Back to Prohibition?

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Professor David Nutt – the former government advisor on drug policy – argued in the Guardian yesterday that there is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol consumption. I’m not convinced – as one commenter points out, he uses some anecdotal evidence and an extremely strict definition of ‘safety’ – but for the sake of argument, let’s say that Nutt’s right and alcohol really IS a lot more harmful than we currently think. What would the policy implications be?

For a start, you might want the government to inform people so that they make an informed decision about their drinking. People tend to be distrustful of government information but I suppose it’s worth a shot. It might also encourage rebellious teenagers to drink more, but teenagers like drinking plenty already. Some would want to tax alcohol more highly to discourage drinking. If people are sufficiently informed about the dangers it seems too paternalistic to try to make them act as we’d like them to, but it’s a popular position.

There are plenty of other regulations that people would have across the board, but almost nobody would propose to prohibit alcohol consumption altogether, even if it was shown to be rather more harmful than Nutt is saying. Most people understand that outlawing something altogether makes it more dangerous. As during Prohibition in the US (PDF), a black market would grow (funding organized crime), alcohol would become more dangerous (brewed in people’s bathtubs and cut with things we’d rather not drink), and people would be put into prison for doing things in the privacy of their own home that didn’t really affect anybody but themselves.

On that last point, I hate to think of the social consequences of jailing thousands of people for victimless crimes. Prohibition didn’t work the last time round, and it wouldn’t be any more effective if we suddenly learned that alcohol was a physical evil rather than a moral evil. Most people know these things and accept that even if they hated alcohol’s effect on others, it would be foolish to try to outlaw it.

So why do we have precisely the opposite view of recreational drugs? A social and individual harm reduction policy against a dangerous alcohol would fall far short of outright prohibition. Applying the policy to alcohol has and would be a failure, irrespective of alcohol’s harmfulness. What reason is there to think that cannabis, ecstasy, mephadrone – and even heroin and crack, for that matter – are any different?