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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 13th January 2014

I’ve been watching ‘Prohibition’ the three part documentary directed by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick. It was shown last year on PBS in the USA but I caught up with the Europe format DVD.  I had expected to see parallels between that period of American history and the world since the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs but I was surprised at just how many parallels there were in almost every detail.

I found that rather dispiriting but I’ll return to that later. I’m not going to attempt to detail every item that, for me, had a contemporary relevance but I thought I would pick out a few that seem to have particular resonance.

The series consisted of three programmes; the first about the build-up of anti-alcohol opinion leading to the 18th amendment, the second about the main years of prohibition and the third dealing with the period leading to the 21st amendment repealing the 18th.

There’s no especial order to the following and this is not an exhaustive list. Nor is it intended to summarise or review the series. I would strongly recommend anyone with an interest in drug policy to watch ‘Prohibition’.

There has been, of course, an oversimplification with the passing of time and the assumption is made that alcohol was legal then it wasn’t and then it was again. But, being that this is the USA with its conflict between local areas and states and states and the federal government, there were places where alcohol was outlawed before the Volstead Act, that implemented the 18th Amendment, and there were places where it remained banned after the 21st Amendment.

I realise that Americans grow up with these complexities and it may not be as illogical as it looks to an outsider but it does seem that the confusions that must have arisen about what was legal, where in the run-up to prohibition are mirrored by today’s messy situation regarding Cannabis sativa, both as ‘medical marijuana’ and ‘legal pot’.

The Volstead Act didn’t actually resolve all those confusions because it did not make alcohol illegal. There were exceptions for alcohol used medicinally and it remained legal to produce wine in the home for personal consumption. I won’t dwell on the obvious link between the explosion of conditions requiring alcohol to treat them and the current expansion in the number of people with medical conditions that need to be treated with medical marijuana.

But the ‘wine at home’ situation had a rather odd read across to the present day. Retailers would sell grape concentrate though it was illegal to do so as a raw material for alcohol production. To protect themselves they would label the product with warnings about what not to do to avoid fermentation taking place. It struck me as similar to the way sellers of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) label their products as ‘bath salts’ or ‘plant food’ and warn that they are not for human consumption.

There are those who still claim that prohibition was, initially at least, successful and could have continued to be successful if properly implemented. There are two things there. It is true that immediately after implementation total alcohol consumption fell. That, however, seems to have resulted from law-abiding, non-problem drinkers stopping drinking rather than having any major impact on the heavy users said to be the target of the new law. The same situation applies today where the overwhelming majority of cannabis users have no problems as a result but the law is used to suppress their use. With alcohol as well as drugs, we are seeing a similar situation today. People who see no need for further regulation of alcohol or who claim current drug policy is working point to a decrease in total usage but ignore that this results from a decrease in the total number of users whilst the small proportion of heavy users are maintaining or even increasing their use.

(Incidentally, if the number of total users falls but the number of heavy users remains unchanged then mathematics dictates that the proportion of problem users will increase. Watch for that increase and expect prohibitionists to claim it as proof that the situation is worsening.)

The second point concerns implementation. We know that a central plank of the case made by Peter Hitchens and others is that the law is not being enforced and that the route to a drug-free world is via harsh enforcement. It is as if they have never heard of Mabel Walker Willebrandt. Willebrandt was made Assistant Attorney General of the USA with the job of enforcing the Volstead Act. She was diligent and zealous and took every possible step to reduce illegal alcohol use by strongly enforcing prohibition. But she failed.

A few quickies from the programme. A truck was shown with a sign saying ‘Give us beer - balance the budget’ indicating that the ability to tax a legal product was part of the argument then as it is now. Enforcement action was shown to have the ‘bubble’ effect. ‘When one speakeasy closed, two more opened in its place’. The ‘bubble’ effect is clearly seen today in the changes in production areas for both cocaine and the opium poppy and in transit routes. Al Capone knew that most people were stupid enough to believe what they read in the papers so he intentionally cultivated reporters so that the stories about him helped him avoid prosecution for a number of years. I suppose the parallel there is more to do with Jimmy Savile than drug policy but we know that the public tends to continue to believe things that have been shown to be untrue because the media keeps reporting them as true.

About the only criticism I would have of ‘Prohibition’ is that it dealt with the deliberate poisoning of alcohol by the federal government in one sentence. As Deborah Blum has shown in her book ‘The Poisoner's Handbook’ the contamination of industrial alcohol in the hope that this would prevent its diversion into the bootlegging industry resulted in a great many deaths. What ‘Prohibition’ did do was quote Wayne Wheeler, the head of the ‘Anti-Saloon League’ as saying that people who died as a result of drinking illegal alcohol were ‘deliberate suicides’. That reminded me of the reaction of many people to the stories about so-called ‘grit weed’, cannabis contaminated with small glass particles to make it appear to be of higher strength and, thus, more expensive. For them, users of an illegal product did not deserve any sympathy if that product caused them harm.

There were plenty of other references with contemporary relevance but I’ll leave you to watch for them yourself.

I want to return to my reason for finding it dispiriting. That is simply because it seems the human race never learns. All of the harms done by the prohibition of alcohol in the USA are being repeated as part of current drug policy and, it seems, no-one is willing to say ‘that’s been tried and shown to fail’ when implementing new drug control policy. Purely rationally, you would have expected people engaged in the UN process leading up to the 1961 convention to have said, ‘we know this won’t work’. If they had, a great deal of harm could have been avoided.

But I don’t want to end on a downbeat note.

What watching ‘Prohibition’ has made me realise is that I love Peter Hitchens and Kevin Sabet and Kathy Gyngell and Mary Brett and, even, Melanie Philips because they will drive reform of the existing drug control regime.

‘Prohibition’ explained that many people did not realise how draconian the Volstead Act would be expecting it to deal just with hard liquor drunk in excess in saloons. When they found that beer was included they called for modification to the law. The Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s’ Christian Temperance Union refused to offer any compromise and stuck by rigid prohibition as the only way. As a result, when prohibition fell it fell completely (at a federal level though not in some states and local areas).

When the UK’s new libel law took effect on 1st January this year, Simon Singh, one of the key campaigners for change thanked the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for its help because it was their libel action against Singh that made many people aware of the need for a new definition of libel.

The ridiculous claims of Hitchens et al are, in my view, accelerating the day when drug policy will be reformed and I would encourage them (not that they need it) to keep spouting their lies and misrepresentations because they are helping the reform cause by so doing. One day we’ll be able to thank them just as Simon Singh thanked the BCA.


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