Why we “Need” Prohibition

I was looking through some old essays and came across the following gem, written in favor of alcohol Prohibition in the 1930s. Needless to say, I found it highly amusing.

Alcohol: Been There. Done That

For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I drank alcohol. It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.

But then we all sort of moved away from it. I don’t remember any big group decision that we should give up drinking. It just sort of petered out, and, before long, we were scarcely using it.

We didn’t give it up for the obvious health reasons: that it is addictive in about one in six teenagers; that drinking and driving is a good way to get yourself killed; that young people who drink go on to suffer I.Q. loss and perform worse on other cognitive tests.

I think we gave it up, first, because we each had had a few embarrassing incidents. Drunk people do stupid things (that’s basically the point). I drank one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation in English class. I stumbled through it, incapable of putting together simple phrases, feeling like a total loser. It is still one of those embarrassing memories that pop up unbidden at 4 in the morning.

We gave it up, second, I think, because one member of our clique became a full-on alcoholic. He may have been the smartest of us, but something sad happened to him as he sunk deeper into an alcoholic life.

Third, most of us developed higher pleasures. Drinking was fun, for a bit, but it was kind of repetitive. Most of us figured out early on that drinking alcohol doesn’t really make you funnier or more creative (academic studies more or less confirm this). We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

One close friend devoted himself to track. Others fell deeply in love and got thrills from the enlargements of the heart. A few developed passions for science or literature.

Finally, I think we had a vague sense that drinking beer was not exactly something you were proud of yourself for. It’s not something people admire. We were in the stage, which I guess all of us are still in, of trying to become more integrated, coherent and responsible people. This process usually involves using the powers of reason, temperance and self-control — not qualities one associates with being drunk.

I think we had a sense, which all people have, or should have, that the actions you take change you inside, making you a little more or a little less coherent. Not drinking, or only drinking sporadically, gave you a better shot at becoming a little more integrated and interesting. Drinking all the time seemed likely to cumulatively fragment a person’s deep center, or at least not do much to enhance it.

So, like the vast majority of people who try alcohol, we aged out. We left alcohol behind. I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets drunk from time to time, but I guess, on the whole, I think being drunk is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.

We now have a couple states — Colorado and Washington — that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging alcohol use. By making alcohol legal, they are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One RAND study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. Colorado and Washington, in other words, are producing more drinkers.

The people who debate these policy changes usually cite the health risks users would face or the tax revenues the state might realize. Many people these days shy away from talk about the moral status of alcohol use because that would imply that one sort of life you might choose is better than another sort of life.

But, of course, these are the core questions: Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being drunk.

In legalizing alcohol, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

Okay, I lied. This was actually written a few days ago, by David Brooks on NYTimes. And it’s actually about smoking pot & legalizing marijuana, not alcohol & prohibition. But it’s truly amusing how the arguments against weed sound exactly like the thoroughly debunked arguments in favor of alcohol prohibition from a century ago.

Personally, I don’t smoke weed at all. I tried it a few times, and it just wasn’t my thing. But I was extremely glad to hear of weed legalization in Colorado and Washington. America has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world, six times that of China’s. Millions of Americans are sitting in prison right now & millions more have had their lives ruined by it. A major reason for this is the war on Marijuana. Over half of all drug arrests are due to Marijuana.

The creation of a massive underground black market encourages both consumers & dealers, who are being forced to live outside the law, to take one step further and involve themselves with hardcore drugs such as Heroin, Cocaine & Meth. The police & DEA are spending billions of dollars & invaluable time fighting this War on Weed; money, time & effort that can be better spent fighting other dangerous crime, hardcore drugs, and making our society a truly safer place.

And what are we getting out of all this? Marijuana is not nearly as dangerous to our health as alcohol, sugar or fatty foods. Even medical experts like Dr Sanjay Gupta have recently spoken out in support of Marijuana’s safety & efficacy. In terms of addictiveness, both alcohol & caffeine have been found to be much more addictive than weed. Countries like Netherlands have already decriminalized Marijuana, with great success. Anyone concerned about the societal effects of legalizing weed only needs to visit Amsterdam & marvel at how beautiful, safe & well-functioning it is. It’s hard to make the case that weed is any more dangerous to our society than alcohol, tobacco, or any number of other products that we as a society use regularly, responsibly and in moderation.

As someone who doesn’t smoke Marijuana and has no plans of doing so, I’m certainly not writing this post in support of smoking weed. I’ve led a great & fulfilling life without smoking Marijuana, and have never found myself drawn to it. But I’m still wholeheartedly in support of legalizing it. The societal effects of this War on Weed are simply too costly. We’re driving a vast subculture into the underground illicit world of drug trafficking & consumption. We’re wasting massive amounts of police time, efforts & manpower into combating this underground black market that we’ve created. And most tragically, we’re incarcerating millions of youths whose lives will never be the same again.

Prohibition has already been tried, and been found wanting. It’s time we learnt from our mistakes a century ago. It’s time we ended this pointless war.

2 thoughts on “Why we “Need” Prohibition

  1. I have always felt that the legal consequences of doing something prohibited for health reasons should never be more damaging than the thing society claims it is protecting you from.

    If the thing is more legally damaging, that just means to me that society is just being mean for the sake of meanness. Or that someone is making big money by means of meanness.

    1. Well said. I’m not quite sure how I feel about weed, and its usage. I wasn’t very impressed with it, the few times I gave it a try. But with the way the War on Drugs is being fought, the punishment certainly doesn’t fit the crime. We would be much better off treating Weed the same way we would Alcohol.

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