The misguided reliance on banning

One of the things we need to do in this country is fight the long-established notion in the general public (and most especially in the lawmakers) that an effective way to deal with something we don’t like is to use the government to ban it.

The fact is that banning as an effective solution for anything is far from a universal truth, yet many people are convinced that it is, so they don’t even bother sit down and say: “We don’t like this. What are the ways of dealing with this, and which are actually likely to be effective?” Instead, they say: “We don’t like this. Ban it.”

Lawmakers, of course, do this all the time (sometimes even just for the political “glory” of banning something). They’ll even try to ban wearing your pants a certain way.

We find this, of course, in our efforts to reform drug policy. There are a lot of people out there who want us to convince them that drugs are harmless before they are willing to accept not banning them — which is why we so often get bogged down in irrelevant discussions over some minor aspect of marijuana’s effects.

The truth, of course, is that even if the drug is harmful, banning is the wrong way to deal with it.

As some LEAP speakers I’ve heard have said to people: “If the drug is as harmful as you think it is, then why would you possibly want it to be unregulated and distributed by criminals?”

A study in the American Journal of Public Health noted that a national survey found 43% of Americans thought cigarettes should be banned.

That’s pretty stunning. 43%

Here, with cigarettes, we have the most extraordinary success story in changing people’s views and habits regarding a particular drug without it being illegal.

It really is astonishing what has happened in the past 20 years. Smoking rates have gone down dramatically. Lung cancer rates have gone down. I take a look around the university where I work, and where I used to see large crowds of students smoking outside our common area any time of day, now it’s one or two.

And this all happened through education and social acceptance. Sure, there were some over-reaches in the “banning” style now and then (we had some misguided efforts by the university to eliminate outdoor ashtrays that just ended up in more cigarette butts on the ground), but for the most part, change happened without banning.

With this legal drug, life-saving changes were happening in society. At the same time, with the illegal drug heroin, we were seeing death tolls mount from tainted drugs.

There are limited times when a ban can be effective. For example, the FDA may ban an additive used in the processing of food products because it is toxic. This is likely to cause the processing companies to find a different way to prepare the food, and unlikely to cause the consumers to seek out the additive on the black market merely because their lunchmeat has been prepared with a different preservative.

But the use of bans has to be approached on a case by case basis, not merely because we dislike something. As we’ve seen so graphically in the drug war, it isn’t just a matter of whether bans are effective or not. Bans can follow the entire scale from effective to destructive.

As Evert (who sent me the link on cigarette bans) says:

In other words, 43% of the population thinks cigarettes should no longer be taxed nor sold with health warnings. 43% of the population would prefer that cigarettes were sold by people who don’t check ID, who don’t turn child customers away and who reinvest drug money in other criminal enterprises. 43% of the population want to clog the courts and jails with non-violent smokers and people involved in voluntary drug deals. 43% of the population would prefer that cigarettes became a more lucrative source of income for corrupt cops, bureaucrats and organised crime.

If 43% of population thinks this, 43% of the population is certifiably insane.

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36 Responses to The misguided reliance on banning

  1. darkcycle says:

    Short term thinking focused on instant gratification and an inability to appreciate and anticipate natural consequences. These are the hallmarks of a child. And a politician seeking re-election. Often these traits are cited in commitment hearings, as a part of the criteria to establish the defendant is “Gravely Disabled”. Go figure.

  2. People seek power to punish people who do things they don’t like. Always been that way, always will be.

  3. skootercat says:

    Isn’t 43% the number Gary Johnson said we need to slash the current budget?

    • B. Snow says:

      But I wonder if he’d get his first “oh shit” = classified briefing on day one and say “Well, Uhhmmm.. Remember that cutting the budget by 43% I talked so much about, Yeah we can’t do that right now – sorry my bad.”

      • Francis says:

        Hey B., a couple of thoughts:

        1) In 2011, the federal government spent about 3.5 trillion dollars in constant 2005 inflation-adjusted dollars. A 43% reduction would take that down to about 2 trillion, i.e. about what we spent in 2000. (Way to go, Obushma!)

