The period in the 1920s and 30s when 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 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, that reality seems absurd. Although alcohol could be regulated more (it has been linked to seven different forms of cancer), it seems obvious that we prefer living in a culture in which 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 when heroin use was taxed, when LSD was a regulated part of mainstream culture, or when MDMA could be bought from an off-license. We have never had regulated access to these substances; they were taken away from us almost as soon as they appeared.
The harms that drug policies cause are largely invisible to us, because they persecute drug users in marginalised parts of society more than the privileged. But, because of these policies, 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. Already in 2015, Colorado earned more in tax revenue from cannabis than from alcohol.
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 people less scared of drugs.
People just don’t respond to such scare tactics. 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. When people know they’re being lied to, they’re unlikely to listen.
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 harm and look at examples such as Portugal, where decriminalisation is making a positive difference.
If we are to pull ourselves out of today’s epidemic of drug harm, we need to learn the lessons of alcohol prohibition, not ignore them.
Lead photo: Detroit police inspecting equipment found in a clandestine underground brewery during the prohibition era / NARA