While the global drug market may be heavily associated with Latin American cartels and violence south of the border, places like New York and Chicago have their own homegrown drug trade thanks in large part to the Sicilian-born La Cosa Nostra. This mafia organization had an iron grip on most illegal activity in major cities like New York and Chicago for entire generations.
Made men or Men of Honor, as they were called, were bonafide bloodthirsty operators, though because they assimilated into white culture-at-large, they escaped many of the harsh slurs that are thrown at Black and Latinx gang members with impunity.
Truth be told, the Sicilian mafia’s rule was every bit as brutal as today’s cartels, and though their influence may have waned in some aspects, they're still making headlines.
OG Narcotics Traffickers
We used to look to Mexico and the Caribbean for our herb in times past, before the Emerald Triangle and indoor grows increased in scale and stealth. This cannabis entered through ports, on private airplanes, and on foot over the southern border.
A 1951 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on the Kefauver Hearings (where Congress first discussed mafia influence in America) described their trafficking activity as “a tremendous flow of marijuana’ into the United States from Mexico."
Though the hearings implied that the mafia was importing cannabis and other drugs, the weed ring of the drug circus always appeared to be lower on their list, especially in the 80s and 90s when they were focused on hyper-lucrative heroin and cocaine.
La Cosa Nostra’s drug and bullet riddled heyday lasted well into the 1990s, and despite less influence stateside these days, Sicily’s mafia still kills. Their reign of terror included bombings, political oppression, and even land grabs that contributed to the Second Italian Diaspora after World War II.
All of the “Five Families” Have a Recent Cannabis Rap Sheet
One of the most blatant operations in mafia and New York history, The Pizza Connection circa 1985, saw everyone’s favorite ethnic food as a front for narcotics — but was pot on the menu?
According to a 2007 article in the New York Post, some of the actual crew behind the pepperoni pushers, members of the Gambino crime family, were moving into modern times, starting with oregano sales. After doing hard time for harder drugs, the Post purported that they’d start turning to cannabis for one major reason:
“Selling pot is just as lucrative as heroin, sources said, but the penalties are far less severe than the decades-long sentences meted out to [Pizza traffickers] the Gambino brothers.”
In 2011, none other than former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, III and former Attorney General Eric Holder led what was called the “largest single day operation against La Cosa Nostra." Their press release cites a bust of over 100 people in connection to all five of New York’s major crime families, plus the Decavalcante family, the New Jersey mafia outfit that The Sopranos is said to be based on. The charges ranged from murder to racketeering, but the trafficking of narcotics — including cannabis — into the ports of New York and New Jersey was also a focus.
Then there are the more recent entries in the ledger. In 2015, Parisi Bakery, a well-known Little Italy establishment, was involved in a $15 million national cannabis trafficking scheme tied to the first “out” drug lords of La Cosa Nostra and the Bonnano Family, as well as the Columbo and Genovese syndicates, two other original members of the so-called Five Families.
And then there is the Ganja Godfather, a 2015 book by Toby Rogers that claims to tell the tale of mob-born Silvio Eboli, a Genovese-linked kingpin. Referring to piles of cash and celebrity clientele, as well as the genesis of the NYC weed delivery scene, the author writes that Eboli flaunts his lifestyle built by carting cannabis first from Jamaica via airplane and then by bike around Manhattan.
If Eboli is a don with a massive delivery service still today, you can imagine it has grown in scale to track New York’s massive cannabis market.
Don’t Miss out on Mary Jane
Civilized spoke with mafia expert and author Antonio Nicaso about the mafia’s cannabis cred. In their rush to dominate the heroin and cocaine trade, La Cosa Nostra may have missed out on most of the lucrative cannabis black market, according to Nicaso.
“The US-based mafia underestimated the potential market value of the cannabis," he says. "They see cannabis as an insignificant source of income to its pursuits.”
But this attitude seems to have shifted as other profit sources dried up. “Whoever controls the sales must be able to use every kind of drug," Nicaso explains. "They follow the logic of the supermarkets, where it is possible to buy any type of product.”