        2) You talk about “oh shit” classified briefings. Presumably, that’s a reference to the military threats we face. The U.S. spends more on its military than the next ‘X’ nations combined where ‘X’ is (depending on which google result you believe) one of the following values: 8, 10, 21, 24, or “all.” (Seriously, those all came from the first page of results.) Whatever the actual number is, do you really think we couldn’t afford to pare it back a teensy bit? How about we just stop funding (and fighting) unconstitutional and undeclared wars? That’d be a pretty good start, no?

        3) Even if you’re not willing to cut military spending much, keep in mind that it’s “only” 20% of federal expenditures. Yes, that’s pretty big, but it still leaves a lot of room for cuts in other areas.

        4) Things that can’t go on forever, don’t. We are borrowing 43 cents of every dollar we spend. That WILL stop eventually. The question is when and how. My guess is that the real “oh shit” secret briefings are coming from the Treasury, not the Pentagon.

  4. Duncan20903 says:


    One of the more mind boggling thing that I’ve learned in the exploration of the subject of absolute prohibition is that in the first couple of decades of the 20th century, 21 States enacted bans on tobacco. Perhaps we could call it the unknown prohibition. It failed, and failed very quietly. So WTF brought about the failure of tobacco prohibition? In that day and age they sure didn’t appear to have any problem banning stuff they didn’t like.

    At least I have some understanding of the thinking when it comes to smoking tobacco and the desire to ban it. I’d be 100% behind the idea if I thought it had more than the proverbial snowball’s chance of working. But reality is that it won’t. We just can’t regulate human nature out of existence. One thing that many people seem to miss when they compare laws against murder, rape, and other common law crimes is that those acts are antithetical to human nature. Were murder or rape legal, would anyone go out and commit those acts? Well let’s except those acts in the furtherance of revenge, because revenge is most certainly an inherent part of human nature. It’s the entire reason why the (unperverted) criminal justice system is a necessary evil, because it civilizes the human need for revenge when a person or his loved ones are wronged. Without the possibility of revenge meted out in a tempered and civilized matter I’m sure almost all of us would be willing to exact violent revenge. But the initiation of violence or committing theft is not inherent in any but a small percentage of us.

    One other point about tobacco. We have enacted a considerable number of bans in the past 3 decades, we just haven’t instituted an absolute ban. When I was in high school we were welcome to smoke all the cigarettes that we could. 13 year old 9th graders included. They did have smoking areas, which were immediately outside every door except the main entrance and we had the entire interior courtyard. I’m sure today if a student at that same school got caught lighting up a smoke they’d get the zero tolerance treatment. I’m not aware of any non-residential interior space where smoking tobacco use is allowed. There were “smoking sections” on airplanes, even though the concept is absurdity in the extreme. Smoking in your hospital room was not a problem unless you were on oxygen. Which of course had nothing to do with the smoking and everything to do with the exploding and subsequent incineration. You’ll often find me railing against absolute prohibition and that’s because I’m OK with limited prohibitions. I’ll argue that they’ve taken the restrictions against tobacco too far but not that a very large percentage of the restrictions in place were a very good idea. I think I’d be hard pressed to find anyone today who would agree that 13 year old 9th graders should be allowed to smoke all the cigarettes that they can during breaks between class.

    • Francis says:

      “But the initiation of violence or committing theft is not inherent in any but a small percentage of us.”

      Unfortunately, that “small percentage” is also called “Congress.”

  5. Dante says:

    Why does this activity (banning) continue?

    Because it benefits the Congress-critters who do the banning (“tough on crime”, etc.) and it benefits Law Enforcement because they can concentrate on non-violent people to pad their arrest statistics, steal from them, profit from drug-war misconduct/corruption and never have to deal with real, dangerous criminals while getting promoted and then retiring with a FAT pension. It’s a win/win for them, and an epic fail for the remaining 99% of the population. Who is being protected and served, again?

    When those two selfish groups begin to suffer as a result of their support for prohibition, it will end. Until then, those two groups will continue to personally profit from the misery of millions. And they know it. That is why the Congress and most police won’t even allow a discussion of ending prohibition.

    Protect & Serve (Themselves!)

