Director's Message
Understanding prohibition and prohibitionism, let’s talk!

Nora Callahan, Autumn 2010
Most people still don't understand the tangled distinctions between banning of substances and human behavior. Seems as good a time as any to provoke some November Coalition membership discussion and action, because Senator James Webb (D-VA) is going to get his proposed National Criminal Justice Commission. It will be an 18-month attempt to identify problems in our federal, state and local criminal justice systems, and present recommendations that could herald a much-awaited decarceration era.

The drug war is rooted in prohibitionism, an ideology, and so it's more important than ever to understand what that is. You'll have to be a teacher and find students, and at times be both.

Prohibition occurs when societies of people understand without question that certain activities are harmful and, as a group, completely agree to abstain from such behavior. Prohibitionism occurs when a select group of people decide that some activities are harmful and demand abstinence law -- not just for them -- but for everyone.

Laws banning behavior or substances can alternate from acceptable to unacceptable over time and that is what makes prohibition laws peculiar. For instance, murder isn't a "prohibition law.” The laws defining murder aren't debated and changed. We steadily insist that killing someone on purpose, or by willful neglect is against the law. Stealing is always unacceptable behavior, too. Longtime Coalition advisor John Chase offered this in correspondence about prohibition,

“We talk a lot about how lovely it would be if pot were 'regulated', as if  'regulation' is a silver bullet. Seems to me the over-arching factor is HOW SOCIETY'S RULES ARE ENFORCED. Prohibition wouldn't be on our radar if dealing/using was a misdemeanor. You could say that if it's not harshly enforced, it ain't prohibition. One problem is that prohibition works only if everyone agrees, but if everyone agrees, prohibition is not needed. That's why it is not necessary to prohibit murder.”

When I was a kid, if someone wanted to gamble, they had to go to Nevada to do it. For an era in the middle of last century, Nevada's rejection of gambling prohibition and acceptance of regulated gambling activity worked so well that most states today sponsor lotteries that fund schools and other worthy projects. Turning vice to heath care, "I'll take a Lotto ticket, please," is a regulated activity just about everywhere. It's entertainment, it's fundraising -- not abnormal, anti-social behavior that warrants fines or imprisonment. But it once did!

When my parents were kids in the 1920s, alcohol policy in the United States was nonexistent, unless you were sick. A 13-year experiment supported by the US Constitution, you couldn't sell it and weren't supposed to use it for fun. Crime soared, social movements rose up to oppose it, and alcohol prohibition was repealed by 1933. Today the United States allows alcohol advertising to reach every age group with relative ease, but the product remains controlled and regulated. Taxes produced from the legal sale of alcohol pay for its regulation -- not the illegal reverse: continued black-market availability, no drug control, no taxable incomes, and soaring costs in criminal justice budgets for taxpayers and the communities.

Sex as a business in the United States is worked out at the state and federal level. In parts of Nevada an adult can pay to have sex with another adult. It's legal, regulated activity. Communities across the United States control other aspects of the sex industry: movies, book stores and dancing. It's called the Adult Entertainment Industry, and there are rules that keep most for-profit adult sex activity in the eye of regulators. Governments in our country decided it was safer, and profitable. Prison sentences for people who write a sexy novel, or make a XXX movie, are no longer handed down. Today these authors, producers and participants pay taxes.

Eras of intense prohibitionism are often looked back upon as peculiar and filled with oddities, but there are common threads. Leading ideas in these periods are characterized by racism, fear-mongering, lies and inflammatory language -- not social science. Science slowly gains acceptance after people, mostly victims of bad law and other concerned citizens, spend countless years discrediting state-inspired propaganda that keeps old, worn-out ideologies in place. Prohibitionism eventually leads to hot debate about what’s truly criminal behavior, but we don’t debate legalizing murder, rape or robbery.

Drug prohibition came along in the mid 1980's with a magnitude-10 zealotry that staggers the imagination of modern historians. I was older before learning that law isn't supposed to be zealous, much less over-zealous. It's intended to be even, fair and level-headed. I'd never heard of prohibitionism, but encased in a drug war you soon learn it's a real war and not a metaphor.

Drug prohibitionism is odd. On one hand, pharmaceutical companies produce many permitted drugs by combining chemicals––mostly derived from active ingredients in plants––for availability on a medical market. The same plants used for synthesizing in the legal medical industry are illegal for people to use and or manufacture. Morphine and heroin are both derived from poppies, the opium poppy to be exact. One is a medicine, another a street drug. And if you buy packaged wildflowers or your neighbor scatters some, a yard is overwhelmed by them in the Northwest.

There are also synthetic drugs that blend active chemicals to produce different effects on the body. Simultaneously, they are both legal for medical use, but also made illegally for street use. There is Ritalin and methamphetamine, for example, veritable chemical twins. Medical drugs and their effects are widely advertised to every age group.

This peculiarity of drug prohibitionism is what makes it inhumane and impossible. The decades-old drug war has imprisoned defenseless, vulnerable people, and destroys the environment when hectares of rainforest, farmland and all living things are aerially sprayed with herbicides. It has also lasted longer than any other modern prohibitionism that involved natural substances used throughout thousands of years of human history.

Not peculiar is the result of laws that ban a particular group of chemicals or plant substance: they become more valuable for underworld traffickers. Perceptions of problematic drug use rise when the problems created by banning the substances weigh in. Criminal groups get richer, taxpayers poorer, as we keep paying for more and more police, prisons and people to guard those who run afoul of the drug laws, including paying informants. Again, wise words from John Chase,

“Every anti-drug law started ostensibly to target the drug, but it was intended to hold down the people who use the drug. We Americans have been tricked into talking only about the properties of the drug rather than the pros and cons of various methods of regulation. Even now, virtually every letter to an editor, Op-Ed or editorial about drug policy talks about the properties of the drug... either that pot hasn't killed anybody in 5000 years, or a personal story about a family member who lost his job because he got addicted to Drug A or Drug B or Drug C. We have been tricked to talk about the drug, and prohibitionists love it that way. They are not prepared to talk about various degrees of regulation. They see the choice as either vending machines or prohibition.”

Meanwhile, illegal drug markets remain active and stable, demand and supply wavers little. Numbers of addicts, the total per capita, also have stayed about the same. And yet, predictable changes to come include calls for more police, funds for more prisons, and the hiring of community workers to deal with the aftermath of conviction, imprisonment and felony disenfranchisement.

We'll always have prohibition -- groups of people who don't gamble, would never hire a sex worker, and some people won't eat meat or dairy. Drugs? Most people will use them. We just don't have to keep accepting ideologies of prohibitionism and the consequences of it forever.

The people of the United States do not have to be, nor deserve to be, the world's leader jailer. Demand that your federal, state and local leaders stop waging a drug war and consider the terrible, social costs of prohibition laws. Instead of a drug war we could have a fairer, safer future.

In struggle,

Next Article: The Crunch in Federal Prisons