Vice is Nice for Organized Crime

black Image of scales on white background with the words, "calibrate the scales" overlaid. As with any set of scales, the scales of justice must, from time to time, be recalibrated. Total balance is never achieved, but all in the criminal justice and legal systems must strive for it as much as possible.

By C. J. Oakes

The Issue: One of the biggest revenue-generating tools for Organized Crime is Vice. Thus, Vice is Nice for Organized Crime, but not so much the Criminal Justice System.

The Essay: Vice is Nice for Organized Crime

As long as there have been laws there have been people circumventing the laws to their advantage; as long as there have been drugs, there have been people who like to use these substances.  Many suggest that Organized Crime began in America with Pirates or Privateers (Mallory, 2007).  Regardless of the truth of that notion, organized crime does operate much as the Pirates that plied the coasts of America in the 1700s; it seeks in demand goods and services not supplied through legal channels or at a reduced cost (Lyman & Potter, 2007).  Drugs, alcohol included, fit nicely into the repertoire of goods provided.

Organized crime thrives on vice. Vice, kept in place through codified law, provides fertile ground in which organized crime groups can rapidly grow wealth.
Organized crime thrives on vice. Vice, kept in place through codified law, provides fertile ground in which organized crime groups can rapidly grow wealth.

Recent researchers have determined that American Organized Crime did not begin with the Italians, but these have been the most visible because of their ties to bootlegging during Alcohol Prohibition coupled with sensational stories developed by Hollywood producers.  Attempts by the national government to eliminate these crime families likewise fueled speculation that the Italians control Organized crime (Lyman & Potter, 2007).  However, a careful examination reveals that these groups were just another in a series of groups that began as youth gangs or clubs.  The major difference is that the Italian groups acted as a catalyst for governmental regulations that fueled only growth in Organized Crime (Hagedorn, 2006).

Alcohol Prohibition and Organized Crime

Most Organized Crime groups prior to modern day originated as youth clubs that eventually turned to crime for various reasons, but later turned to legal enterprises, such as politics and manufacturing.  Just when the Italian youth groups were coming of age, Alcohol Prohibition was instituted nationwide.  In addition, the onset of the Great Depression a short time thereafter further closed off any prospects of legitimate employment for most, so bootlegging became not only a lucrative option, but also the only one for many.  Already established in vice with prostitution and gambling rings, these young gangs turned to selling illegal alcohol and enjoyed substantial profits (Mallory, 2007).

Over time, many enterprising young criminals developed large networks and even larger lifestyles.  Hence, when Prohibition ended, continued illegal activity was the only sensible path.  Hall (2010) noted that these crime groups did not develop in a vacuum, but rather were enabled by the political forces of the time.  Indeed, the 18th Amendment was passed by Congress in 1917 but not ratified until 1919.  Prohibition did not take effect for another full year with the passage of the Volstead Act.  This gave enterprising individuals time to organize.

In addition, alcohol prohibition was implemented state-by-state in the years leading to national prohibition so that some states were wet and others dry.  Hence, bootleggers were already entrenched by the time the Volstead Act passed, running alcohol from wet states to dry (Hall, 2010).  Hence, by the time of implementation of Alcohol Prohibition in America, Organized Crime groups had the infrastructure in place for rapid growth.

Drug Prohibition and Organized Crime

Prior to Alcohol Prohibition, drugs such as cocaine and opium were restricted and young gangs of Blacks had already begun filling orders for these goods.  In cities, such as Philadelphia and Chicago, these groups had already built considerable networks for drugs as well as numbers rackets (Hagedorn, 2006); during this time the group called the Black Mafia formed in Philadelphia (Lombardo, 2002).

Frank Costello, American mobster, testifying b...
Frank Costello, American mobster, testifying before the Kefauver Committee investigating organized crime (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Such organized crime figures grew wealthy and powerful by filling a demand for vice of all sorts including gambling, prostitution, and substances, primarily alcohol.