  6. Dan Riffle says:

    My caveat with this piece is that a lot of the success we’ve have with reducing smoking is due to bans – specifically, indoor smoking bans. When you can’t smoke at bars, restaurants, airplanes (and if you do, the government punishes both you and the establishment) or virtually any other indoor place, it becomes an ostracizing experience to smoke. That ostracizing effect, which is due to banning cigarettes in certain places, is a big part of the success you’re writing about.

    Of course, that ban is not absolute. You can still buy cigarettes, and you can still smoke them in certain places. So, policy doesn’t have to be a polar, absolute position (totally illegal or totally legal) contrary to what Kevin Sabet and his ilk will tell you. Legalization exists on a spectrum, and moving cigarettes a little closer to the prohibition end of the spectrum has been a success. Moving it totally to the end of the spectrum (where marijuana is now) would be disastrous, just as our current policy with marijuana is disastrous. The lesson here, as it pertains to marijuana, is that we can and should move marijuana a little away from the prohibition end of the spectrum without moving it all the way to the other end.

    • Duncan20903 says:

      Hmm, why didn’t I think of that?

    • Francis says:

      For some reason, the analogy I always think of when comparing prohibition with “regulation” is a city that many people really want to visit. Let’s call it, oh I don’t know, “Drugville.” The city has many different gates. And the paths that lead to those gates are also different; some are more dangerous than others. Not everyone likes Drugville, including oddly enough, many people who have never been. (How do they know, you ask? They just do.) Anyways, the people who don’t like Drugville convince the king to ban travel to the city. (Interesting side note: the king used to visit the city quite a bit. Maybe he still does.) So the king hires soldiers to guard each and every entrance into the city. What happens? Sometimes people try to sneak by the guards. Sometimes they’re caught and executed or thrown in the dungeon. Sometimes people attack and kill the guards. Sometimes the guards accept bribes to look the other way. But the end result is lots of violence and lots of corruption in this formerly-peaceful kingdom (but there’s still PLENTY of traffic to the city, people figure out the easiest gates to get through pretty quickly). Now imagine that the king had only put guards at some of the gates, presumably the more dangerous ones. People so inclined could still visit Drugville, but they would only be allowed to take the safer paths into the city. (Not really a huge sacrifice, no?) You’d still have some people trying to take the forbidden routes (and thus some violence and corruption), but on an infinitely-smaller scale. Personally, I say allow adults to choose their own paths so long as they’re not harming others, but I’m in the minority. And the more important point is that “regulated legalization” (even with relatively heavy regulations) is a massive improvement over total prohibition.

    • darkcycle says:

      Dan, you’re confusing a convention of language (eg, the description of indoor smoking limitations as “bans”). In reality, use of tobacco is not “banned”, it is restricted. Restrictions on where a substance can be used is part of “regulation” not “prohibition”. When addressing these things in open forums is it usually wise to be specific and refer to such a restriction as a regulation, not a ban.
      Part and parcel of our argument for legalization is the ability to apply just that sort of reasonable regulation. The existence of a blanket “ban” eliminates that possibility.

      • Matthew Meyer says:

        …not to overlook Dan’s point about the efficacy of social coercion, on top of the enlightened education that Pete emphasized, in reducing cigarette harms without prohibiting cigarettes.

        • Francis says:

          I’d say social “stigma” rather than “coercion.” But yeah, that’s a great point. The cultural shift in my opinion was much more important than the legal shift in reducing use. And while it’s true that there was probably some mutual feedback between the two, keep in mind that it was the cultural shift that had to take place first (at least in part) in order for the legal shift to become possible.

      • Dan Riffle says:

        Darkcycle: it is a “ban.” It is an indoor smoking “ban” – as in, you can’t do it. A “regulation” or “limitation” would be something like “you can only smoke indoors between the hours of 10:00pm and 2:00am.” To carry your semantic argument to its logical conclusion, banning the manufacture, sale, and possession of marijuana is only a very restrictive regulation/limitation.

        The rest of your points – that the ban applies only to indoor smoking and not all cigarette activity; regulation occurs on a spectrum – I made in the second half of my comment.

