We need to talk about prohibition

We need to talk about prohibition

The problem with the prohibition of alcohol in the United States from 1920-1933, was that it did nothing at all to quench the American public's thirst for it. At first, consumption fell by about 30%, but over the next 2 years it gradually  increased by 60-70%. (1). 

Prohibition drove alcohol underground and into the hands of gangsters, who profited greatly from controlling the supply. We've all seen the films of Al Capone and bootleggers and whilst these films are entertaining to watch, the reality was quite different.  Gangs went to war to hold or gain territory over their rivals, murder rates increased and a general sense of chaos took hold due to the illegal trading of alcohol.

With production of alcohol driven underground and "easy" money to made, many people turned their hand to producing their own booze. Spirits were the preferred beverage due to their strength compared to beer or wine which lead to potentially larger profits. The quality and strength of these spirits varied widely and with no regulations in place, this inevitably lead to safety issues. It is estimated that at least 1000 Americans died each year from tainted liquor during the period of prohibition. (2).

Prohibition of alcohol ended in 1933 leaving a trail of destruction behind it. Today it is socially accepted, just a normal part of life, despite the fact that an estimated 95,000 Americans die each year as a direct result of consuming alcohol. That number is estimated to be 3 million worldwide, whilst in Ireland the figure is around 1000. (3)(4)(5).

Here in Ireland, alcohol is ingrained within our society where almost every occasion is marked with a drink. It plays a central role in our celebrations from cradle to grave whether it be a christening, wedding, funeral or anything in between. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, we enjoy the odd drink or five too but it’s a potentially lethal drug which must be respected. Regulations ensure the quality of the product and the legal age at which it can be purchased so that adults have a choice as to whether or not they drink. The regulating bodies trust them to make this choice and subsequently, benefit from the revenues from sales and distribution.

Around the same time as the initial prohibition of Alcohol, another substance was outlawed. This substance however was actually a plant which had grown here on earth for an estimated 27 million years and is documented as being used in traditional medicine for over 5000 years. Of course we’re talking here about the Cannabis plant and a campaign of fear was launched against the plant in America in the early 1920’s.

It suggested the use of Cannabis lead to deviency, murder and a threat to the safety of the public. A propaganda war was launched in which the headlines at the time would suggest that the primary reason for banning the plant was aimed at racial minorities who regularly used it recreationally - in particular those travelling across the border from Mexico. While this campaign was taking place, many other countries across the globe who look to the US followed suit and in Ireland for example, It was banned by the Irish free state government in 1934 under the dangerous drugs act. (6)(7).

Whilst Cannabis has been outlawed in most parts of the world for almost a century now, it has never eradicated the desire of people to use the plant in various ways. Similar to what we’ve described above with the prohibition of alcohol, the supply and distribution has fallen into the hands of criminals, this has led to violence, quality issues and some of the poorest farmers in the world being taken advantage of, to grow the plant under threat from dangerous regimes. It has also criminalized otherwise generally law-abiding people who enjoy the plant recreationally. 

Without regulation, the strength of cannabis is unknown to the user when they purchase it on the black market. The chemicals which being used in the growing process are also a growing concern as these can vary the effects of the plant wildly. These chemicals are stored within the plant and unwittingly consumed by the end user with potentially toxic results. With regulation this would not be an issue, and also there would be huge tax revenue for countries who adopt this approach.

Without regulation, we see the same pattern as we did with the prohibition of Alcohol. Quality, strength, contaminates, are all at the discretion of the producer and when profit is the only driving indicator, the contents of the end product is a bit of a mystery to the end user. As with the lifting of prohibition of Alcohol, the reversal of prohibition on Cannabis would not only have a positive impact on the health of the populations who currently use it, but would also have an economic and social dividend. Increased revenue and the potential gainful employment in areas where businesses could be created might just help alleviate some of the social problems which are often associated with Cannabis. 

Hemp is also a member of the Cannabis family and hence was outlawed for many years. This prohibition has really hampered the study of the plants and whilst in 2021 we now know the many benefits of hemp, in particular the high levels of CBD and very low levels of THC, our scientific knowledge of these compounds could and should have been far more advanced by now.

The 2018 farm bill introduced in the US which legalised the production of Hemp has been a huge step forward, it has been a catalyst for new research into the plant and the beginning of a better understanding of what it can do for us. We go into some more detail on some of the uses for Hemp over here but there are said to be up to 25,000 uses for the plant so we'll continue to bring you more information on this wonder-plant.

Prohibition is a blunt instrument which has been proven not to be effective and yet it seems like the only lever that governments are willing to pull. The lost years of research into the Cannabis family has cost trillions of dollars and countless lives and yet we’re now learning the potential medicinal benefits which could have saved lives and led to therapies which would save many more into the future.

  1. https://www.nber.org/papers/w3675
  2. https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/unintended-consequences/
  3. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistic
  4. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/alcohol
  5. https://alcoholireland.ie/facts/alcohol-related-harm-facts-and-statistics/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7173675/
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_cannabis_law
  8. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2013/05/29/industrial-hemp-a-win-win-for-the-economy-and-the-environment/