In Chicago, Al Capone made a deal with an African American Organized Crime group called the Policy Kings that if the Kings refrained from bootlegging, the Outfit would refrain from policy (Hagedorn, 2006).  The Policy Kings developed as a result of an influx of African Americans into Chicago after World War I coupled with official segregation by the ruling Irish.  Shut out of legitimate economic activity, groups of Blacks found ways to make a living—selling drugs that had been prohibited a few years earlier and running numbers rackets (Lombardo, 2002).

However with the end of Alcohol Prohibition, Capone broke his truce and began involvement in numbers (Hagedorn, 2006).  Drugs remained the sole property of African American Organized Crime for many years.

Italian Organized Crime Enters the Illicit Drug Trade

Carlo Gambino, as head of one of the most powerful Italian Organized Crime groups made it known that drugs were not something their families should be involved with.  His concern was that drugs would create a gateway for Federal enforcement to infiltrate the ranks of the organizations (Lyman & Potter, 2007).  However, his concerns were largely ignored and by the 1960s, Italian groups were taking over the drug trade in America; according to Harry Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, this shift began much earlier, though little evidence was offered to back his assertions.  Some speculate that this claim was made by Anslinger simply to obtain additional funding and power for his organization (Kinder & Walker III, 1986; Becucci, 2004).

Whatever the case, by the 1970s, the Italian mob clearly held control over the majority of heroin entering the nation as seen from the investigation into the famous French Connection (Lyman & Potter, 2007).

However, when the stakes are high and sizeable profits are to be had, there will always be those who find a way to keep more of the returns for themselves.  Frank Lucas eliminated the middle-men, the Italians, in New York City during the 1970s and across the nation similar Organized Crime groups took similar steps with varying degrees of success (Mallory, 2007).  By the 80s, Columbian Organized Crime had come to dominate the market as demand shifted from heroin to cocaine.  In the 90s, the prohibition against MDMA, or Extasy gave rise to Israeli and other groups. In the new millennium, the collapse of the Soviet Union brought Russian Organized Crime groups into the narcotics arena (Lyman & Potter, 2007).  The illegal drug trade is international.


During the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Organized Crime groups fought over territory and product supplies.  This enabled government forces to take steps to control the growth of numerous Organized Crime figures, such as Pablo Escobar in Columbia (Mallory, 2007).  However, no single Organized Crime group can currently be said to dominate any portion of the drug trade (Lyman & Potter, 2007) and many groups have begun working together rather than compete.

The lucrative trade in drugs as a result of public demand has given rise to multi-national Organized Crime groups often working jointly for the benefit of all (Becucci, 2004).  Thus, whereas trading in vice products, such as Alcohol provided stimulus for the growth of Organized Crime, expansion into drugs by nearly all such groups has ensured that such activities have become a mainstay for law enforcement combatants.

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  • Becucci, S. (2004). Old and New Actors in the Italian Drug Trade: Ethnic Succession or Functional Specialization? European Journal on Criminal Policy & Research, 10(4), 257-283.
  • Hagedorn, J. M. (Spring2006). Race Not Space: A Revisionist History of Gangs in Chicago. Journal of African American History, 91(2), 194-208.
  • Hall, W. (Jul2010). What are the policy lessons of National Alcohol Prohibition in the United States, 1920-1933? Addiction, 105(7), 1164-73.
  • Kinder, D. C., & Walker III, W. O. (Mar1986). Stable Force in a Storm: Harry J. Anslinger and United States Narcotic Foreign Policy, 1930-1962. Journal of American History, 72(4), 908-27.
  • Lombardo, R. M. (July2002). The Black Mafia: African-American organized crime in Chicago 1890-1960. Crime, Law, & Social Change, 38(1), 33-65.
  • Lyman, M. D., & Potter, G. W. (2007). Organized Crime (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentis Hall.
  • Mallory, S. L. (2007). Understanding Organized Crime. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

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