Raphael Vassallo

‘Scarface’: proof that prohibition doesn’t work

If marijuana is a ‘gateway drug’, it is partly due to the present legal status of the drug to begin with

Raphael Vassallo
25 July 2017, 7:30am
‘Scarface’ was first released in 1932: when alcohol was still illegal in the USA
‘Scarface’ was first released in 1932: when alcohol was still illegal in the USA
Recently, I watched ‘Scarface’ for the first time: no, not the 1983 Brian de Palma version starring Al Pacino – which I must have seen a few dozen times over the years – but the original 1929 version directed by Howard Hawks.

It is, of course, worth watching for any number of reasons... not least, because it set the template for practically every gangster film since. But one particularly good reason to watch it again today is that it reminds us how remarkably counter-productive the concept of ‘Prohibition’ really was in 1920s America. And as 21st century Malta gears up for a debate on cannabis legalisation... it looks to me like we might need a little reminder.

One of the interesting things about ‘Scarface’ is that it was first released in 1932: when alcohol was still illegal in the USA. Al Capone (the inspiration for Paul Muni’s ‘Tony Camonte’) had just been imprisoned for tax evasion... after every attempt to nail him for his various other crimes – murder, extortion, racketeering, etc... had failed.

This brings us to a small anomaly that may (unwittingly) have contributed to the movie’s extraordinary legacy. On paper, ‘Scarface’ was intended to be a denunciation of Capone and his 1920s reign of terror. The film opens with the words: “This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America, and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty... Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: what are you going to do about it?’

But over the next 90 or so years (all the way down to today, in fact), critics and viewers alike have questioned whether the rest of the movie actually lives up to that declared intention. Leaving aside that some incidents in the film – such as Camonte’s spectacular demise at the end – are clearly not based on any actual events in history: the problem has traditionally been Muni’s rendition of Capone. 

Murderous brute though he may be, Tony Camonte is nonetheless a strangely likeable and irresistible screen presence: far more intriguing than the wooden, flat and (quite frankly) boring characters representing the forces of ‘law and order’ in the same film. As he barricades himself in his stronghold, Tommy-gun in hand, for that final, epic confrontation... you can’t help secretly taking his side. There is, after all, a small part of us that admires – possibly even envies – the tragic pathos of a larger-than-life character who takes on an entire system and goes down in a blaze of glory... even if that character is, in reality, a contemptible bum.

So unintentionally or otherwise, there can be little doubt that ‘Scarface’ does, up to a point, ‘glorify’ the criminality it sets out to condemn. Much more significantly, however, it is also curiously ambivalent in its actual representation of ‘crime’. 

For instance: it is only the indiscriminate violence of Camonte’s methods that is ever singled out for criticism... and not the actual illegal sale of alcohol, which permitted Camonte’s rise to power in the first place. In fact, if the Chicago police are at all prompted to confront this ‘menace to safety and liberty’, it is only because of all the associated murder and mayhem... which in turn was caused, not so much by illegal alcohol in itself, but by rival gangs (armed with machine guns) vying for control of the same territory.

To be fair, this is not to say that the movie ‘glorifies alcohol’, too. Camonte’s downfall is in part caused by his own drink problem: that much is inescapable. Nonetheless, you can sense while watching it that the film stops conspicuously short of actually justifying the 1920s alcohol ban. On the contrary, it seems to hint – and quite emphatically, too – that Camonte’s underworld empire could only have been fuelled by the immense demand for an illegal product.

From this perspective, the opening question – ‘what are you going to do about it?’ – comes across as semi-ironic. A year after the film’s release, the US government did ‘do something about it’: it ended Prohibition.

Of course, that in itself did not bring about the automatic end of gang warfare or criminal underground networks: as long as there is money to be made illegally, those will remain. But it did remove alcohol from the chain of ‘illegal commodities’ that can only be acquired through direct dealings with the underworld. And I think most rational, sensible alcoholics will agree that that constitutes a huge change for the better.

In any case: I’ll admit I took a long time to come to the point – don’t blame me, it’s a fun film to write about – but at least two things happened this week that illustrate just how relevant all the above is to the ongoing discussion about legalising cannabis in Malta.

