I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Monday, July 12, 2010


This post is about the prohibition of drugs, but I will tackle that subject by talking about alcohol prohibition first.

wiki.answers.com (1) says that alcohol causes 100,000 deaths worldwide every year. I believe them. But then, why don’t we do something about it? Should we ban alcohol? NO, WE SHOULDN’T, because history has shown that ethanol prohibition doesn’t work.

When the United States outlawed manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol between 1920 and 1933, they thought they were doing the right thing. They had to amend their constitution (the 18th amendment) because as a common law the ban would have been unconstitutional, and they were so convinced about it, that the House of Representatives approved the amendment with a bi-partisan majority of 282 against 128. The majority in the Senate was even greater, with 47 votes in favour and 8 against. It then took them longer than a decade to realise that it had been a bad decision. To their credit, the 21st amendment that repealed prohibition was passed in both the House of Reps and in the Senate with comfortable majorities.

Alcohol prohibition didn’t work because, ultimately, people didn’t want to give up their drinks. Humanity had been brewing beer for some 11,000 years, and producing wine for perhaps 8,000. In hindsight, the idea that any government could wean people from alcohol by decree was preposterous.

At the beginning of prohibition, Reverend Billy Sunday said: “The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent” (2).

It didn’t work that way. In fact, prohibition was an important factor in the rise of organised crime in the U.S. I saw on the Web many statistics showing how crime increased during the prohibition years, but on the basis of those data we cannot determine what fraction of criminal acts was due to prohibition and what not. Crime might have increased at the same rate without prohibition.

I did find some plots that only relate to the prohibition laws (3). Their author claims that the data originate from the U.S. Treasury Department, Bureau of Industrial Alcohol. Here is the first one, showing the number of convictions and acquittals:

It shows that between 1920 and 1930, 444,342 people were prosecuted and 343,695 of them were convicted for producing, transporting, or consuming alcoholic beverages. But look at the steep increase. It means that the police and the courts were losing the “war on alcohol”.

The second plot I want to show you is the number of police officers killed or injured while enforcing prohibition:

You might think that 71 police killed and 445 injured in ten years is not too bad, but they didn’t need to occur. And look again at the steep increase. It was a real war, a fact that is confirmed by the third (and last) plot, showing the number of casualties per 1,000 arrests:

It proves that the arrests became increasingly violent. It was an escalating conflict.

The government wanted to force down the throat (pun intended :-) of the Americans a law that many American didn’t want, and an increasing number of people broke it. I am sure that during those years the incidence of cirrhosis of the liver and cardiovascular diseases was reduced, but was it worth? I don’t think so.

In the early 20th century, alcohol was also banned in Norway and Finland, but prohibition failed there as well.

As history has told us that the banning of alcohol is not a solution, to reduce the carnage on our roads caused by drunk drivers, we have introduced laws that limit what people are allowed to do while under the influence of alcohol. In this way, police and the judiciary protect the general population from violent or uncontrolled actions of individuals, rather than unnecessarily criminalise people as with the prohibitionist approach.

We have the same attitude towards tobacco. People can smoke it, but not when and where it can affect others. The laws don’t prevent people from smoking. They only protect the rest of the community from the actions of the smokers.


Because of the same misplaced moralistic attitude that led to the prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. That’s why.

We all know that the cost of the war on drugs is exploding. I will just report some facts I found on the Web (4). Between the years 1980 and 2000, the U.S. state and federal governments increased their spending on the drug war from a fistful of billions to forty billions; in 2002, the U.S. incarcerated almost as many people for breaking a drug law as it incarcerated in 1980 for all offences. Between 1990 and 1999, drug offences represented a 20% increase in the total growth of sentenced prisoners under State jurisdiction. During that same time period, drug offenders were responsible for 60.9% of the federal prison population growth.

These trends mirror the trends of alcohol prohibition. We are all losing our world war on drugs as the U.S. lost their American war on alcohol in the 1920s. It is unequivocal. This drug prohibition is also responsible for an increased spreading of HIV infection due to needle sharing, all deaths by overdose, police corruption, deaths caused by turf wars between drug lords, and the list could continue.

There is only one solution: decriminalise drugs. Better: legalise them. All of them: opiates and cocaine, cannabis and LSD, ecstasy and amphetamines. Let people buy them from a chemist without a prescription. At the same time, introduce laws limiting what people can do under the influence of drugs and develop quick and easy to use devices to measure the amount of drugs that people have in their blood stream. The legalisation of drugs would pull the rug from under the feet of the drug barons. All the money that we now throw into the bottomless pit of the war on drugs would become available for more constructive purposes. And the nation would benefit from cocaine and heroine taxes as they now benefit from alcohol and tobacco taxes.

The critics of legalisation reason that more people would use drugs. Probably, but I contend that on the whole we would live in a better and safer society. Many people already consume drugs. Use the police to enforce legal limits of all dangerous substances when driving, rather than to chase people with a gram or two of marihuana in their pocket.


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