“Prohibition won’t work” – What’s wrong with this statement?

An Australian ex-minister is backing drug reform. He mentions the prohibition of alcohol and its complete failure as a comparison. This is pretty common, and I agree – but I take issue with one of his statements:

“Why do they think prohibition of illicit drugs will work any better?”

So what’s the problem with that statement? Well, it implies that prohibition is a new thing by putting it in a future tense – ‘will work’? How about being realistic and saying ‘didn’t work’ or ‘hasn’t worked’? I know, semantics. But let’s have a look at some dates* around prohibition of some substances:

Opiates and cocaine – Harrison Narcotics Act 1914 – still prohibited.

LSD 1965 through to 1970 – still prohibited.

Cannabis 1911 (South Africa) through to 1935 (USA) – still prohibited.

Psilocybin 1921 (Belgium) through to 2008 (Finland) – it should be noted that psilocybin mushrooms are not prohibited under international law, but they are listed as Schedule I under the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances -still prohibited in most countries.

MDMA 1985 (USA followed by UN) – still prohibited.

Amphetamine 1971 (Controlled Substances Act USA, followed by UN) – still prohibited.

Alcohol – 1919 – repeal of prohibition in 1933 when it was realised that prohibition of alcohol increased criminal activity and public harm.

I think that’s a pretty long and comprehensive history of prohibition of drugs. Some of them have been prohibited since before alcohol was. It only took 14 years for the harms associated with alcohol prohibition to become apparent enough to change the law. Yet with other drugs, it’s been allowed to go on, and on, and on.

Why does anyone think prohibition of other drugs has been any different from prohibition of alcohol? This report details some of the issues around prohibited drugs, and points out that they are the same issues that were encountered with the prohibition of alcohol. For those who don’t want to read the whole report, please at least read this page, which makes policy recommendations for dealing with illegal drugs, the first of which is recognition that prohibition doesn’t work.

Then have a look at the date at the top. Yes, that’s right – this report was made in 1972. Even back then it was recognised that prohibition was a failure – and why not? There’s a long and rich history of crime, death and addiction to draw on for evidence. Yet these recommendations have been resoundingly ignored by governments and the UN for nearly 40 years.

To me, this makes no sense. It makes no sense to go on considering prohibition in any kind of future tense, because in order to be realistic about drugs, it shouldn’t even be considered as an option any more – and there’s ample history to back that statement up. There is no place in the present world for dithering about whether or not prohibition ‘will work’ or ‘is working’ – it didn’t. It hasn’t. Time for a new approach that actually has a future.

* There are no references attached to these dates as the information is in the public domain and simple enough to find for anyone interested.

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