World War D
The Case against prohibitionism,
roadmap to controlled re-legalization

The political, ideological and historical background of prohibition

This is a preview to the chapter The political, ideological and historical background of prohibition from the book World War D by Jeffrey Dhywood.
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Prohibitionism is based on the premise that citizens will refrain from behaviors that are deemed immoral or harmful if such behaviors are decreed unlawful and criminal, even though such behaviors do not harm or unreasonably endanger others without their informed consent. Prohibitionism stems from totalitarian paternalism, an ideology rather prevalent among governing elites around the world, based on the presumption that people are feeble, foolish and irresponsible, needing constant protection from themselves.

The origin of prohibitionism in the US can be traced to the rise of the temperance movement, inspired by the 1785 essay "The Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Body and Mind" authored by founding father Dr. Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania, who advocated “a new species of federal government for the advancement of morals in the United States.” Dr. Benjamin Rush is considered the founder of American psychiatry and his portrait is embossed on the official seal of the American Psychiatric Association. Dr. Rush is quoted as saying: “Terror acts powerfully upon the body, through the medium of the mind, and should be employed in the cure of madness.” To his credit, Rush was also a fervent abolitionist.

The temperance movement was one of the numerous so-called “reform movements” that flourished in the US at the beginning of the 19th century and united a broad coalition ranging from evangelists of the Second Grand Awakening to secular humanists and social liberals. The reform movements primarily aimed at correcting perceived social injustice and perfecting American society. They were instrumental in bringing about some fundamental (and much needed) transformations to the US political system, chief among them, of course, the abolition of slavery in the Northern states, which precipitated the secession war. Women’s rights, child labor, public education, and prison reform were some of the leading causes promoted by the reform movement. Unfortunately, reformists tended to be rather self-righteous and over-zealous sometimes and in their over-zealousness, wanted to deliver the sinners from the enslavement of their own vices, even, and I should say, especially against the sinners’ own wishes. To paraphrase Dr. Rush, the more the sinners resisted the reformists’ efforts to serve them, the more they had need of their services.

The problem was compounded by the advent of hard liquors that really took off with colonization. En route to the New World, boats were loaded with all the necessary supplies for a long journey, including large quantities of alcoholic beverages, mostly wine and beer initially. After a few boats loaded to the beams had sunk on their way, wine and beer were replaced by less bulky distilled spirits, which created a real epidemic of alcoholism, a “disease of nutritional excess” as we shall see in the chapter about alcohol. Once on terra firma, the settlers stuck to their hard liquors and by the turn of the 19th century, the alcoholic epidemic was near its peak, with women and children as the primary and most helpless victims. By 1818, production of whiskey, rums, and other hard liquors was the third most important industrial activity in the US. Understandably, women became the foot soldiers of the temperance movement. Alcohol prohibition ended up being the wrong solution to a very real problem. Likewise, the War on Drugs is still to this day the wrong solution to a real problem.

Prohibitionism, a 19th century totalitarian ideology


Let’s step back and divert for a while to the philosophical roots of the reform movement and prohibitionism. With the advent of humanism and the age of enlightenment in the 18th century, human beings broke away from supreme religious authority and were placed in charge of their own destiny with a general belief in individual rights and freedom, coupled with an aspiration to the betterment of humanity through reason and virtue. Religious humanism was inspired by the Protestant Reformation movement that promoted religious individualism, self-sufficiency, and self-control, while secular humanism was inspired by the Philosophers. