Should we repeal prohibition?

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We are back in 1933, about to repeal the amendment to the US constitution, passed in 1919.  The 21st amendment would repeal the Volstead Act that made alcohol illegal. 

Opponents of the change point out that repeal will make alcoholism more widespread, which supporters concede.  They claim it will result in more alcohol-related diseases, also conceded.  They predict more alcohol-related deaths, also conceded.  They say it will ruin more lives, which the pro-alcohol lobby admit is probably true.  They say poor people will spend money on alcohol instead of food for their families, which they might well.

Bewildered, those who oppose repeal ask why anyone should support it, given all this.  The answer is that the present situation has given us Al Capone.  It has given us criminal gangs, corrupt police chiefs and judges and widespread disrespect for the law.  The war on booze has turned an everyday recreation into a criminal activity.  Furthermore, it has clearly failed.  It has not stopped drinking.  Instead it has given us booze of uncertain and dangerous quality, at prices that reflect criminality rather than production costs.  It is time to do something else.

Fast forward to the present day and many similar arguments could be made about narcotics.  Yes, all of those bad things might happen, but we would reduce deaths from adulterated or poisoned doses. Government could regulate for quality. It could gain revenue by taxing them.  Teenagers would no longer need to murder each other on the streets in drug turf wars because without illegality there would be not enough money in it.  Much police time and prison space would be saved.

It might indeed be time to do something else.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. What legal entity is going to be able and allowed to sell anything so harmful to the public? The busybodies are taking the fat and sugar out of food to save us from ourselves. We can’t buy perfectly ordinary painkillers without restriction. I need a scrip for all the medicines I take even though they are not particularly harmful. It is no use listing how many contradictions your plan removes without going the whole way and thinking of the unintended consequences.

    Oh, and another thing you want to tax. I suggest you stop making fun of Ritchie if you are going to call for extra tax as a way to manipulate the public, there is no libertarianism in that.

  2. What legal entity is going to be able and allowed to sell anything so harmful to the public? The busybodies are taking the fat and sugar out of food to save us from ourselves. We can’t buy perfectly ordinary painkillers without restriction. I need a scrip for all the medicines I take even though they are not particularly harmful. It is no use listing how many contradictions your plan removes without going the whole way and thinking of the unintended consequences.

    Oh, and another thing you want to tax. I suggest you stop making fun of Ritchie if you are going to call for extra tax as a way to manipulate the public, there is no libertarianism in that.

    Oops, not Tim’s byline. Never mind.

    • Corporate pushers will argue for and get a “safe harbor” law that keeps them from being sued for producing a legal but “harmful” product, comparable to the law that enables firearms to be manufactured and sold.

  3. I agree with the author that the lawlessness and social breakdown of our current Prohibition are exactly imitating the Al Capone days.

    An additional obstacle these days is the “public health” baloney, under which drug use is disparaged as an “addiction” and mischaracterized as an “epidemic” despite no concept of contagion. These pliable concepts are stretched to include the alleged over-prescription of painkillers.

    The 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, is the only one that did not go to the state legislatures for ratification, but instead used the other ratification method set out in the Constitution: conventions of voters set up for that purpose. Then as now, local legislatures wilted at the notion of correcting a past mistake, in favor of making inspiring new ones.

    • Well, IF 40,000 Americans die each year from ‘opioids’ of whatever source, some might consider that those who think it a public health problem might have an arguable position.

      I note in passing that US teenagers are still under prohibition imposed by the federal government by stealth.

    • “Public health” is that body of lore that holds that enlightened regulation can improve the health of the Human Herd. It is justified when you have a guy walking around downtown distributing Ebola just by exhaling. In contrast, “opioids” are no more a public health problem than widespread gun ownership or AIDS (almost always spread by outrageous personal decisions such as sharing needles or promiscuous homosexuality). They are individual decisions, sometimes ill-advised, where regulators can assemble large body counts and argue for government action. That makes it “arguable” but not correct.

      Yes, everything we are doing these days is “stealth” compared to the original Prohibition, where Congress saw it had to codify an exception to the rule that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

    • As in several U.S. states. The key will be whether it is accompanied by taxes and requirements for personal disclosures under which illegality will remain attractive. Cigarettes are “legal” in New York City but there is widespread smuggling from North Carolina.

