Alcohol prohibition serves as a lesson for our attitude towards drugs

This article was originally posted on TheDial.co but is no longer there. I’ve posted it here for posterity.

“Prohibition worked best when directed at its primary target: the working-class poor.”

“A rich family could have a cellar-full of liquor and get by, it seemed, but if a poor family had one bottle of home-brew, there would be trouble.”

“Although [Warren Harding, US President] voted for Prohibition as a senator, the whiskey aficionado hypocritically kept a fully stocked sidebar in the White House.”

These quotes could just as well be describing the injustice of current drug policy – rather than the failure of alcohol prohibition in North America.

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, 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 damageand 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. Although alcohol could 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 other drugs. We’ve never lived in a time where heroin use was taxed, where LSD was a regulated part of mainstream culture, or where MDMA could be bought from an off-license. We’ve never had regulated access to these substances, before having them taken away from us. We can’t clearly see 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 much more frequent than they should be.

We should learn from the failure of alcohol prohibition. Not only are people needlessly suffering under the ‘war on drugs:’ the government is also missing out on a huge amount of tax. Take Colorado. Cannabis has been legal there for three years now, and tax revenue comes in at 200 million dollars per year – that’s 20% of Colorado’s total tax income.

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. Where decriminalisation probably won’t change overall drug use, the current scare tactics employed by prohibitionist governments could actually be encouraging more drug use. The Montana Meth Project, a campaign that produced scare-tactic billboards and posters in 2005 to discourage kids from taking meth, actually made kids less scared of drugs. When people know they’re being lied to, they’re unlikely to listen.

Kids just don’t respond to the scare tactics employed in a prohibition-led society. In the information age people want to know the facts (and have very easy access to them), and won’t be put off by exaggerations and myths.

We don’t have the benefit of most drug use previously being 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 such as Portugal, where decriminalisation is making a big positive difference.

We have to learn from the mistakes of alcohol prohibition and pull ourselves out of a modern epidemic of drug harm.

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