“I believe this drug business is going to destroy us in the years to come. It’s not like gambling, liquor or even women…it’s just something that most people want nowadays and it’s forbidden to them. Even the police departments, who’ve helped us in the past with gambling, are going to refuse to help us when it comes to narcotics. And I believe that then, and I believe that now… Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather
You will soon see how eerily prescient this statement was. Although the Mafia has long been associated with drug trafficking, it wasn’t always this way. There was a lengthy period when Mafia dons were unwilling to allow their underlings deal in narcotics. Some Mafia leaders even paid their crews extra as incentives to steer clear of drug dealing. Although the infamous Paul Castellano barred the Gambino family from dealing in drugs, this didn’t stop John Gotti and his soldiers from trafficking heroin. The allure of huge, easy money proved to be too much to avoid the business all together. To illustrate how the Mafia got into the drug trade, we have to look back a little.
Prior to the Mafia’s entry into the drug business, most of the heroin used by America’s addicts came from China. A lesser supply came from the Middle East and the Corsican gangs in Marseilles, who would in due course team up with the Mafia. During World War II this entire complex was practically destroyed by the fate of war. The fighting on land and sea in and around Europe and North Africa and Japan’s attack of China in effect dismantled the foundation of the heroin’s manufacture and the trade routes over which the drug was distributed. Since the resources was not there, the demand lessened in the United States. Then following WWII the Mafia become immensely wealthy in drug distribution, by saturating the land with heroin, initially introducing it in the lowest income cities.
Prior to this, although the Mafia dabbled in the drug trade, they tended to act as if it was somewhat beneath them, but in due time couldn’t ignore the millions that were there to be made. The Mafia in New Orleans had been dealing marijuana in the 19th century, and weed was extremely popular in the black communities during the turn-of-the-century. But even then, they discussed keeping it away from children and especially Italian and Sicilian neighborhoods. During the period after the war, while heroin was beginning to become more apparent in the inner cities, the old guard Mafia leaders were extremely hesitant; the comment at the beginning of the article is a prime example of their attitude. There were a couple of reasons for this. One, there was no telling if Mafia foot soldiers would start using the drugs themselves, which always ended badly. There was also always the chance that they would go I into business themselves. Also, as hinted by Vito Corleone, the police and lawmakers were not as helpful in turning a blind eye away from this activity as they were with more traditional forms of vice such as gambling or prostitution. But some of the bigger names such as Legs Diamond, Dutch Schultz and Meyer Lansky were already partially involved in the business anyway, having been in the heroin trade back in the late 1920’s. Eventually, bosses such as Lucky Luciano saw the light and claimed their piece of the action.
The Mafia practically had license to print their own money during Prohibition, but when it was repealed in 1933 after the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Mafia looked to heroin as a viable source of income. The evaluation made solid business sense. Though there were less drug addicts than drinkers in the country, the profit margin would be much greater, and drugs would be easier to smuggle. Bags of powder do not noisily clink-clank in crates when being unloaded off ships in the dead of night.