    • Scott says:

      I wonder if we could ban stupid people in Congress. For starters, if you don’t believe in science (global climate change, evolution, and so on), if you do believe in voodoo economics, and if you believe that the U.S. is winning the drug war, you aren’t allowed to serve. As Dan noted, the ban would not be absolute–we wouldn’t force stupid people to emigrate–but at least there would be fewer of them in positions where they can do damage.

  7. Duncan20903 says:

    Denmark just says no to Copenhagen. It’s going to an awful long time before I eat another ding dang Danish.

  8. Ed Dunkle says:

    I doubt that a cigarette ban will occur because the government collects so much tax money from them. Right now there is Proposition 29 on the California ballot which proposes a $1 increase on packs of cigarettes. (Currently the statewide tax is 87 cents/pack.) Governments will continue to increase taxes on cigarettes until they create a black market in them. (See New York City.)

    • claygooding says:

      It already exists and has for several years,,word is they are watching the smoke shops at the casinos in OK for TX cars buying large orders of tobacco,,no one busted yet,tmk,but it will happen.

    • Duncan20903 says:


      So have we seen any murders or other criminal mischief inherent to organized criminal syndicates because of cigarette bootlegging except on CSI:New York? Yeah, about 3 episodes ago a shop owner got murdered because he refused to sell cigarettes over the counter for the “rushin’ mob.” A hundred and fucking thirty dollars a carton for cigarettes in Manhattan? I was paying $6/per in high school.

  9. B. Snow says:

    I actually saw Jim Parsons on Letterman just recently talking about quitting smoking after smoking a pack a day for years.
    He said he his doctor (who apparently had some type of specialty/in lung related diseases = in addition to general practitioner -I suppose?)
    Anywho, the Doc asked him how much he smoked per day & when Parsons answered “a pack” – the Doc said “if you’re smoking 20 a day you’re not enjoying it – you’re addicted… I’d be okay with you smoking up to 4 per day…”
    Long story short- he cut back his smoking and eventually got down to 1 a day & found himself going out into horrible weather to smoke his cig for the day & said “what the hell am I doing this for?” – and quit.

    I was kinda pleased to hear this story = because Ironically/coincidentally? 4 cigs a day is about what I smoke these days!
    I too cut down from 1-2 packs a day in the first couple years i smoked, eventually cutting back to a less than a pack, then to a little over half a pack, then over time down to about a third of pack, and then down to 5-6 , 4-5, and my average per day is a fraction between 3 & 4 – just a bit higher than â•¥.

    Rarely, if I’m happen to be driving a long distance I add about +1 per/hour driven. But over the long run of the last several years it works out to about a pack and a half a week. (I figured it out over weeks, & months, & 6 months or so = And a carton lasts me about 2 months on average.
    It’s about 4 a day, every now & then there’ll be a day where its 0-1 (bad weather) OR 8-10 (a long drive both ways = round-trip in a day)…

    The important part of the story (IMHO) was the Dr.’s argument = that if you’re really enjoying them, like wine, or a cigar, etc. Then, its hard to justify more than 4 a day… And that smoking in moderation is an acceptable option IF you can do manage to do it.

    *Note – I have to give some credit of my ‘willpower’ to the Wellbutrin – that I take as an effective anti-depressant that doesn’t have nasty (purpose defeating IMHO)’sexual side-effects’.
    Also, I’ve never truly wanted to “quit” I ENJOY a few cigs a day on the back porch). Plus, my height & several years of playing of Band = blessed me with some amazing lung capacity, so I’m doing (IMHO) fine in that regard for the foreseeable future.

    ANY attempt to ban cigs would possibly make me smoke more out of spite – I know there not good for me – i choose to have a ‘personal vice’…

    Parsons & Letterman also talked about cigs vs cigars [Basically the idea that cig companies add stuff that cigars don’t have], and I had no idea “Sheldon Cooper” Jim Parson recently (iirc) turned 40 – and he’s doing a Production of Harvey

    If your interested – I recommend google-ing his most recent appearance on Letterman & watch the clip of it.

    • Matthew Meyer says:

      Yes, I’d like to see studies done with natural tobacco instead of commercial cigarettes, to see how great the differences might be.