On Wednesday, for instance, the police descended en masse to raid the ‘New Tiger Bar’ in Marsa: deploying 65 heavily-armed officers, as well as drones and sniffer dogs, to make 15 arrests over “cannabis, natural and synthetic, in various stages of processing.”

Admittedly, no one shouted: ‘Say hello to my little friend!’ as they burst through the door... but still: as raids go, this one did bear a passing resemblance to the last 10 minutes of ‘Scarface’ (both versions).

Then, on Friday, a Caritas drug expert (Anthony Gatt) was quoted as saying: “Legalisation of cannabis might give rise to increased black market activity of drugs like heroin and cocaine.”

He added that: “With regard to the economic argument, traffickers are not excited about the legalisation of cannabis and any other drug. They fear suffering losses [...] Like in every business-model, traffickers will diversify to make up for lost revenue of cannabis. As a result, taking a section of the cannabis business off the hands of the black market may lead to increased trafficking of other substances so that traffickers can uphold their bottom lines.”

Caritas, I should point out, has taken a clear and unequivocal position against legalisation: and to be fair, the above is not the main reason, either. In a nutshell, the drug rehabilitation agency’s view is that “legalising cannabis for recreational use will be more harmful than beneficial for our communities.” And I won’t argue with it for now.

What strikes me about the above argument, though, is that it gives us a view from (so to speak) the ‘other side’. This is in fact the first time I have heard anyone else looking at legalisation from the perspective of how it might impact the drug-trafficking trade. It’s not unlike Howard Hawks looking at gang warfare from the perspective of a gangster: the results are bound to be interesting.

Let’s apply the same reasoning to Prohibition-era USA. Did the legalisation of alcohol in 1933 force criminal organisations to diversify their operations? You bet it did. This can even be attested by the 1983 de Palma remake: Al Pacino’s Tony Montana is a Cuban drug-lord, not an American bootlegger. And Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’ unfolds precisely against the backdrop of a post-Prohibition transition from alcohol to narcotics.

But did their clientele remain the same? Did the same people who once bought bootleg whiskey from the local Mafia, now line up to buy heroin and cocaine from their old drink-dealers?

Well... in some cases, perhaps. Some people who drink also take drugs. But I would guess the vast majority of alcohol consumers would simply never make (or even think about making) that transition. They only bought their liquor from unlicensed vendors because they had no other choice: the moment it became legally available over the counter at the closest bar... that’s the last time they’d ever have to resort to the criminal underworld just to get a drink.

I can’t see how it could be any different in the case of marijuana today. Sure, some people who smoke might have other habits that would still need to be serviced by a drug-dealer... but give the vast majority a choice between buying from a dealer, and buying from a pharmacy down the road, and chances are they’ll never meet a dealer again in their lives.

How would that affect the drug trade? My guess is that the dealers would have to not only diversify their range of products, but also their clientele. And this raises another anti-legalisation argument (not mentioned by Gatt, to be fair) to the effect that marijuana is a ‘gateway drug’ leading to other, more harmful habits.

Again, I cannot contest that this might certainly be true for some people, and might continue to be true for others even after legalisation. But one thing is painstakingly clear: if marijuana is a ‘gateway drug’, it is partly due to the present legal status of the drug to begin with.

With the law as it stands today, one can only acquire marijuana from the same people who are also only too eager to sell you heroin or cocaine instead. This is why it helps to occasionally look at the issue from a drug-dealer’s perspective: as Anthony Gatt rightly notes, dealers have good reason to be unenthusiastic about the proposed reform. It may impact them financially, yes, (and let’s face it: who the hell cares?)... but much more importantly, it might rob them of a steady annual harvest of customers who could, with a bit of patience and effort, be groomed into future heroin- or coke-addicts.

So “taking a section of the cannabis business off the hands of the black market” – as Gatt put it – would also help sever the pathway connecting marijuana to other, much more harmful drugs.

Ultimately, however, it remains a question of perspective. We have so far looked at this issue from the point of view of both the drug-dealer and the drug-buyer... we have asked whether legalisation would be ‘harmful’ or ‘beneficial’... but we have never really asked the same questions about the status quo.

Has Malta’s ‘Prohibition’ approach to cannabis been a success or a failure? I’d say it was about as successful as alcohol prohibition in 1920s USA.

The only pity is that it hasn’t inspired any great movies along the lines of ‘Scarface’... yet.