Why Prohibition Will Never Work

Just yesterday, I saw a Whatsapp video claiming that governments don’t ban alcohol and cigarettes despite their clear negative impact on public health because doing so would reduce their budget, as both have a high tax percentage and thus contribute significantly to government coffers. The rest of the video went far off into insanity, claiming cancer is created by the mind and that if you are happy, you will never fall ill, so I won’t go into disproving that.
At first glance, the argument seems logical, if a tad bit conspiratorial: after all, why else would these societal net negatives be allowed? One rather simplistic counter would be that the government is supposed to care for citizens first, money next. This sounds a little unbelievable considering that almost all countries still allow conversion therapists and troubled-teen schools to operate (which are as bad as, if not worse, than alcohol and tobacco.) But there are other, much more solid reasons why prohibition isn’t considered, as I’ll break down now.

Rules are Only as Powerful as their Enforcement

Let’s take the example of the most famous Prohibition in history: the ban on alcohol in the US from 1920 to 1933. One of several reasons it was an utter failure was that there were barely any enforcement agencies: it started out with 1,520 Federal Prohibition agents and didn’t increase much throughout the law’s active period. A few thousand people can’t police a nation of over 100 million, no matter how much power they are given.

There were also too many loopholes: doctors were still allowed to prescribe medicinal alcohol, and churches could use wine in Holy Communion. The consumption of both saw a marked increase the moment Prohibition went into effect, but the already-overworked agents couldn’t do anything about it. Besides, even if there were enough enforcers on hand, it would be nearly impossible to prove anything in these cases since the usage is entirely up to the discretion of doctors and priests, respectively.
One famous Prohibition-era story goes like this: a senator named Fiorello La Guardia summoned about 15–20 reporters to room 150 of the House Office Building. There he drank a mix of tonic and ‘near-beer’ (according to him, it was barely legal, but nobody knows for sure) in front of them, making headlines the next day. Despite this, not a single arrest warrant was written against him. In fact, the police outright refused to arrest him, showing just how tired they were of the ban too.

Nobody Likes Being Told What to Do

Everyone knows that kids dislike following anything their parents tell them, like this video from Reddit of a toddler eating a raw onion because his grandad asked him not to shows. Humans have a natural distaste for authority; nobody wants to be told by someone else what they can and cannot do. To put it in terms of a Tumblr post I found and unfortunately lost a long time ago, ‘It’s your life, man, you get to spoil it as you like.’

In most cases, this aversion doesn’t extend to laws because they appeal to our conscience and logic. No one goes around murdering others just because legislation prohibits it since murder goes against our personal morals. However, several victimless crimes don’t enjoy this respect from humans because there is no plausible affected party other than the criminal themselves.

Take the example of the War on Drugs: by outlawing them outright, all that was accomplished was mass incarceration disproportionately affecting African-American communities, along with a steep increase in both the price and potency of drugs. The actual number of addicts did not decrease. The only industry which benefited from this was the private prison industry; in all respects, the War was a complete failure and waste of lives, money, and time, causing endless pain while achieving nothing of value. This is because the threat of incarceration is trivial to a person determined to take drugs. Punishing someone for ruining their own life is stupid and doesn’t work.

Where is the Line?

Everyone knows that methamphetamine is harmful in almost all respects; thus, banning it seems like a logical step. The same can be said of heroin, cocaine, morphine, and fentanyl outside of medical cases. Each has almost no upside but severe downsides, after all, and society would be better off without them.

From the more potent drugs, we come to the gray area of things like alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana. Some say they act as gateway drugs; others believe they are harmless social lubricants. None have as immediate or as severe an effect as the substances in the first list; thus, it makes no sense to treat them the same way. But for the sake of our experiment, let’s say each was carefully examined and found to do more harm than good and outlawed. What next?

Junk food is also bad for humans; indeed, one study published in the Lancet Medical Journal suggested that bad diets were responsible for more deaths than tobacco worldwide. Does this mean we outlaw unhealthy food too? How about white sugar? Meat? Non-omega-3-rich oils? Where do we draw the line between acceptable and outrageous, and what factors determine what lies on which side?

The Actual Solution

Prohibition and any other hard-line stance on matters such as drugs are bound to be failures for the reasons above. But if not restriction, then what? Is there any other way out there to deal with this issue?
The answer is wonderfully simple: harm reduction. To a few (mainly the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, or as I like to call it, BS gang), it may sound unbelievable, but people need help from time to time; some things are not doable alone. For a drug addict looking to recover, it is nearly impossible to ask for support when there are forces threatening imprisonment at every turn. Since the body is physiologically dependent on the drug to function, they have to keep buying from illegal vendors, who have no problem using blackmail to keep them from seeking assistance. Every time they inject, they are at risk of dying due to overdose or poisoning. Believe it or not, nobody actually wants to live like this; but are forced to do so because they simply have no other alternative.
Now imagine the same addict, only this time there is a robust government support system allowing them to ask for help recovering. Agents will give them a hand in buying a house, and free high-quality, safety-tested drugs will be administered by doctors when needed. There will be clean needles, shower rooms, and therapy provided. Sure, it still takes courage to actually go up and ask for aid, but the promise of help in itself gives many the required push. Without the worry of arrest, people can actually begin to focus on improving themselves, and many do. This methodology has been implemented in Switzerland, and it has made the difference between night and day. Deaths due to overdose have plummeted, and so have AIDS rates. The nation’s infamous ‘Needle Park’, called so for the heroin usage there, has also lost its past reputation. The program has been a major success, all for a far lower cost than the War on Drugs, even taking into account the difference in population sizes.
Everyone deserves second chances; nobody should ever have to waste their entire life away because of a single mistake. Prohibition seeks to do exactly that; what’s more, it doesn’t even do that effectively. Let’s ban it once and for all.

Student at IIT Bombay by day, reader by heart. My linktree: linktr.ee/Addu_Jaddu