Photo: Uffe Johansson

Why prohibition does not belong in a free society

Dr. Jimmy Wall Gonzo Leave a Comment

This is a typical morning for me. I just had breakfast with a cup of coffee. Caffeine gives me that extra kick of energy before I start writing – like I am doing right now.

What is slightly different with this morning, compared to last year, is that I have made this morning a bit more Scandinavian. It is not the coffee I brought back [to Australia] from Sweden, but the Swedish oral tobacco known as snus I have shoved under my upper lip.

This type of tobacco is also known as smokeless tobacco. It has this awesome perk that it does not bother people around you when you get your nicotine fix. Nor does it stink up the place with tobacco smoke. Yet most governments around the world seem hell-bent on making it illegal.

Even if it often are used by smokers to quit smoking.

Snus has been made illegal to sell in the EU, except in Sweden due to its long tradition there. Something the Swedish government has been fighting hard for, even though EU seems still tempted to enforce some kind of regulation on smokeless tobacco in Sweden.

Due to it also being illegal [only sale not personal use] in Australia you have no choice than to import it yourself, which will cost you dearly, as I learned when arriving at the Australian border. Luckily for the Australian government it is not a high demand product, not enough people to object to the harsh legislation, so it is very easy for them to get away with robbing those who would like to bring some [snus] in with them.

It is a costly pleasure, but now after 10 minutes of having nicotine pumping through my body I have to admit it was worth it. Not just for the nicotine hit, but also giving me an even better understanding why it is so profitable to smuggle banned or high-taxed goods into a country, and why black markets thrive under such foolish regulations.

The best example regarding black market profits and prohibition is the alcohol prohibition between 1920s and 1930s in USA. It was the best economical decision the US government made for the mafia. They [the mafia] knew there were a demand for alcohol, so like any smart business owner, they provided the supply when it was made illegal. It was a high risk business, but it also had a high [economical] pay for those willing to take the risk.

Until the US government decided to lift the ban, understanding prohibition was not the answer.

There is no need to really go that far back in history to find an example like this. All we need to do is to take a look at how beneficial the war on drugs have been for the black market. Again we see the same pattern of supply and demand, and how such a ban keeps the black market’s profits go up.

It is however the end of the [alcohol] prohibition that is mostly interesting. As it shows how decriminalisation a substance has a huge negative impact on the black market, while the government and the consumers positively benefit from it.

With that said, let us focus back on Australia and tobacco. Smoking tobacco is readily available here, yet there seems to also be profitable enough for the black market to smuggle even cheaper smoking tobacco into Australia.

Which is why when I read about that The Victorian Cancer Council did a survey and found that majority of smokers within the state of Victoria thought it would be a good idea to ban tobacco alarm bells went off in my head.

Regarding health it is understandable why this seems like a good idea. However it is a bit short-sighted, regarding how it will only give the black market another great product to supply to an already existing high demand.

Tobacco, alcohol and even caffeine is rarely considered to be part of a healthy diet and lifestyle. Yet we have decided that in moderation we can accept and tolerate it.

It is abuse and overconsumption that is the issue. Which is why harm reduction is a better approach than prohibition.

We humans are funny like that. We know it is not healthy, especially overconsumption, but we for some reason love to get high. A demand which has been around for centuries, a demand that will most likely not go away over not, or more likely, never.

The best way to handle consumption of any kind of substance is to first differentiate between use and abuse.

Someone that is able to use any kind of substance in moderation and without diminishing their health too much should and deserve to be left to their own device and responsibility. Yet still be provided educational information to know when use turns into abuse, and to provide help if they want to end their use.

When it comes to abuse it is important to recognise that this should not be punished. This only exacerbates the stigma of abuse, forcing the person struggling with addiction to become ashamed and even scared to seek help.

In addition, by making a certain substance illegal only pushes the responsibility to the black market, which is only interested in one thing – profit. For the black market abuse, or addiction, is more profitable than [moderate] use.

Which happens when a government decides to, instead of helping its citizens, make something illegal in hope use and abuse will drop to zero. In a way it drops, but not for the right reasons. Some might stop using due to fear of punishment, instead of seeking help, but more importantly, use and abuse becomes extremely difficult to track, because no one is comfortable admitting they are using or abusing a substance that is illegal.

This leads to a lack in data showing how many that actually can moderately use a drug such as cannabis, but also lack in data showing those who are willing to seek help for their addiction.

The only reason a ban on smokeless tobacco in EU (except Sweden) and Australia have been successful in theory is because usage was most likely very low from the beginning, so not enough people objected against it.

I am not a big fan of smoking tobacco mainly due to the horrible smoke, but a complete ban on it would not work so well– only for the black market –because of the large number of users.

The best example and argument is to look at how most countries deal with alcohol. To buy alcohol you need to be at a certain age and the idea behind the taxation of alcohol, most of the time it seems, is and should be used to fund services that help those who have gone from being an user to an abuser [of alcohol]. Moreover, the government is able to be aware of usage of alcohol and oversees the quality of alcohol. This in turn ensures that customers knows exactly what they are drinking and the strength of what they are consuming.

Again, the black market does not really care about quality nor safety. As long that it makes a profit and that you will buy more, they are happy.

Looking at how well it works for most people, regarding consumption of alcohol, tobacco or caffeine, from that we can maybe loosen up a bit regarding other substances. Understanding that better education about a substance will result in safer use. But also understanding that help is far better tool to combat abuse rather than punishment.

More importantly, banning is rarely a good solution, because it does not work so well as the goody-two-shoes think it will. And let us be honest, the police have better things to do than to spend time chasing people that might opt for cannabis rather than a few cold beers on a Saturday night.

Dr. Jimmy WallWhy prohibition does not belong in a free society

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