  4. You can legalise marijuana and tax and regulate it. I suspect that the drug dealers will do what any entrepreneur would do – change their business model to target under 18s, increase the drug’s strength and cut costs, although overall they will make less money and students and middle aged Floyd fans can smoke a joint in peace. Heroin, cocaine, ice? Forget it. The costs of doing business will be huge. Public liability insurance will be hideously expensive and your security will be Fort Knox worthy. Since most corporations and government bodies will ban staff from taking the stuff, and legal driving blood levels will be zero, your clients will be mainly be poorly paid drug addicts – famously short of cash and long of need. Your staff will require expensive compulsory training and demand danger money. The government will always be introducing new restrictions on sales (eg limiting the amount you can buy in a day or week, having to take the drug on site etc). Then there are the wider effects on society. No other country will legalise these drugs, but you will be able to openly manufacture and transport these drugs on an industrial scale in the UK. The UK will rapidly become the world’s source of illegal drugs, attracting criminals from around the world and leading to punitive checks on passengers and goods arriving from the UK (massive extra costs on exports and delays to holiday plans). Finally, if by some miracle you do turn a profit from selling legal heroin then you will face a political backlash fronted by both the Mail and the Guardian who will both demand extra taxes on the profits of exploiting the poorest and most vulnerable in society. You would be better off investing in something more acceptable to the general public, like arms dealing. That’s just off the top of my head. The more I think about it, the less practical it becomes. I am in favour of legislation in theory – I just don’t believe it will work in practice.

    • Heroin’s street value is created almost entirely by its illegality. Even so, most UK pharmacies stock diamorphine and they don’t generally require armed guards. I agree that legalisation would require co-ordination by (at least) western governments.

      • I take your point that the value of heroin is almost entirely due to its illegal status. The same can be said of alcohol – if there was no duty on it and its sale was not heavily regulated then it would also be as cheap as, say, lemonade. I have no doubt that if the government announced that heroin, cocaine, alcohol and tobacco were in future to be legal and regulated to the same degree as lemonade then most of the points I raise would not apply. You could send your 14 year old down to the corner shop with twenty quid and he could come back with a week’s supply of heroin, two bottles of whiskey and a carton of cigarettes and still have change for a bag of chips on the way home. This would not only be completely politically unacceptable but also lead to huge changes throughout society, mainly negative. The comparison between prohibition and the war on drugs is disingenuous. Alcohol has been part of mainstream society for thousands of years (see the Bible) and can be made at home from basic ingredients – unlike heroin. My main issue is that I think legalisation of drugs as a way of solving the drug crisis is the default position for many on the right and it is presented as an obvious solution – no further discussion required. Rather like a Guardian columnist whose solution to any problem is taxing the rich far more so we have more to spend on nice stuff for everyone. But what do you mean by legalise? If you want to change anything you need to persuade the electorate that having a shop in their neighbourhood selling heroin to any adult who wants it is a good idea. You need to elaborate how the drugs will be regulated – will it be like alcohol? Because alcohol kills thousands every year directly and indirectly though accidents and increased violence. It destroys people and families through alcoholism and is associated with crime through smuggling and illegal brewing and distillation. People will know that legal heroin or other drugs will be the same, you will have thousands of addicts who would never have touched the stuff if it was illegal. We can see that with the wave of opioid addictions in the US. These are (in theory) heavily restricted products only available after consolation with a doctor, yet there has been a huge rise in addiction and the associated heath and financial problems after the guidelines on prescription were changed. The rising cost of the legal drugs and the fact that patents become tolerant to the legal drugs mean that more people turn to criminals to supply decent highs (such as heroin). There is a very long way to go before I am convinced legalisation is a good idea – and I am a man who does believe people have a right to take their own path to hell, However, I do think some things are so dangerous society has a responsibility to restrict them (see also home surgery kits or self assembly helicopters). I know we do not handle this well at the moment, but simply saying lets legalise does not prove the answer although I am ready to be persuaded.

