This Wednesday was a special day. In the Netherlands, Dutch children celebrated the coming of Sinterklaas (along with his controversial helper Zwarte Piet). Walt Disney would have celebrated his 117th birthday. It was also world soil day, apparently. But the 5th of December 2018 also marked a particularly special anniversary: the end of prohibition in the United States. Eighty-five years ago, the Twenty First Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, officially repealing the Eighteenth Amendment banning the sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors. After thirteen years, American citizens could at last enjoy a drink, legally.
Today, prohibition is widely regarded as a colossal failure. Driven by pressure from the Temperance Movement, who saw alcohol and the drunkenness it causes as detriments to society. Alcohol was blamed for crime, disorder, and poverty. A ban on booze, it was seemingly thought, would protect drinkers from themselves, and society from their behaviour while under-the-influence.
Of course, this wasn’t the case. Rather than eradicating the American market for booze, it simply drove the import, production, and sale of drinks into the hands of bootleggers and mafiosos.
In fact, the black market for booze during the prohibition era was so vastly profitable that some have credited the ban with creating the modern mafia. The total control over the market for alcohol provided a great incentive for gangs, such as those that came with the mass immigration from Italy in the late-1900s, to transform from small-time racketeers to firm-like, hierarchical organisations.
While these gangs certainly filled a gap with their black-market liquor and speakeasies, consumers and the rest of society undoubtedly suffered. Gangs, famously, preferred to treat friendly competition with a pair of concrete shoes than a new marketing campaign. Meanwhile, those indulging in illegal booze received no protection from the state, and no guarantee of what exactly went into their drink. While gangsters made millions, everyone else had to pay the price.
So, the eighty-five year anniversary of the death of such a disastrous attempt at social engineering undoubtedly warrants celebrating (perhaps with a drink?). But have we actually learned from the experience?
Not fully. In fact, you could read through the first half of this article, replace ‘booze’ with ‘cocaine’ or ‘cannabis’, and ‘Mafia’ with ‘Cartel’, and you’d have a pretty accurate description of the ongoing war on drugs.
Just like the Americans of the 1920s who fancied a beer, someone wanting to indulge in something harder today is left fully at the whims of organised criminals, and receives no help from the state. According to the drug policy alliance, almost 1.4 million people in the US have been arrested solely on possession charges.
Moreover, consumers of drugs today often have no guarantee that what they’re taking is actually what they paid for. While cities like Amsterdam now offer anonymous testing of substances, most people have no way if they just snorted a line of coke or laundry detergent.
Meanwhile, those selling on the black market enjoy participation in a global industry worth an estimated half a trillion dollars. While cartels and drug runners line their pockets, however, the communities around them have to deal with the violence and murder that comes whenever markets become criminal.
It’s probably wise to put in a disclaimer here: I am not advocating the use of hard drugs. Rather, I am advocating to follow the path of least harm. Just as the prohibition of alcohol created the mafia, bringing with it violence, more-dangerous products, and general suffering, the war on drugs, too, has done nothing to protect users or prevent crime; quite the opposite, in fact.
Eighty-five years ago the US government learned its lesson, and took the path of least harm. In doing so, they allowed users access to help and support and deprived criminals of their monopoly. While we’re starting to make progress, as countries like Canada, Luxembourg, as well as certain US states begin to decriminalise cannabis, there’s lots more work to be done before all the suffering brought on by the war on drugs can be ended.