Fact and Fiction in The Godfather
"A Dirty Business"
The main plot of The Godfather, Part 1 involves the shooting of Don Vito Corleone and his family's response to the attempted assassination. Don Corleone had angered a rival family because he refused to bankroll a drug dealer named Virgil "the Turk" Sollozzo who has big plans to expand the Mafia's narcotics operations. Sollozzo wants Don Corleone's cooperation because the don has a valuable network of politicians and judges in his pocket, and his protection would be a boon to Sollozzo's business. Sollozzo tries to entice Don Corleone with the incredible profit potential that drug dealing offers, but the don says that his friends in public office wouldn't be his friends for long if he got involved in such a "dirty business." He says that by contrast gambling is a "harmless vice"a sentiment no doubt shared by the hundreds of thousands of people who frequent legal gaming casinos every year. The viewer is left with the impression that Don Corleone's rackets do no harm to the general public whereas drug dealing is a menace to everyone.
The real-life Mafia's supposed ban on drug dealing has been mentioned so often it's generally accepted as fact, but this couldn't be farther from the truth. The shear number of narcotics convictions against mobsters of all ranks through the decades disproves the myth. Mob bosses did issue edicts against drug dealing from time to time, but it was only in the interests of self-survival. When Congress passed the Narcotics Control Act in 1956, mandatory sentences for drug offenses were increased. A first offense earned five years in the pen. A second offense brought 10 years, and the third offense 40 years. Furthermore, the law did away with parole, probation and suspended sentences. Thinking long term, mob bosses had to consider whether drug profits were worth the risk of losing good earners to long prison sentences.
But what concerned the bosses even more was the likelihood that convicted drug dealers would make deals with the government and turn states witness to reduce their lengthy sentences. A man condemned to spend the best years of his life in prison might be more inclined to disregard omerta (the Mafia vow of silence) and rat on his crime family if the government promised to lighten his load in exchange for his testimony.
Some clever mobsters figured out other ways to profit from the drug trade without actually selling drugs. Journalist Jerry Capeci points out in The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Mafia that Philadelphia boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo's directions to his men regarding narcotics typified the mob's prevailing attitude: "Scarfo said you couldn't deal drugs, but you could lend money to drug dealers, shake them down for a cut of their money, and steal from them." In the real underworld any crime family that refused to reap profits from drug dealing, either directly or indirectly, would have a hard time keeping members and eventually would wither away.