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January 2005
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Alcohol Prohibition and Drug Prohibition

One of the most incredible aspects of drug prohibition has been the almost total inability to learn from our mistakes in alcohol prohibition. Those in government and those supporting drug prohibition have been either blind to these truths, or have promoted willful ignorance.
I just finished reading one of the best pieces I have seen in this area. Alcohol Prohibition and Drug Prohibition: Lessons from Alcohol Policy for Drug Policy by Harry G. Levine and Craig Reinarman examines both prohibitions and analyzes the lessons from the earlier one that can be applied to the latter.
After a careful analysis of the history of both, the authors demonstrate a couple of important points:

First, the legalization of drug production and sales and the establishment of drug control along the lines of alcohol control is a reasonable and practical policy option. Supporters of alcohol prohibition always claimed that alcohol was a special substance that could never be regulated and sold like other commodities because it was so addicting and dangerous. However, as the last seventy plus years of alcohol control and the experiences of many other societies have shown, the prohibitionists were wrong. The experiences of drug policy in other nations, and the experiences of U.S. pharmaceutical and drugstore regulation, suggest that most if not all psychoactive substances could be similarly produced, regulated, sold, and used in a generally lawful and orderly fashion. Therefore, it would mark a significant advance if the current U.S. debate on drug policy could be moved beyond the question of whether such a system of legalized drug control is possible. It is. Instead, we think debate should focus on whether a nonmoralistic assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of such a system make it desirable, and what different regulatory options might look like.

Second, a workable system of at least partially legalized drug production and sales — of drug control — would have to be a flexible one, geared to local conditions. Edward Brecher recommended in his landmark study Licit and Illicit Drugs (1972), and the importance of local option was also stressed over a century ago by the Committee of Fifty (Levine, 1983). Because towns, cities, counties, states and countries vary enormously, alcohol and drug policies must be shaped according to local environments.

As with alcohol control, drug control could be implemented so as to reduce substantially if not eliminate the illegal drug business and most of the crime, violence, and corruption associated with it. Drug control with a public health orientation would also seek to encourage milder and weaker drugs and to make them available in safer forms accompanied by comprehensive education about risks, proper use, and less dangerous modes of ingestion. In other words, a public-health-oriented drug control regime would seek to reverse the tendencies that appear inherent under criminalization, where production, distribution, and consumption are pushed into deviant subcultures, where purity is uncontrolled and dosage is imprecise.

If a legalized, decentralized drug control system with local option is implemented, then the experience of alcohol regulation suggests that, in the long run, drug problems would probably not rise significantly above the levels now present under drug prohibition, and overall consumption might not rise either (see also Nadelmann, 1989a). Similarly, if such a public health model of drug control were coupled with increased social services and employment for impoverished inner-city populations, then the abuse of drugs like heroin and cocaine might well be expected to decrease (Reinarman and Levine, 1997; Brecher, 1972; Jonas, 1990).

The paper goes on to tackle the problems of global prohibition (which the authors consider to be a long-term reform challenge that will be tackled first by countries simply ignoring the treaty provisions).
The article is available at the Centre for Drug Research, University of Amsterdam.

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