Saturday, 24 November 2018

The iron law of prohibition

I recently wrote about Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream.  It’s an unusual thing for me to do to focus so much on another person’s work, and because I enjoyed reading it and felt it had lots of important insights and stories, I felt bad criticising it.  But I’m about to write about it again.

When I was reading the book, I folded down pages or underlined sections that I thought were either interesting or misguided.  Somehow, in my initial post, I missed one key point, which I think is a slightly misleading claim about the potential of legalisation of substances.  I’m going to analyse that, but then argue that nevertheless legalisation may be the right policy.

So, what did I disagree with?  Well, it’s not really Hari’s point; it’s a commonly made claim about how prohibition increases the strength of the drugs.  Hari refers to it as the ‘iron law’ of prohibition.  The point is that if you’re having to smuggle things, then you want the most efficient way of doing it – which in the case of alcohol means spirits rather than beer: a truckload of whisky will satisfy more people than a truckload of beer.  The same could be said of fentanyl today: it’s so potent that it’s much easier to transport than heroin.

This argument is often trotted out by people who want to legalise cannabis, noting that today’s cannabis (often questionably referred to as ‘skunk’) is stronger than what used to be available 20 or more years ago.

And yet whisky wasn’t created by prohibition, and hasn’t become obsolescent in societies where alcohol is legal.  Moreover, people didn’t just drink these things neat; there was a growth in cocktail recipes as people sought to mask the taste.  The transport was separate from the consumption.

And the ‘gin craze’, however accurate as a description of drinking in 18th century Britain, wasn’t driven by prohibition by availability and affordability.  Hari would also say it was driven by the misery and dislocation of rapid urbanisation.  As I wrote previously, we don’t need to – in fact we shouldn’t – look for a single universal cause of substance use issues.  There isn’t one.

In my original piece, I questioned Hari’s claim that ‘relatively few of us want to get totally shit-faced’ (p.230), given the phenomenon of ‘determined drunkenness’.  Here, I want to stress that associating the level of ‘problem’ with the ‘strength’ of a drug is misguided.  Does whisky lead to more problems than beer?  It’s hard to say.  Certainly not everyone who drinks whisky gets drunk, and it’s perfectly possible to get ‘shit-faced’ drinking only beer – I’m living proof.

And if you’re looking for an efficient way to get ‘shit-faced’, it’s not necessarily the ‘strongest’ drink that you choose, but often the cheapest – like white cider, which is a creation not of prohibition, but our slightly arcane tax system.

A clearer ‘iron law’ of prohibition for me wouldn’t be that it creates the strongest or most dangerous drugs (tobacco and alcohol companies are perfectly competent at that); it’s that the strength and general composition of the drugs is uncertain.

I’m not saying that prohibition doesn’t sometimes increase the strength of drugs, or at least limit our choices, but it’s not an absolute ‘law’ – whereas lack of information (which is a key cause of overdose) is.

Also, strength is not the only determinant of problems.  If we’re talking drunkenness we can’t only blame spirits.  And if we’re talking violence, beer is again often to blame.  And we could probably blame wine for a good number of ‘alcohol-related’ illnesses where there has perhaps been very little violence or drunkenness, but the health harms of alcohol have come home to roost.

And this gets us to something of a choice about prohibition or legalisation.  I don’t want to get into the detail of the debate, partly because a lot of it is supposition, and depends so much on what regime is introduced to regulate substances, what the prior culture of the area is, and so on.  Not all countries that allow alcohol have the same levels of alcohol-related harm – even if they have the same pricing and availability.

As always, I could focus not so much on how legalisation would reduce harm for consumers, but for how it would be game-changing for people involved in the production and distribution of drugs, where violence is endemic and whole states have lost their monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

And looking at the consumer side of things too, taking the example of alcohol, we can suggest that there might be higher rates of drug-related illnesses in the long term for consumers, but there would be less crime and violence.  Alcohol-related crime is generally because people are drunk, but most drugs don’t tend to encourage this – or there’s no reason they should.  The crime on the consumer side for these substances tends to be acquisitive to fund drug use, but this doesn’t happen so much in relation to alcohol (particularly not any more) now alcohol is, in relative terms, so cheap.

As others have outlined, in order to ensure there is no black market, the legal price for drugs needs to be relatively low, and of course a potential consequence of that is use increasing, along with associated harm.  That’s what we can see with the growth in alcohol consumption in the UK from the 1960s to 2004.  Various factors combined to make alcohol consumption increase as it became more acceptable, more affordable, and more available.

So is the price worth paying?  Well, for me, as I’ve said, the benefits for producer countries and those involved in the drug trade are clear.  But for consumers and those around them it’s potentially more of a mixed bag.  But I’m still prepared to say it’s worth it – just not because of the ‘iron law’.

Again, without going into the detail (other people can do that better than me), I see this as a question of whether we would prefer the situation today where for consumers and producers life is (to quote another political theorist) nasty, brutish and short, to the situation under legalisation where we’d probably see some higher rates of chronic conditions such as cancer (which we’ve seen with increased alcohol use).  I’d prefer the latter.

That life is nasty, brutish and short for some people isn’t the result of particular substances, even when they’ve been strengthened and adulterated by prohibition.  The nastiness is the result of the wider structures, which can be changed.

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