Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Drug prohibition and alcohol prohibition - parallels

Johann Hari had a brilliant in-depth article in The Independent last Friday where he drew parallels between the current prohibition of drugs and the US experiences of prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s until it was abolished in 1933.

Here's are a couple of snippets:

When you ban a popular drug that millions of people want, it doesn't disappear. Instead, it is transferred from the legal economy into the hand of armed criminal gangs. Across America, gangsters rejoiced that they had just been handed one of the biggest markets in the country, and unleashed an Armada of freighters, steamers, and even submarines to bring booze back. Nobody who wanted a drink went without. As the journalist Malcolm Bingay wrote: "It was absolutely impossible to get a drink, unless you walked at least ten feet and told the busy bartender in a voice loud enough for him to hear you above the uproar."


Once a product is controlled only by criminals, all safety controls vanish - and the drug becomes far more deadly. After 1921, it became common to dilute and relabel poisonous industrial alcohol, which could still legally be bought, and sell it by the pint-glass. This "rotgut" caused epidemics of paralysis and poisoning. For example, one single batch of bad booze permenantly crippled 500 people in Wichita in early 1927 - a usual event. That year, 760 people were poisoned to death by bad booze in New York City alone. So many people became partially paralysed by an industrial alcohol known as 'Jake' that a shuffling, stumbling inability to walk was known 'Jake leg.' Wayne Wheeler persuaded the government not to remove fatal toxins from industrial alcohol, saying it was good to keep this 'disincentive' in place.

Prohibition's flaws were so obvious that the politicians in charge privately admitted the law was self-defeating. Warren Harding brought $1800 of booze with him to the White House, while Andrew Mellon - in charge of enforcing the law - called it "unworkable." Similarly, the last three Presidents of the US have been recreational drug users in their youth. If the law was enforced in full, they would all have been ineligible to vote, never mind enter the Oval Office. Once he ceased to be President, Bill Clinton called for the decriminalisation of cannabis, and Obama probably will too. Yet in office, they continue to mouth prohibitionist platitudes about "eradicating drugs", and insist the rest of the world's leaders resist the calls for greater liberalisation from their populations and instead "crack down" on the drug gangs - no matter how much violence it unleashes

It's well worth reading the full article here.


Kevin Boatang said...

"Johann Hari had a brilliant in-depth article"

I find that very hard to believe. His 'views' are to be found all over the web Mark.

Drug prohibition doesn't work, Portugal has shown the way.

Mick Anderson said...

My biggest problem with the idea of legalising drugs stems from the problems that alcohol has caused me. My wife is an alcoholic, and this has destroyed my marriage.

She was a squaddies wife before I met her, and they were posted to both Germany and Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Many of the wifes had a social life that revolved around alcohol, and this appears to have set her on her current path.

Recently she has started to have significant heart trouble, and there is no doubt that the problems associated with her addiction (poor diet, bad sleep patterns, lack of vitamins, to name just a few) have brought this about.

She won't touch illegal drugs - her tobacco addiction might have led to experimenting with cannabis, but it's status means that she won't go near it.

As a result, my conclusion is that the fewer drugs that are legal, the better off society is. I'd happily support prohibition of both alcohol and tobacco, rather than relaxing the law to give her (and many others) more opportunity to destroy their lives.