    • Thank you Ed, almost the first objective, practical thoughts I have ever read on the topic. Prohibition and the War on Drugs have almost nothing in common. For the great majority of users, alcohol is not addictive. For almost every single user, addictive drugs are addictive, because that’s what the word addictive means. The armchair quarterbacks who have never been in a room with an addict screaming for a fix have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. The bien pensants at Tim calls them who say that drug addiction is a victimless crime have never had an addict parent, sibling or child living in their house. The War on Drugs may not be winnable, but losing it would be worse.

    • The word addictive means: A habit that, once formed, is very hard to break, either because the user finds it pleasurable, or finds abstinence or withdrawal unpleasurable, notably because of an attribute of the substance addicted to. It does not mean screaming and misbehaving, nor even driving impaired. Those are decisions; one can instead endure the shakes in solitude until they end. I regret your personal experience, but that doesn’t make you right or entitle you to become snide to other posters. Alcohol and drug Prohibition are the same impulse, with the same societal effects, and it proves nothing that, having set out to do the impossible, we must persevere because you (and my Senator) call it a “War” and that means we must “win.”

  5. I take your point that the value of heroin is almost entirely due to its illegal status. The same can be said of alcohol – if there was no duty on it and its sale was not heavily regulated then it would also be as cheap as, say, lemonade. I have no doubt that if the government announced that heroin, cocaine, alcohol and tobacco were in future to be legal and regulated to the same degree as lemonade then most of the points I raise would not apply. You could send your 14 year old down to the corner shop with twenty quid and he could come back with a week’s supply of heroin, two bottles of whiskey and a carton of cigarettes and still have change for a bag of chips on the way home. This would not only be completely politically unacceptable but also lead to huge changes throughout society, mainly negative. The comparison between prohibition and the war on drugs is disingenuous. Alcohol has been part of mainstream society for thousands of years (see the Bible) and can be made at home from basic ingredients – unlike heroin. My main issue is that I think legalisation of drugs as a way of solving the drug crisis is the default position for many on the right and it is presented as an obvious solution – no further discussion required. Rather like a Guardian columnist whose solution to any problem is taxing the rich far more so we have more to spend on nice stuff for everyone. But what do you mean by legalise? If you want to change anything you need to persuade the electorate that having a shop in their neighbourhood selling heroin to any adult who wants it is a good idea. You need to elaborate how the drugs will be regulated – will it be like alcohol? Because alcohol kills thousands every year directly and indirectly though accidents and increased violence. It destroys people and families through alcoholism and is associated with crime through smuggling and illegal brewing and distillation. People will know that legal heroin or other drugs will be the same, you will have thousands of addicts who would never have touched the stuff if it was illegal. We can see that with the wave of opioid addictions in the US. These are (in theory) heavily restricted products only available after consolation with a doctor, yet there has been a huge rise in addiction and the associated heath and financial problems after the guidelines on prescription were changed. The rising cost of the legal drugs and the fact that patents become tolerant to the legal drugs mean that more people turn to criminals to supply decent highs (such as heroin). There is a very long way to go before I am convinced legalisation is a good idea – and I am a man who does believe people have a right to take their own path to hell, However, I do think some things are so dangerous society has a responsibility to restrict them (see also home surgery kits or self assembly helicopters). I know we do not handle this well at the moment, but simply saying lets legalise does not prove the answer although I am ready to be persuaded.

    • Not only is the value of the substance caused by its illegality, most of the societal problems are caused by its illegality too, though the substance itself causes other problems. To say that alcohol and illegal drugs have historical differences is unenlightening; “everything is different, except for their similarities, and identical except for their differences.” And the ability to manufacture at home is not a difference at all.

      Advocates of legalization are not advocating total anarchy nor to legalize misconduct under the influence. But the state in which mere possession is a crime has not solved the problem and has created many new ones.