  10. SmellySingeIV says:

    When an organization goes rogue it takes up a new mission, of its own choosing…often in cahoots with the enemy it was supposed to be fighting.


    The clearest example of this phenomenon is the War on Drugs. The anti-drug warriors went rogue many years ago. They found common cause with drug dealers, both of them now work against the public’s interest. The drug fighters gain power and money by putting resources to work against the drug dealers. The drug dealers gain power and money thanks to the drug fighters who, like regulators, create high barriers to entry, keep out competition, push up prices, and protect the dealers’ profit margins.

  11. Peter says:

    Funny how the government and other prohibitionists only want to ban things that corporate america cannot make a profit from…gay marriage and cannabis are two examples. Of course, for the latter, the corporations make a profit on the banning, not on the product, so cannabis prohibition is a double vested interest: make money out of the drug war AND sell the rubes inferior substitutes.

  12. Duncan20903 says:


    …and in the latest edition of Dueling Headlines:

    Marijuana May Help Relieve MS Patients’ Symptoms
    MyHealthNewsDaily – ‎6 hours ago‎

    Marijuana relieves some MS symptoms: Study
    MetroNews Canada – ‎2 hours ago‎

    Medical marijuana may ease multiple sclerosis – ‎26 minutes ago‎

    Puff, Puff, Bend: Cannabis Helps Relieve Muscle Tightness In MS Patients
    International Business Times – ‎2 hours ago‎

    Smoked Cannabis Reduces Some Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis – ‎30 minutes ago‎

    Study Confirms Marijuana Helps in MS
    MedPage Today – ‎6 hours ago‎

    Puff, Puff, Bend? WTF?

  13. Peter says:

    puff puff bend? must be something to do with joints

    • Duncan20903 says:


      I get it now. Man that’s one deep headline. Shove me back into the shallow water please.

      We’ve co-opted another (retired) South American President:

      Former Chilean president backs marijuana decriminalization
      Monday, 14 May 2012
      Written by David Pedigo

      Ricardo Lagos says the war on drugs “is being lost.”

      No Danish, but I will have a big bowl of yummy chili, thanks very much.

  14. Freeman says:

    In other words, 43% of the population thinks cigarettes should no longer be taxed nor sold with health warnings. 43% of the population would prefer that cigarettes were sold by people who don’t check ID, who don’t turn child customers away and who reinvest drug money in other criminal enterprises. 43% of the population want to clog the courts and jails with non-violent smokers and people involved in voluntary drug deals. 43% of the population would prefer that cigarettes became a more lucrative source of income for corrupt cops, bureaucrats and organised crime.

    If 43% of population thinks this, 43% of the population is certifiably insane.

    Something about this sounds familiar. Where was it that I recently read self-described not-a-prohibitionist-oh-no-not-me Mark Kleiman counting himself among the 43% wishing to ban cigarettes? Oh yeah, it was right here on the couch where, in a spectacular display of self-contradiction within the span of four sentences, he expressed support for that position in an attempt to convince us he’s not a prohibitionist.

    Of the currently licit drugs, I’d prohibit cigarettes (not other tobacco or nicotine products and with maintenance supplies for current addicts) but not alcohol. Of the currently illicit drugs, I’d like to see cannabis, the hallucinogens, MDMA, and coca leaf for chewing or coca tea legally available to adults. All of this is in my published writings; “Kleiman the prohibitionist” exists only in the minds of the Manichean leglizers.

    At least I can agree that it certainly doesn’t seem to exist within the mind of the sort of denialist who will say (apparently with a straight face) “Of course, putting people in prison for getting high is utter fantasy” about our current drug policies.

  15. Servetus says:

    Banning a drug, as in banishment, is a shortcut to thinking. Like stereotypes and prejudice, like ‘Just Say No ’ and ‘Thou shalt not… ’, banishment is eliminationist in character, simple, and medieval. Banishment of art and words is censorship. For the fiefdom-minded, obedience to banishment is an act of subservience. It is a guidepost for an authoritarian follower. In a democracy, it becomes a suppressed civil right worthy of a revolution.

