Poacher Turned Gamekeeper: Why We Must Recruit Drug Dealers into Legal Markets

by Tom Risby


Illicit market operators are perfect candidates to recruit into recreational cannabis markets, representing an opportunity to place social justice at the core of the industry.

Global momentum for regulatory change when it comes to cannabis is building. Even authoritarian regimes such as Thailand are embracing medicinal cannabis programs, whilst legal recreational markets emerge in the Americas and Europe.

New recreational cannabis markets are operating in societies which previously endorsed prohibition, and it is vital, therefore, that they are given supporting infrastructure and legislation from the state to reinforce often controversial policy change.

One such measure that must be adopted is the recruitment of current and former operators in the illicit market into burgeoning recreational cannabis markets. Currently being trialled in Massachusetts, utilising the expertise of former black-market dealers and producers would be hugely beneficial.

Firstly, it serves to blunt the effectiveness of illegal trade, by removing the organisational memory operating within the illicit market, whilst simultaneously bolstering the regulated industry with their skills and experience. 

Secondly, a social justice-focused approach to legalisation dictates that communities criminalised by prohibition should be offered some form of compensation, and one way to partially fulfil this obligation is the recruitment of those who suffered injustices under the previous regime.

The dissolution of the black market and ‘taking money out the hands of criminals’ are oft-cited by proponents of recreational cannabis as rationale for a legal and regulated market. It is naive, however, to suggest that the introduction of a legal sales environment will cause the illicit market to disappear overnight. Unregulated and diverse as it is, the illicit market is remarkably flexible and will find ways to compete and thrive. 

The resilience of the illicit trade is well evidenced: according to experts in California (where recreational cannabis has been legal for five years) some 80-90% of the market remains underground. Businesses have cited high taxes, the limited availability of licences and expansive regulatory costs as some of the reasons why it is difficult to compete with the black market.  The main reason, however, is that municipalities were allowed to retain prohibition if they saw fit. As such, less than a third of cities in California allow legal cannabis business.

Black market success also undermines the other ambitions of legalisation, namely ensuring product quality and standards, and the generation of potentially very healthy tax revenues. The elimination of the illicit market is a necessary condition if the creation of a legalised recreational market is to be judged a success. 

So, what steps must be taken in order to effectively eliminate the illicit market?

A focus on the product is a must – it must consistently be of higher quality than the black market alternative, at the same if not lower price. This is simple economics: demand will increase for legal cannabis, and decrease for black market alternatives. This might require subsidising the industry before benefits from economies of scale emerge, but the transfer of most, if not all, business to the legal sector would probably offset these costs.

The infrastructure of the black market must also be thoroughly dismantled, rather than simply provided with a competitor. A regulatory mechanism is required through which the illicit industry can be disassembled and prevented from operating in parallel with legal access. 

Recruiting those currently working in the illicit market into the legal sector is one solution to this problem. The nodes of the illegal trade are the dealers and growers; without this chain of black market operators, the product cannot be sold. 

Directly absorbing these people into the legal framework immediately reduces the power and size of the black market, while assimilating them into a legitimate sector, filling job vacancies, boosting employment and further increasing fiscal multiplier effects. 

Moreover, these are the people most directly affected by the reversal of prohibition. In the same way that renewable energy firms are retraining and hiring those who previously worked in coal, oil and gas, these people should be provided with opportunities and recruited into the legal framework, removing any incentive to remain in non-legal markets.

There are certain characteristics which make black market operators ideally suited to working in the legal cannabis sector. They will likely know about cannabis quality and production, as well as consumer wants and needs.

Black market operations are often sophisticated enterprises with a number of separate entities (growers, packagers, runners and operational heads) that are all necessary roles in the legal market. Every firm advertising for non-entry level roles in the current job market expects prior experience in its respective sector.

If there are British people with experience in cannabis, that is inherently valuable, and the legality of the substance at the time at which they gained that experience should be irrelevant. 

As with everyone, their lives and situations are the products of nature and nurture. Prohibition has resulted in these people growing up in fractured communities where they were exposed to the illicit drug market from a young age. 

They are often recruited in their vulnerability, presented with opportunities to make money when no other jobs appear available or support on which to rely. The black market promises wealth and power, but often brings only danger and violence. 

But individual differences also need to be taken into account. Drug dealer recidivism has been variously linked with neuroticism and extraversion, which is unsurprising. In addition to the various social factors that produce conditions conducive to being sucked into the drug trade, these people are likely outgoing personalities with risk taking characteristics, who can shine in a competitive sales environment. These biological factors promote the likelihood that these people will not just survive but thrive in a legal market setting. 

Would this be an attractive proposition for black market workers? If the rewards are competitive enough. A swap to the legal sector would provide income and job security, ensure no immediate danger of criminal prosecution or dangerous drug-related violence, and improve working conditions. 

Faced with comparable rewards, it can be anticipated that most people would prefer not to be operating in an illicit industry, given the protections the legal sector affords. Every attempt should be made to provide those currently alienated from the mainstream with better opportunities than those to which they currently have access, by welcoming them back into the lawful economy, undermining illicit operations.

The war on drugs has been irreversibly damaging to many communities and peoples in the UK. By taking a ‘tough on drugs’ stance, government and law enforcement has pushed illegal operations further underground, embedding them in the hearts of communities, as well as creating the conflict and violence that typifies common conceptions of the drug trade.

The result is neighbourhoods that are dangerous and draining to grow up in, whole communities are suspicious of the police, and a wealth gap increased by limiting support to these disadvantaged areas.

It’s a vicious cycle: children and teenagers see role models in their rich older friends and view drug money as a quick and easy route to relative prosperity when they’re sorely lacking any other opportunities.

If legalisation were to occur, this would be an implicit admission from the government that: 

  1. a) prohibition was morally wrong, and
  2. b) prohibition was unsuccessful in achieving its supposed aims. 

In either case, the people and communities that have been systematically oppressed by the current policy must be compensated, as the punishment of these communities was morally impermissible. 

Evidence suggests that over a century of prohibition has been entirely ineffective at reducing rates of drug use. Those communities that have been disproportionately affected by the prohibition of cannabis deserve compensation.

Many dealers and former black market operators are members of those communities. Likewise, the criminalisation of cannabis has resulted in thousands of people being imprisoned for cannabis-related crimes.

The injustices done to them and their communities via the criminalisation of drugs are vast and multi-faceted, and it seems one easy way to work towards correcting this treatment is the provision of job opportunities in what would be a blossoming legal sector. 

This would provide a basis of support on which communities can start to recover from the injustices served to them. The alternative would be handing control of the industry straight over to big business and faceless corporations, which is undesirable from an ethical as well as a competitive economic standpoint. The legal cannabis sector brings with it the opportunity to be an exemplar in ethical business practises, so let’s do it right when it comes around.

Brexit, for better or worse, has provided the UK with manoeuvrability in the policy space, and the potential for dynamism should be used to create the most efficient, effective and ethical policy to lead the world in new industries. I believe that should legalisation of recreational cannabis occur, the recruitment of former dealers is one such policy. 

As with everything relating to cannabis, stigma and fear are holding policy change back. But if the public could overcome the initial trepidation, I believe they would see this idea for what it is: a policy to help the blossoming legal cannabis market, as well as some of those most severely harmed by prohibition.

Tom Risby is an intern at the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis and passionate about sensible and ethical drug reform. Tweets @R15BY




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