Al ‘Scarface’ Capone

Why we are Losing the ‘War on Drugs’

Drew Gray, Lecturer in the History of Crime, looks back at this week in history…

On 17 October 1931 Al ‘Scarface’ Capone was sent to prison for tax evasion. Capone had risen from a small time mobster to head Johnny Torrio’s illegal gambling business empire in Chicago. Notoriously violent and unstable, Capone largely managed to evade prosecution until Elliot Ness’ ‘Untouchables’ finally built a case against him based on his accounts if not his criminal actions. Capone went to jail in Atlanta was then moved to the infamous Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay. He was released 8 years later on license and died in 1947 in Palm Beach.

Capone, like other Mafia gangsters that have been variously glorified or demonised through a series of Hollywood films and the recent Boardwalk Empire series from HBO, profited from the US government’s attempt to prohibit the sale of alcohol. Prohibition lasted from 1920 to its repeal 1933 and prompted the rise of organised crime in a country awash with firearms after the end of the Great War in 1918. Men like Capone traded in intimidation and violence, brutally settling scores and gunning down their enemies. Capone will be forever synonymous with the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 when his gang murdered 7 rivals.

In 1968, on the 18th October, John Lennon and Yoko Ono (later to be his second wife), were arrested on drugs charges. Police raided their London home and used sniffer dogs to hunt for illegal substances. They found 200 grams of cannabis resin (hashish) and paraphernalia for making ‘joints’.

Ono was pregnant and this caused as much of a scandal as the drugs bust, as John was still married to Cynthia Lennon and Ono had a husband of her own. The trauma of the arrest was said to have precipitated a miscarriage and the couple lost the baby. The arresting officer, Detective Sergeant Norman Pilcher, later went on to ‘bust’ another Beatle, George Harrison.

Both events highlight the problems of enforcing the prohibition of drugs or alcohol. Earlier this year a former undercover drugs squad detective, Neil Woods, broke ranks and spoke about the harm he believed was being done in the name of the ‘war on drugs’. Woods has set up an organisation called LEAP who are ‘a global network of law enforcement figures who seek alternatives to failing, punitive drug laws.’

Woods’ argument is that while the police prosecute the users of drugs the ‘gangsters’ often manage to escape and are becoming ever more violent in their attempts to stay ahead of the law. By ceasing what is, in his opinion, a futile attempt at prohibition, society could effectively reduce crime at a stroke. His reasoning is that perhaps as much as one third to a half of all acquisitive crime is drug related. If drugs were legalised but subjected to government control (as tobacco and alcohol are) then the cost to society of drug related crime could be halved.

Capone and the other Mafia bosses from the 1920s and 30s profited from misguided legislation, arguably a similar mindset amongst politicians desperate not to be the ones that legalise drugs, is continuing to allow vicious and unscrupulous criminals to profit today.

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Originally published at on October 19, 2016.