Monday, May 18, 2009

The Simplest Answer to the Drug Problem

The simplest answer to the enormous drug problem which envelopes our city will probably not happen anytime soon, but it deserves consideration and discussion nonetheless. Let's start off by agreeing, as most conscious Americans have for over two decades now, that the "War on Drugs" is an absolute failure. Our national strategy towards stamping out drug use has had virtually no effect on what goes on in the real world. We have neither the manpower, resources, nor prison space to stop the drug trade by using aggressive police enforcement. It's not like we haven't tried; America has more people locked up in prison than any other country on Earth, and the plurality (the most of any category of crime) of those prisoners are being held for drug related offenses. But the drug trade continues, unabated, with the hits it takes from law enforcement just part of the cost of doing business - especially in Baltimore. What we need to truly combat this problem is a gamechanger, something that will throw all the cards up in the air and let them fall, hopefully in the stack of a more functional society. The quickest and most effective way to achieve this is a cashless society.

Why do we still have cash? The information technology networks that allow virtually everyone to use "credit or debit" at virtually every retail business in America are now fully developed. We all know people who voluntarily choose to rarely use cash simply as a matter of convenience, so they don't have to make that extra step trip to the ATM machine. Large purchases, such as houses, business to business transactions etc have not used cash for decades or even centuries because of security concerns over the risk of currency notes being robbed. Person to person transactions on monies owed can easily be accomplished through bank transfers or PayPal. So why are we still using this stuff? So some restaurants, bars and nightclubs and their employees can cheat on their taxes? So we can continue to pay illegal immigrants off the books? To keep a drug trade alive that relies on cash transactions?

Now typically when you hear this idea brought up, a standard reply heard is "Somebody will just figure out a way to do it without cash.” I have no doubt someone will. But I do doubt that person will be Dave the Dopefiend or Sam the Smack Dealer. Now it’s worth mentioning that in our current drug economy people further up the ladder have found a way to launder their cash and turn it into real income that can be used for large purchases such as houses, cars, investments etc. A cashless economy would push this need for money laundering further down the totem pole however, onto street level dealers and more importantly, run of the mill drug users who are not exactly known for their information technology prowess when it comes to covering up electronic trails. The results would be apocalyptic for the drug trade as we know it, and while it most likely would not eliminate it entirely, it would push drug dealers off the street corners (where you can’t use debit card machines) and into cyberspace, a realm that would be frankly much easier to investigate and prosecute than the current guerilla warfare set up of law enforcement we have on the east and west sides of Charm City.

Two interesting case studies that parallel what I’m talking about are the prostitution and pornography businesses. Both of these businesses have largely and voluntarily gone electronic since the mass adoption of the Internet in the mid 1990’s. The result is that you rarely see a street walking prostitute in a major city anymore, whereas pre-Internet they were everywhere. It’s also increasingly hard to find Red Light districts littered with sex shops when people can simply find pornography and erotic products online. Even The Block, Baltimore’s own Mecca of sleaze , is a skeleton of its former self due to the migration of its business onto the web. The introduction, at long last, of a cashless economy would push drugs off the streets as well, minimize their sale to transactions between only the most enterprising and electronically savvy dealers and buyers, and make it much, much easier to detect drug activity and prosecute it through the use of the electronic trail.

There will be business practices and aspects of our lives that change in a cashless America, of course. Marijuana users, for instance, are going to be pissed that the coke and heroin dealers fucked it up for everyone else by necessitating on the books transactions. But perhaps this will allow for a more real democracy. If people really want to smoke pot, then they should vote for candidates that push to legalize it. As it is now, we have entire shadow portions of our economy that never come up for consideration in the public square, simply because it's easier to pursue them off the books with cash money.

So why won’t it happen? People are stuck in their ways for one and despite voting Barack Obama President during a financial crisis, are resistant to major change at a base level. We all know that if a cashless society was seriously proposed by a politician, the blowhards would come out in full force, with some conservative prick saying it would be government taking away our “freedoms” or some liberal prick saying that government would pry too much into our lives without the shield of $100 or $200 worth of paper in each of our pockets to save us. But putting these knee jerk reactions aside, a cashless society would go a long way toward preventing and disabling the drug trade and myriad other crimes from taking place. It should be given serious consideration. Preferably after a walk around the West Side of Baltimore.

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