Australia is in a dither about how to combat the bikie scourge. The Queensland government’s 2013 response to bikies was, at the time, the nation’s strongest. It included far-reaching anti-association laws, and went so far as to push for a bikie-only prison and mandatory additional 15- to 25-year sentences for crimes committed as part of a gang.

So much trampling on civil liberties was probably a bad idea, Queenslanders eventually decided. In 2016 the Newman government rode off into the sunset and Anastasia Palaszczuk watered down the more controversial parts of the laws.

NSW brought in its own anti-bikie laws after a 2009 brawl at Sydney airport. The ombudsman eventually concluded that “the Act does not provide police with a viable mechanism to tackle criminal organisations and is unlikely to ever be able to be used effectively”.

All this law-making has had ambiguous results. The news is full of stories of bikies being arrested, but that also seems to indicate many bikies are still out there committing crimes: Cops are busily trying to clean up guns and drugs on the NSW/Victoria border; seven bikies were just acquitted of torture in NSW and released; and a turf war is reportedly brewing in Tasmania as rival gangs compete for the rights to sell drugs in the state.

Looking at things upside down 

Australia’s gang problem is tiny compared to other countries. But a new study on drugs and crime in America hints that there might be a different way to stop bikies. And it involves loosening laws, not tightening them.

The study, by Norwegian academics, looks at what happened to gang activity along the Mexican border after big changes to drug policy in America.

“We find that medical marijuana laws lead to a strong decrease in crime in regions where violent Mexican drug trafficking organisations and their affiliated gangs are active,” the authors find.

The introduction of medical marijuana laws made cannabis far more accessible to all sorts of people. But more importantly, it made growing cannabis more accessible to a larger range of businesses, including legitimate ones, for the first time.

“Our estimates suggest that the introduction of medical marijuana laws reduce the violent crime rate in Mexican-border states by between 5.6% and 12.5% even though medical marijuana laws only open the door for small- and medium-scale production of marijuana. Extrapolating from our results, we consider it likely that the full legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington will have an even stronger impact on drug trafficking organisations as large-scale marijuana production facilities are erected in these states,” the report finds.

Mexican cartels are watching one of their biggest markets collapse before their eyes, with the profit being taken up by savvy US entrepreneurs.

The insight of the study is that violence associated with gang activity occurs only when running drugs is profitable. If you take away the profit, there is less motivation for gangs to exist, or to engage in violent turf wars. Even for dangerous criminals, violence is costly, and they will mostly engage in it only when there is upside.

Interestingly, the paper also finds that once a gang has a distribution system in operation, it becomes possible to commit other crimes efficiently. The cost of running cocaine and smuggling people is, for example, defrayed by the costs of smuggling marijuana. Reducing profits from one line of criminal enterprise can squeeze other lines of business.

Could it work for Australia?

In Australia, there has been much debate focused on whether drug use should be decriminalised. Decriminalisation is a great way to prevent users from ending up with criminal records, and of unclogging the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the benefits seen in the study might not follow from decriminalization — it is the change in production that delivers the hammer blow to organized crime.

Government-sanctioned meth labs don’t seem likely just yet. While quite a few informed people have called for methamphetamine to be legalized, most informed people would accept that is very, very unlikely to ever happen.

Legalised marijuana is not exactly inside the Overton window either. But given recent changes in the US, where marijuana is not only legal but becoming a big business, it seems far more likely to become a topic of discussion in coming years. If that conversation ever does happen, remember that the crowd opposing legalisation will be helping to keep the bikies afloat.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.