Pot Matters: Legalize Cannabis and Fight Terrorism

Referring to cannabis, Franco Roberti, Italy’s national anti-mafia and anti-terrorism chief and top prosecutor, recently told Reuters that: “Decriminalization or even legalization would definitely be a weapon against traffickers, among whom there could be terrorists who make money off of it."

The case in point is the role of Islamic State (IS or ISIS) operatives in the smuggling of hashish (compressed cannabis resin) from Eastern Libya into Italy. The hashish originates in Morocco and is transported through Algeria and Tunisia to reach Tobruk in Eastern Libya. An important part of that route involves the city of Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast, and the most powerful ISIS stronghold outside of Syria and Iraq. According to Roberti, “Certainly IS controls the Libya route; it controls the coast along the Gulf of Sirte."

Italian anti-drug investigations have linked ISIS activity in North Africa with Italian organized crime groups.

A report released April 18 by IHS, an intelligence analysis firm, estimates that the narcotics trade accounts for just under 7 percent of the terrorist state’s overall income (with most of their money coming from confiscation of property, taxation and the sale of oil). In the last year, the monthly income of ISIS has fallen from $86 million to $56 million.

Italy is paying close attention to the financial activity of ISIS and other terrorist groups, noting the similarities between the way they seek revenue and the activities of organized crime groups, like Cosa Nostra (the Sicilian Mafia). Roberti explained to Reuters that "international terrorism finances itself with criminal activities that are typical of the mafia, like drug trafficking, smuggling commercial goods, smuggling oil, smuggling archaeological relics and art, kidnapping for ransom, and extortion."

Roberti oversees both organized crime and terrorism investigations in Italy. Investigating cannabis dealers is a costly and wasteful activity, and futile, as he estimates that cannabinoid trafficking has been increasing. He noted that cannabis is less harmful than many other illegal drugs and recommended that both Italy and other European countries actively debate decriminalization.

Roberti’s comments have been reported widely, including in pieces from the Washington Post and the Jerusalem Post. The Washington Post noted, “Advocates of marijuana legalization and other drug policy reforms have made this sort of argument for years. But there are signs that it is now gaining wider traction.”

The connection between organized crime, which includes South and Central American drug cartels in addition to traditional mafia-type organizations, and terrorism is greater than various business relationships, such as the participation of ISIS in the North Africa-to-Italy hashish trade. Experts now recognize another facet of international terrorism—criminal dissident terrorism.

According to Gus Martin, author of Understanding Terrorism (a college textbook from Sage Publications), “criminal organizations have engaged in documented cases of terrorist violence, the characteristic of which can be summarized with at least two models: (1) profit-motivated traditional criminal enterprises [and] (2) politically motivated criminal-political enterprises.” 

In the first case, criminal organizations profit from providing terrorist groups with goods and services. In the second case, “dissident movements have become increasingly involved in transnational organized crime” to benefit from the sales of illegal arms or drugs. Here, Martin points to the narcotraficantes led by Pablo Escobar in Colombia, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Mexican narcotraficantes and other organized crime groups around the world as examples. Perhaps a classic, and contemporary, example consists of the Taliban’s involvement in the opium and heroin trade in Afghanistan and its role in funding the group’s campaign of domestic terrorism.

The use of terrorism by organized crime groups in Italy (the Sicilian Mafia, the Camorra and the 'Ndrangheta) is well-documented. As reported by Martin, “from 1971 to 1991, about 40 judges, law enforcement officers, politicians and others were assassinated… In Sicily alone, an average of 100 people are killed each year by Sicilian Mafia violence.”

It is widely acknowledged that the illegal drug trade produces billions of dollars annually in profits for criminal organizations. Roberti wants to make the public more aware that these profits fuel both organized crime and terrorism. Any semantic distinction between the two types of activities are effectively meaningless in contemporary times, given the violent activities of both criminal and criminal-political enterprises.

Roberti’s recent comments provide valuable support for the argument in favor of global legalization. The Italian prosecutor makes a persuasive case that the legalization of cannabis is an important step in reducing the profits available to terrorist organization, not just in the Americas, but also in Europe and throughout the world.

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