential, the ready provision of a career outside of the law means that the prohibition of them does exactly the same.