The Colombian President’s statement over the weekend, that legalized consumption is “a possibility we can discuss”, places another straw on the camel’s back of prohibition.  But, maintaining the pessimistic outlook that characterizes this blog, I wanted to set forth a few reasons why we shouldn’t think that the camel is about to fall to his knees any time soon.

Drug law reformers frequently make reference to the failure of alcohol prohibition in America in the 20s and 30s as a reason to believe that the War on Drugs is doomed to fail, eventually.  The question they ask is when? I’d love to agree, but I can’t be as fatalistic. I think the reform movement today faces a much harder task than the Repealers did in the 1930s. Not to say it’s impossible, but it’s more difficult.  Here are a few reasons why this prohibition is not the same as that Prohibition:

There was already an established alcohol industry prior to Prohibition

At the beginning of the temperance movement, there was an established alcohol industry with established lobbying influence. They failed to stop the implementation of Prohibition partly due to incompetence- in-fighting between brewers and distributors, a lack of unity between producers of beer and liquor, but there was a strong corporate interest with vested interests in legal production, distribution of alcohol.

Even during Prohibition, alcohol was legally produced, just not in the US

With alcohol prohibition, the US government economy suffered the costs of prohibition, while legal producers elsewhere (Canada, the UK) made money from inflated prices, and criminals made money from illegal sales.  With Repeal, the producers didn’t lose money, the Government was able to make money from taxation, and save money from disinvesting in enforcement. Even some of the bootleggers benefited from Repeal.

During Prohibition, alcohol consumption was never illegal, just its sale and distribution

Throughout Prohibition alcohol use was widely publicized and visible- speakeasies, dinner parties.  People were even allowed to keep and consume all the alcohol they owned before the 18th amendment was introduced.  Openly opposing Prohibition did not carry the same risks or stigma that open drug use does today.  There is a large, silent group of drug users in the US, the UK and elsewhere who use drugs, and flout the law, but their use is still judged as shameful.  Celebrities caught using have to admit to their “drugs hell” and apologize for setting a bad example to the children, and enter rehab to reform their image. Release’s “Nice People Take Drugs” campaign is an attempt to expose the hypocrisy, but attitudes to use, and users are very different.

Small-government millionaires thought that Repeal would raise enough revenue to remove the need for Income Tax

With the Wall Street Crash, federal coffers were starved as receipts from income tax declined rapidly.  Billionaires lobbied for Repeal because they genuinely thought that taxation on alcohol would raise enough revenue to replace the Federal Income Tax as a source of revenue.  If drugs were to be legalized, regulated and taxed today, no one believes the revenue from taxation would replace other government revenue streams, it would simply be another way to plug the deficit.  Anyway, the rich today are too busy dancing their way through a gazillion tax loopholes to think about drug policy. It’s not like drugs prohibition actually effects them in any way.

The Prohibition movement was a broad church, which collapsed when the mainstream supporters lost faith

People wanted to ban alcohol for numerous reasons- women wanted it banned because they didn’t have enough economic or social independence to protect themselves from drunken and abusive husbands, social reformers wanted it banned because they thought it would liberate the working classes from poverty, religious reformers wanted it banned because they hate to see anyone having a good time if it doesn’t involve prayer.  But women achieved some level of independence and equality from the suffragette movement, social reformers eventually realized that the working-classes were worse off drinking wood-alcohol than they had been drinking beer, and the religious reformers were left in the minority.  Drug prohibition has mainstream support (except for possibly shifting attitudes with relation to marijuana).  Because of the stigma attached to drug use, other movements which have aligned interests (human rights, climate change, development agencies etc) do not feel able to openly support the reform movement.

Drug prohibition is embedded in global treaties and national legislation.

Like the 18th amendment (implementing Prohibition), the 21st amendment (which ushered in its repeal) required the ratification of 2/3 of Congress, and then 2/3 of the States.  Technically, the process for the United States to legalize drugs should be easier, because it’s not enshrined in the Constitution.  However drug prohibition is embedded within the bureaucracies of the UN, in the form of the United Nations Office of Drugs Control, and within every national government that has signed the 3 global treaties supporting the goal of a drug-free world.  Billions of dollars and millions of jobs are invested in the status quo. This kind of ‘big’ problem is difficult for modern democracies to address, without some form of shift in the moral norm, as happened with the slave trade in the 18th century.  This is not going to happen with drugs- drug use is unlikely to ever be ‘ok’. Gradually diminishing compliance is more likely, but will still entail individual States or countries taking big political risks.

The worst violence arising from Prohibition does not happen within the countries that support it most vociferously

All of the violence and corruption relating to alcohol prohibition took place within America. The hard core proponents of a drug-free world, namely Sweden, Japan, and the UK and the US do not experience the worst of the harms, and the harms that are experienced are generally inflicted upon the more disenfranchised communities.  If drugs were to be legal, the negative effects (increased use, increased levels of abuse) would be felt more severely amongst those countries.

All of this isn’t to say that I think the drugs war can be sustained indefinitely.  I just think the camel’s got a bit more strength left in him than we’d like to believe.