The Noble Tragedy of Drug Prohibition: 100 years ago and now

by Christoph Heuermann

Traveling through a wonderful country with equally bad reputation animates to write about its cause. I am in Mexico – a country where 100.000 people died in the last 8 years over something you might have already smoked or sniffed. Drugs – accompanying humans since the stone age – are currently prohibited in most parts of the world. Where drug gangs are not killing each other over lucrative trading routes, governments do the job, incarcerating thousands or just killing them over some outmoded laws.

While this might soon end, it has taken innumerable human lives until now. Indeed, the War on Drugs has failed. It still fails. Yet, there is hope. The movement grows. Most European states, with Netherlands as their forerunner, have always had a rather lenient attitude towards soft drugs, although many still hold them illegal. With the Czech Republic and Portugal effectively decriminalising drugs, especially Portugal with great success, there is need for other European countries to follow suit. Just recently, leading German economists demanded the full legality of soft drugs like weed.

Yet there is no need to be an economist to see the disaster of drug prohibition. An estimated market of 500 billion $ creates enough incentive to sell drugs, even if it is illegal. History has always proved this. Just let us jump back a hundred years to the United States of America, currently on the forefront of drug liberalisation with some of their states. A hundred years ago however, not only drugs like weed, cocaine and LSD were prohibited.

When speaking of drugs, especially people in favour of prohibition like to forget that they consume them every other day. Beer boozing bureaucrats probably implement the drug war under drug consumption. It’s just not called drug, but alcohol.

This thing called alcohol was effectively banned through most of the United States in the early 20th century. By 1900, half of the States were dry, prohibiting any sale of liquor. Yet as everyone knows, there is always a way around prohibitions. Like their modern day counterparts are ordering their drugs through dark web marketplaces like the infamous, now closed-down, Silk Road, Americans just ordered alcohol over the postal service from states allowing consumption.

Yet, naturally, peaceful trade like this could not be tolerated. The Interstate Liquor Act of 1913 closed the loophole. Instead of peaceful trade, violence grew as no more legal ways to obtain alcohol remained open. By 1917, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was proposed, though only ratified 2 years later and set to effect in 1920. It banned all hard liquor with more than 40 percent alcohol content, which was shortly after reduced to 0.5 percent by the Volstead Act.

Thus, alcohol remained fully prohibited in the United States from 1920 to 1933. With it, violence grew at shocking rates, with notorious gangsters like Al Capone exploiting the black market. Homicides during this periods increased by 78 percent, reaching its height at the end of prohibition in 1933 and rapidly falling afterwards. Criminalising the common man makes crime become common as well – an issue which is applicable as well to services like gambling or prostitution.

Although criminalizing it, the Prohibition was far from reducing alcohol consumption. It rather grew – as the statistic of an increase of 81 percent drunk drivers arrested during prohibition years shows clearly. Likewise, government corrupted and spend millions on law enforcement, cracking down regularly a few establishments, but never stopping the black market.

Meanwhile, death by alcohol consumption quadrupled due to increased alcohol content in black market booze. Short of alcohol, many people also turned to consumption of easier available drugs like opium with more severe consequences. All in all, the “Noble Experiment” as it was commonly called failed bitterly. In December 1933, the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment repealed the prohibition, causing president Roosevelts famous quip: “I think this would be a good time for a beer”.

“I think this would be a good time for some weed” is a phrase yet missing in parliaments all over the world. However, after having taken a heavy toll, many people slowly begin to finally wake up. In the case of current drug prohibition, one just needs to remember the experiment of American alcohol prohibition, because it sounds so familiar.

Drug violence shadows over all the Americas, while taking illegal drugs is far from uncommon in these countries. Bad quality drugs still kill a lot of people as do new artificially created drug products. Dangerous products, which normal people would never be exposed to if they had alternatives in natural drugs.

Still, hope rises when watching the success of Marijuana legalisation in Colorado and other American states. Crime decreases, innocent youth is released from prisons, and a now legal market heavily supports local economies. The consumption rate, however, increased only slightly. After all, what is not prohibited, loses value in the eyes of many.

Admittedly, to a full legalisation or at least decriminalisation in Europe there still is a long way. Self-interest and the fear to make themselves superfluous, drives international drug enforcement agencies and politicians to oppose drugs although actually knowing better. While bureaucrats booze beers, there will still be some more unnecessary deaths of innocent people. Like the European Union cannot prevent African refugees to enter its territory, it cannot prevent drugs to be consumed by responsible citizens. Like the former eventually drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, the prohibition of drugs is a tragedy on an enormous scale costing innumerable lives. Sadly, history is the best teacher with the worst disciples.


Christoph Heuermann, *1990, is the author of several articles about Europe, innovation, decentralisation and freedom. If he is not travelling the world, he studies political and administrative science in Konstanz, Germany. Having lived in Vienna, Berlin, Brussels and Madrid for long time, he is a strong advocate for a free and cosmopolitan Europe without borders. He currently works on his latest project,

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