  16. kaptinemo says:

    Ol’ Professor Whitebread saw it coming a mile off:

    “Here comes the new one? What’s it going to be? No, it won’t be guns, this one starts easy. This one is the Surgeon General has what? –Determined — not “we want a little more checking it out”, not “we need a few more studies”, not “reasonable people disagree” — “The Surgeon General has determined that the smoking of cigarettes will kill you.”

    Now, all you need, and here is my formula, for a new prohibition every time is what? We need an intractable, difficult, social, economic, or medical problem. But that is not enough. There has to be another thing. It has to divide by class — by social or economic class, between US and THEM.

    And so, here it comes. ‘

    You know the Federal Government has been spending a lot of money since 1968 trying to persuade us not to smoke. And, indeed, the absolute numbers on smoking have declined very little. But, you know who has quit smoking, don’t you? In gigantic numbers? The college-educated, that’s who. The college-educated, that’s who doesn’t smoke. Who are they? Tomorrow’s what? Movers and kickers, that’s who. Tomorrow’s movers and kickers don’t smoke. Who does smoke? Oh, you know who smokes out of all proportion to their numbers in the society — it is the people standing in your criminal courtrooms, that’s who. Who are they? Tomorrow’s moved and kicked, that’s who.

    And, there it is friends, once it divides between the movers and kickers and the moved and kicked it is all over and it will be all over very shortly.

    It starts with “You know, they shouldn’t smoke, they are killing themselves.” Then it turns, as it has — you see the ads out here — “They shouldn’t smoke, they are killing us.” And pretty soon, that class division will happen, we will have the legislatures full of tomorrow’s movers and kickers and they are going to say just what they are going to say any time now. “You know, this has just gotta stop, and we got an answer for it.” We are going to have a criminal statute that forbids the manufacture, sale, or possession of tobacco cigarettes, or tobacco products period.”

    Plain as day. It can’t get any clearer. And it’s happening. E-cigarettes and nicotine gum are just stop-gaps. The idiots are itching to ban, ban, ban something, and this is next. Nobody ever listens…

    • Francis says:

      Ugh, I really hope you’re mistaken (although I suspect that you’re not) because I have absolutely no desire to start smoking cigarettes. But if the bastards ban them, I figure it’ll be my duty.

      • Windy says:

        I smoke cigarettes, and I have been trying to quit. first I set a quit day 6 months in advance to psych myself up for it, that date was Mar 23, I didn’t quit, I’m still trying, now I am saying by Memorial Day weekend, hopefully it will stick this time, but I’ve been smoking for most of the years since I was 15 and I’m going to be 68 in a few weeks, it’s hard to break a habit one has had that long. I’m not addicted to nicotine since I can easily go for 9 days without a cigarette or any of the crankiness attributed to nicotine withdrawal. I quit once for a year back in the mid 60s and I quit for 6 months because of a bet with my dad, but both times, obviously, I started again. For the years since that bet with my dad was over (I won because I did quit for the period of time agreed upon) I only smoke 3-5 cigarettes a day, but hubby quit 7 years ago and is badgering me to quit, too. Thing is I get more out of going out for a cigarette than the people around me realize, and the amount I smoke is not really that harmful and I still enjoy each cigarette I smoke.

    • strayan says:

      I hope Mark Kleiman reads that.

  17. Duncan20903 says:


    Speaking of idiots and the bans they impose under the color of law, did you know that throwing an eraser in school is a 3rd degree felony in Florida (per State Sen. Stephen Wise from Jacksonville)?

    Even more shocking is that it appears that the Duval County (Florida) Public School system is experimenting with policies that aren’t zero tolerance! Hopefully not for eraser throwing. What message does it send them if we tolerate eraser throwing in classrooms? Carry the little urchins to prison in chains, I say! Give ’em the chair!

    Duval Schools Use Discretion in Marijuana Offenses

  18. Unperson says:

    I’m against using social engineering to make cigarettes “uncool” just to have a reason to ban them! American Colleges aren’t Marxist indoctrination camps, are they?

    • Duncan20903 says:

      Marxist indoctrination camps? That’s the craziest thing I ever heard! There’s no Duck Soup in the college cafeteria, no way, no how.

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