The Perils of Prohibition

I have worked at the Drug Policy Alliance for almost 11 years. We believe the war on drugs is a failure. We believe substance misuse should be a health issue, not a criminal issue — and that when people struggle with drug misuse, compassion and treatment are typically more effective than punishment and prison. Fundamentally, we also believe drug prohibition doesn’t work, and that it causes much more harm than good.

If I were to sum up one of our biggest challenges, it is helping people distinguish between the harms of (legal and illegal) drug misuse and the harms of drug prohibition.

There is justifiable fear and terror around the drug trade. Everyday we read and hear about the bloody drug war in Mexico that has taken the lives of at least 28,000 people in a little over three years. We see and hear about shootings, murders and violence in our cities because of the drug trade.

For too long, people have associated the violence with the drugs themselves, rather than the policy of prohibition.

It is not marijuana or coca that cause heads to roll in Mexico — it is the inevitable black market that prohibition creates. It is only because of prohibition that these plants are worth more than gold.

Finally, after years of pounding away at that point, it is starting to sink in.

An initiative in California to control and tax cannabis has generated thousands of articles and most stories have voices pointing out that prohibition leads to violence.

And now we have an HBO series about the failures of prohibition.

In the first two episodes of “Boardwalk Empire,” Congress declared alcohol illegal, alcohol moved into the black market, and people killed each other over the vast amounts of money to be made in the trade.

Today, no one dies in turf battles over the right to distribute Budweiser.

In “Boardwalk Empire” and in our lives, there are clearly health issues and problems stemming from alcohol abuse.

The health issues with alcohol are real but they are different than the problems that we saw under alcohol prohibition. Alcohol prohibition didn’t get rid of alcohol or drinking. Prohibition led to Al Capone, incarceration, corruption and many other unintended consequences.

The tide is turning. It is the pro-drug criminalization folks’ greatest fear that people start to understand the failures and harms of drug prohibition. The California initiative, the growing drug policy reform movement, and shows like “Boardwalk Empire” are helping us reach a tipping point.

Today, after several decades of drug prohibition, it should be clear that it’s never going to work. It’s time for an exit strategy from this unwinnable war.

TONY NEWMAN is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance