I just had a troubling experience in one of the local businesses that cater to my college. I happened to see the proprietor paying one of the "locals" what looked a lot like protection money. I could be wrong, but when the proprietor opens up the cash register without ringing up a sale and hands a significant amount of money to a tattooed man wearing an expensive Chicago Bulls jersey under a hooded sweatshirt, and similarly "thuggish" pants and shoes, who then stands around and waits until the proprietor adds a little more money on top, said proprietor looking uncharacteristically grim the whole time—you begin to wonder.
We describe Washington Heights (our part of town) as the drug capital of the East Coast, with good reason. As described in this 1998 article, "Fed by six bridges and three major highways, Washington Heights was accessible from New Jersey, Westchester and Connecticut, as well as from the rest of the city. It had one of New York's largest and most thinly stretched police precincts, the 34th." In short, the perfect place for a centralized market for illegal goods, i.e. drugs.
The artcle details how bad things used to be here, and how much better they were in 1998. But "better" is still not "good." And drug crime does not stand on its own, but feeds a larger culture of criminality and corruption. We know from Prohibition that whenever a highly desired commodity is forbidden, not only will it continue to be sold but its sales will strengthen criminals and undermine societal institutions. That being the case, we need to ask whether the public goods created by drug prohibition outweigh the public ills, or if the cost is simply too high.
In recent years, the drug trade has returned (scroll to the bottom article); the drug most commonly sold here is said to be marijuana. This makes the situation more problematic, for marijuana is arguably less destructive to society than is alcohol, and (among my generation at least) has lost much of its stigma. Government statistics show college-age monthly marijuana use at around 20%, which seems accurate from where I see things. What such statistics do not show is the high proportion of students who do not use themselves, but who see nothing wrong with their friends using under controlled circumstances. The biggest danger associated with marijuana is car crashes, not anything intrinsic to the drug itself (aside from some long-term effects on memory formation and cancer rates). Nobody has ever died from a THC overdose; many die from alcohol poisoning. Moreover, the so-called "gateway" theory of marijuana use leading to hard drug use has been thrown into doubt by the RAND Corporation.
At this point, everyone who wants to smoke marijuana already does, law or no law. Prohibition only serves to keep the price high and the profits flowing to criminal gangs.
I do not believe, as some do, that government has no right to outlaw specific behaviors it deems harmful. (Full-time marijuana activists in particular seem a few grams short of a joint on this topic.) I also do not necessarily believe that all drugs should be legal. But when the prohibition of relatively benign substances like marijuana allows a general culture of crime to flourish, it is time to weigh the costs of legalization versus continuing the status quo.
Would protection rackets suddenly vanish overnight from Washington Heights if marijuana and only marijuana suddenly became legal? Probably not. But it couldn't hurt.