THE Prohibition was the attempt to outlaw the production and consumption of alcohol in the United States. The call for prohibition began primarily as a religious movement in the early 19th century—the state of Maine passed the first state prohibition law in 1846, and the Prohibition Party was established in 1869. The movement gained support in the 1880s and 1890s from social reformers who saw alcohol as the cause of poverty, industrial accidents, and the break-up of families; others associated alcohol with urban immigrant ghettos, criminality and political corruption. (HistoryExtra)
Hard to believe that the event described above, The Prohibition, took place only about a century ago, in the country that is perhaps now one of the most openly tolerant and free choice societies in the world. But take place it did, with the premise being that the item being banned was a social ill, and that it was government’s duty to ensure that its consumption was curtailed, for the greater good.
Today, though alcohol’s consumption is nowhere near being demonized as a century ago, the principle of prohibition for the greater good is still in place. Take, for example, the sale and use of narcotic substances. The reason for their ban is precisely the same as that which justified alcohol’s 100 years ago. So it is still not entirely free choice. When the greater good of society is threatened, government is still duty-bound to exercise its power to regulate, and if necessary ban, the production and sale of substances that may be detrimental to society as a whole.
Today though, the principle of “for the greater good” is less and less clear. And therefore the decision on what to ban and what to allow has become a very tricky proposition indeed.
Take the case of marijuana, for example.
Earlier thought to be a “gateway drug,” which meant that its use would lead users to try stronger and stronger addictive substances, it was almost universally banned with the exception of very liberal societies, for whom individual freedoms were seen to be pre-eminent over collective sentiments. And yet today we see almost the entirely opposite situation, where most places now allow its use with only a few conservative holdouts still insisting that it is more harmful than not, and therefore still justify its regulation or total ban.
But think about it for a second. Are there in fact widely available substances that are more harmful than marijuana today?
One of the things I learned from my son, who is doing his medical degree these days, is that the most addictive substance in the world is not a narcotic, but something far more ubiquitous.
When he was a research assistant at a US laboratory during his pre-med days, one of the stories he told me never ceases to amaze me until today. He says there was one substance that their laboratory mice wanted to have far more than cocaine, even until the point of really ill health. The substance? Sugar. Yes, the innocent-looking stuff we all have in our kitchens, and the ingredient we use copious amounts of in our everyday food and drink was proving to be far more addictive than narcotics. And despite its terrible effect on the mice’s health, they still continued to want more and more of it.
Which leads me to ask the question. If governments still follow the regulatory principle that gave rise to the prohibition, and even to today’s ban on narcotics and other addictive drugs, should they not instead turn their attention to sugar, for all the illness it is causing their citizens to suffer, and the enormous health care costs it is taxing societies to bear?