Issue #1565 19 September 2012
Culture & Life
The failure of prohibition
Once again, a respected think tank has issued a report recommending the decriminalisation of cannabis and ecstasy use. And once again it has been greeted with shrill squeals of shock and horror by people who haven’t bothered to study the subject and by smug assurances that it’s “not gonna happen” from the Religious Right.
More years ago than I care to remember, when this paper was called The Socialist and the party was the SPA, I wrote a Culture & Life column advocating the decriminalising of pot (ecstasy had hardly been heard of then). It got much the same reaction as this latest proposal. Older Comrades had a knee-jerk reaction along the lines of “drugs bad, ban them, punish users, that’ll solve it”, while younger Comrades thought the idea was simply common sense but doubted (correctly, as it turned out) that the Party would have the nerve to support such a proposal.
There was one significant difference between my proposal and that now being advanced by the not-for-profit think tank Australia21: theirs is a proposal based on private enterprise, with trade in cannabis “controlled through taxation, with growers and sellers subject to ‘hard-to-get but easy-to-lose licences’ for cultivation and wholesale and retail supply”. Mine was for a nationalised industry, with all stages of operation – from cultivation to wholesaling, packaging to retailing – under the exclusive control of a government authority specifically established for that purpose. There was no private profit involved.
Both proposals recognise two very salient facts: the necessity of breaking the nexus between recreational drugs and organised crime, and the futility of prohibition as a strategy for controlling drugs. In fact, prohibition has been such an unqualified and spectacular failure over the last 100 years that it is baffling to think of reasons why people would still advocate it. The answer seems to lie in the combined power of ignorance and religion.
The Religious Right, secure in their simplistic belief that drug trafficking is the work of a mythical figure of evil called “the Devil”, find it comforting to promote the concept of a society that is constantly at war with “the forces of evil”. It obviates any need to seriously analyse why people might choose to seek solace from the vicissitudes of life in drug and alcohol abuse.
Prohibition was most famously tried in the USA in the 1920s. The laws banning alcohol were opposed by so many people that even those who supported the laws’ intentions considered them unworkable. Millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens colluded in breaking the law on possession or use of alcohol. It was seen as a “victimless” crime, and consequently harmless. But in the absence of a legal trade in alcohol, organised crime (backed by “legitimate” business interests who were loathe to forgo any opportunity for a decent profit) quickly stepped in to meet a perceived need.
Prohibition provided opportunities and a cover for organised crime to such an extent that gangsterism became entrenched in the US. The legal system, both police and judiciary, became fundamentally corrupted and it became so acceptable to use “black money” for business purposes that the practice continues today.
Prohibition ended when the American voters threw out the Republicans and elected Franklin D Roosevelt and the Democrats in 1932. Even then, several US states retained prohibition, to the joy of their local moonshiners and other criminal elements. But the US was not the only country that tried to control alcohol through prohibition. The USSR also tried it in the early 1920s. The result was not quite the same however.
With no capitalists able to make large sums of money by breaking the law, the trade in bootleg liquor in the Soviet Union was largely restricted to what the peasants could brew up in their bath-tubs, and was more of a health hazard than a threat to the economy. Nevertheless, the young Soviet State very soon turned away from prohibition and its attendant negative features and reintroduced legal alcohol – as a useful State monopoly.
Elsewhere, prohibition survives in some deeply religious but extremely corrupt countries such as India and Saudi Arabia. In India, bootlegging is popular and routine, and contributes to the corruption of police and officialdom, as well as supporting the murderous rural landlords’ gangs that are the backbone of the Congress Party. In Saudi Arabia, of course, alcohol is readily available to those with money. The prohibition laws are only there to help keep the common people in line.
Removing popular recreational drugs from this farcical system of “control”, can remove these major sources of profit from the drug kings and crime bosses. They will still have the “hard drugs”, the habit-forming heroin, cocaine, etc. But they will have been deprived of control over the lucrative trade in the popular “soft” drugs like pot and ecstasy. Most users of these drugs do not go on to use heroine or cocaine. With ecstasy and cannabis readily available (under these proposed schemes) through chemists and public hospitals, the market for smuggled consignments of these same drugs would dry up overnight.
So would the opportunities for getting police to turn a blind eye to the “victimless crime” of trading in cannabis or ecstasy. And that in turn would remove a major source of corruption.
Can we expect the think-tank’s proposal to be acted on? Not any time soon, I suspect. Being “tough on drugs” regardless of effectiveness or common sense is a trade-mark of right-wing politicians from both sides of the House. But it is time people started thinking about it and talking about it.
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