The period in the 1920s and 30s where alcohol was banned nationwide in the US was a volatile time. It led to an explosion of organised crime, hundreds of thousands of moonshine-related injuries and deaths, and only a moderate reduction in the use of alcohol. The US missed out on untold millions of tax dollars in that 13-year period of prohibition – in a particularly tumultuous economic time that included the great depression of 1929.
Few people would argue that prohibition was a good idea. Although it may have reduced liver damage and moderately reduced alcohol consumption, it increased crime, led to thousands of deaths from poisoned alcohol, and unfairly targeted working class Americans. Any benefits from reducing the sale and production of a harmful drug were minor compared to the unintended consequences of criminalisation.
Looking back, we can clearly contrast prohibition to our current times, and although alcohol could maybe be regulated more (having being linked to seven different forms of cancer), it seems obvious that we prefer living in a culture where we are free to drink without risk of being poisoned, criminalised or shot by a modern day Al Capone…
Unfortunately, we don’t have the same luxury with psychedelics. We’ve never lived in a time where psychedelic use was a taxed, regulated part of mainstream culture, before having them taken away from us. We can’t see as clearly the harms that are being done to us with our current drug policies. Marginalised people in society are being persecuted for drug use more than the privileged, kids are being poisoned by adulterated drugs, and a lack of education and harm reduction initiatives make overdose deaths frequent.
We should learn from the failure of alcohol prohibition. Not only are people needlessly suffering under drug prohibition, the government is missing out on a huge amount of tax. Take Colorado for example; cannabis has been legal there for two years now, and tax profit comes in at hundreds of millions of dollars. The worry that decriminalisation will increase drug use is unfounded: in Portugal, where drugs have been decriminalised for years, drug usage has remained at very similar levels. In fact, decriminalisation might actually decrease overall drug use; one study has shown that the current scare tactics employed by prohibitionist governments make kids less scared of drugs.
We don’t have the benefit of psychedelic use ever being previously regulated and ubiquitous, like alcohol was before prohibition. It’s harder for us to see the contrast in harms – because legal, regulated recreational drug use has never been as widespread as alcohol consumption. We have to see the evidence of harms and look at examples like Portugal where decriminalisation is making a big positive difference. We can learn from the mistakes of alcohol prohibition and pull ourselves out of a modern epidemic of drug harm.