      • Seriously, you don’t see a difference between a drug we have lived with for millennia and a teenager can make and a relatively new drug that has never been widely accepted? The general public sees that difference. I know you are not advocating anarchy, but what are you advocating? Can any adult buy as much heroin as they want? Won’t that lead to a massive wave of overdoses and life changing injuries? Of course we don’t drink ourselves to death on o ur 18th birthday, but as I say we are used to alcohol, we have seen our family drink and yet most of us have still drunk ourselves into a right state several times. I don’t believe that most of the problems associated with drugs is due to their illegality, anymore than the illegal status of pistols accounts for the wave of gun crime. You are proposing a huge change to society and many believe the negative effects of legal drugs (actively promoted by the companies that sell them) will be far far greater than the current, imperfect, criminal sanctions. It is actually your side of the argument that needs to prove them wrong.

        • “The comparison between prohibition and the war on drugs is disingenuous.”

          Prohibition *was* part of the war on drugs.

          “Alcohol has been part of mainstream society for thousands of years (see the Bible) and can be made at home from basic ingredients – unlike heroin.”

          That doesn’t make it any different. It’s a new way of achieving an old effect. And Shamans were experimenting with psychotropic pharmaceuticals back into pre-history. Given starving people’s habit of trying stuff to see if it’s edible, this was pretty much inevitable.

          “My main issue is that I think legalisation of drugs as a way of solving the drug crisis is the default position for many on the right and it is presented as an obvious solution – no further discussion required.”

          It’s actually a liberal/libertarian position – the conservatives tend to be fairly authoritarian on drug morality – but further discussion is always OK.

          “You need to elaborate how the drugs will be regulated – will it be like alcohol?”

          The libertarian ideal is that the only justification for society to interfere with individual freedom is to prevent non-consensual, uninformed harm to others. So all the ways that one people taking drugs can harm other people (like drunk driving) are still illegal. And people should have to demonstrate that their decision is informed – e.g. by passing an exam on the medical and social effects of the drugs they’re proposing to take. If they know what they’re doing, and they’re only hurting themselves, that’s their choice.

          “If you want to change anything you need to persuade the electorate that having a shop in their neighbourhood selling heroin to any adult who wants it is a good idea. […] Because alcohol kills thousands every year directly and indirectly though accidents and increased violence. It destroys people and families through alcoholism”

          Harm to others should still be illegal.

          “and is associated with crime through smuggling and illegal brewing and distillation”

          Which of course would not be a problem if it was legalised.

          “eople will know that legal heroin or other drugs will be the same, you will have thousands of addicts who would never have touched the stuff if it was illegal. We can see that with the wave of opioid addictions in the US.”

          Sure. If you make it cheaper, more people will use it. Question is, why do you think that’s bad? People are getting more of what they want, yes?

          “However, I do think some things are so dangerous society has a responsibility to restrict them (see also home surgery kits or self assembly helicopters).”

          What’s the problem with either of those?

          Sure …, harm to *others* when a home-brew jet-pack drops out of the sky on them, if that’s more common than car accidents. But if people are only killing themselves, what’s the problem? You mean, you think you should be able to tell other people what risks they’re allowed to take? Do you propose to do the same with racing drivers and hang glider pilots?

          “You are proposing a huge change to society and many believe the negative effects of legal drugs (actively promoted by the companies that sell them) will be far far greater than the current, imperfect, criminal sanctions.”

          Many believe socialism is an obvious solution and will work.

          “It is actually your side of the argument that needs to prove them wrong.”

          *Both* sides need to prove their case.

          But I’m fine with the idea of an experiment – try it temporarily in a small area and see what happens.

          https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/portugal-decriminalised-drugs-14-years-ago-and-now-hardly-anyone-dies-from-overdosing-10301780.html

      • There are many differences between the substances but not every drug now illegal is more hazardous than alcohol is. I am not writing about the differences in the substances but the similarity (and defects) of Prohibition as a response to any of them, no matter what “many believe,” or what “the general public sees.” The societal harm of Prohibition is worse than the inherent harm of the substances, given that misconduct under the influence of the substances would continue to be illegal.

        Of course the law remains the law until amended. But my side of the argument does not have a particular burden of proof, in the face of Prohibition laws that have not prohibited, have led to lawlessness and loss of everyone’s privacy, have corrupted police and lessened respect for the law. The cure is worse than the disease. In fact, it is your side of the argument that must deliver an actual rebuttal, as you have not done yet.