Nowadays, the mafia is even beginning to get into the legal cannabis market in Canada, he adds. "Mafia invest wherever there is profit," Nicaso says. "The legal cannabis industry is not immune to mafia infiltration. In Canada, for example, despite security checks by Health Canada, investors with mafia connections are involved in legal production. Radio-Canada has learned that another investor in the same company has links with a prominent member of the Rizzutos, the powerful Montreal crime family.”
It was a common rumor that mafiosi as “Men of Honor” didn’t deal drugs until the 1980s, when the Bonnano family supposedly broke ranks to chase dope money, but this is pretty much bunk, experts say. “The non-involvement of La Cosa Nostra in drug trafficking is an urban legend," says Nicaso. "[It's] a story invented by the same mobsters who have always benefited from drug trafficking.“
Future Cash Cow Protection Racket?
Whether or not today’s mob is taking the cannabis with the cannolis is a subject that gets little air, but if the remaining made men decide they want in, it will matter. Corporate law practitioner Sulee Stinson Clay, a partner at the Baltimore and Washington D.C.-based business law firm McKennon Shelton & Henn LLP, works with cannabis closely enough to see its vulnerabilities.
“The cannabis industry will continue to attract participants who are comfortable with the fact that the legal cannabis industry maintains an aspect of criminality due to the conflict between state and federal law," she says.
Plus, the cash-only nature of some cannabis markets will always attract a criminal element to exploit wherever possible.
“Although market participants are required to file reports of large cash transactions, compliance is spotty and the number of total transactions are voluminous, which makes it difficult to police,” Clay continues. “Organized crime thrives in an environment of uncertainty motivated by the potential for great cash reward. Cannabis industry regulations and market participants are in a state of flux creating an environment ripe for exploitation by organized crime efforts.”
As long as growers and dispensaries are required to have vaults like some turn-of-the-century mansion, someone will be plotting to relieve them of the contents, even in part via skimming or exploitation, just like the old days.
Legal Weed could Help Squash the Mafia
Oxford University criminologist and mafia expert Federico Varese thinks the Italian American mafia may have little to do with the massive cannabis market today.
He has authored three books on the mafia that do more than chronicle their criminal powers — they humanize mafiosi so that we may dismantle their influence, rather than see them as mythical.
Despite the absolute chokehold that the Sicilian mafia and its US-based circles had on the drug trade in decades past, it's unlikely that today they have more than small holdings. Cannabis may have always played a lesser role in these criminal empires as Central and South American cartels moved into position, but it was always there.
Varese compares their rule to that of a government administration, but their total control is not limited to illegal activity in their districts: “Whatever you do in that territory you have to go through them," he says. “It's not that mafias are associated with any particular commodity, or a particular market, but all markets, as long as they can control them in the territory.”
This creates a major difficulty for any criminal entity: Cannabis is not supply-chain-dependent like heroin or cocaine, which can be dominated outright due to limited production means. Rather, cannabis can grow anywhere under the right conditions.
“Clearly there is a decline of the Italian American mafia to govern. Basically they are then left with no real mafia job, so they enter into other criminal activities, really any other activity, [including] small stuff,” Varese elaborates, “[It’s] a sign of them not being really big players anymore in the criminal underworld in New York City. I suppose one or two might have been arrested for cannabis, but I don’t think that means that the Sicilian or Italian American mafia in the US are really setting their eyes on cannabis in particular.”
Varese has also analyzed cannabis market data, noting that in Washington State the price of weed at legal outlets has dropped, which could spell curtains for illegal ops.
For years, American cannabis activists have advocated for legal reform on the grounds that it would quash criminal activity around the plant; now Italian Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Benedetto della Vedova has echoed a similar sentiment in a recent plea on Facebook: "Legalize cannabis to take profits from the mafia, free police to do other work, control substances that are in circulation, fight consumption among adolescents, [and] move money from traffickers' accounts into the state's coffers."
We may have yet to see a future pentiti — or turncoats — come forward to prove otherwise, but for now its safe to say that the title of Potfather is currently unclaimed by the mafia, and potentially still up for grabs.