  6. I think the range of responses shows that my original point stands – you need to define what you mean by legalise. Portugal, of course, has not legalised drugs, only decriminalised them. In fact, no country of any size has legalised drugs such as cocaine or heroin in modern times, if by legalise you mean allow the large scale production and distribution of heroin and cocaine for purely recreational purposes. As a result I can only speculate as to the effect of legalisation. But I don’t think I am going out on a limb here when I say that if you legalise drugs and allow them to be sold in supermarkets and off licences, promoted in bars and advertised on TV etc then you will dramatically increase the number of people who will try the drugs and increase the number who will suffer as a consequence, maybe through addiction, overdose or just overindulging. For example, people will crash cars, not realising they are still under the effects of the drugs the next day. Yes, it is all well and good to say that only the individual is actually affected by the overdose and if he kills someone, then he will go to jail, but I think that argument, as internally consistent and academically correct as it is, will not hold water at the ballot box. Simply put, I and others love people who make bad decisions. I don’t think putting temptation in their way is a good idea. Now, if that means a stronger, better man is denied the chance to have cocaine for breakfast, well, sorry, tough. That is a feature, not a bug. I think wide spread addiction is worse that criminality. Furthermore there are plenty of other things we can do to reduce the effect of criminality before trying legalisation – from adopting Portugal’s drug policy to the Singapore version (hang them). Companies selling drugs will need to sell a lot of drugs to recoup the money spent on advertising etc. If they do not think they can sell a lot of drugs at a reasonable margin, private companies will not invest in the trade, so legalisation will fail. If they sell a lot of drugs at high margin, then there will be a lot more poor addicts, so legalisation will lead to more misery. Now – show me I am wrong.

    • “Simply put, I and others love people who make bad decisions. I don’t think putting temptation in their way is a good idea.”

      Yes, that’s the essence of authoritarian paternalism: the “Nanny State”. Society has the right and duty to restrict other’s actions “for their own good” and “for the good of society”.

      It’s the same argument people make with guns. Sure, most people would be sensible about it, but enough people are going to make bad decisions, and enough people are going to get hurt, that we need to take people’s freedom away for their own good. You’re quite right – it’s a vote-winner. (At least among those who don’t personally want to exercise that particular freedom.) Because humans on both left and right have always had a strong authoritarian streak.

      “I think that argument, as internally consistent and academically correct as it is…”

      Thanks! I’m only intending to make the argument: to defend the principle in an intellectual sense. I’m not naive enough to think any libertarian party is going to get elected if it sticks fully to its principles. But I’d like to think that if you make the principles part of the conversation, so that smart people know what they’re losing, that in that ‘academic’ sense they’re in the wrong, that they’re opposed, that they might be a little more careful. A little more respectful of safeguards. A little slower in their headlong rush. A little more ready to try experiments like Portugal did.

      There’s a difference between thinking you’re unquestionably in the right, and knowing you’re making a pragmatic compromise with authoritarianism for the sake of bringing the electorate with you. People can and will make ‘bad’ (IMO) decisions, but they ought at least to know they’re making them. It’s that “informed consent” thing again.

      Authoritarian power is addictive, too. Like heroin, it’s a political drug that can cause immense harm to other people besides the drug taker. But so long as you understand that, and the consequences of your decision to take it, then on your own conscience be it. Freedom includes the right to make mistakes, and that has to apply to political freedom too.

      • As it happens I agee with your point, I think Europe and North America has too many rules and a population too relient on the protection of the state. However we are where we are and my point is that implimenting legalisation of drugs will require convincing millions of people to agree to give it a go.

        • Sorry posted early. The point is that in order to get their agreement there will be so many restrictions in place as to make the experiment unworkable or the external effects will rapidly be seen as too high a price to pay. Maybe we should stick to advocating decriminalization first .

          • Yes. There are two separate questions: ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ and ‘What’s the most practical way to bring it about?’ I’m only arguing the former point.

            If someone wants to argue only for decriminalisation as a first step to answering the second question, I’d take that as a positive step.

            Frankly, I don’t think that even that is going to be remotely politically acceptable in the US or UK any time in the near term.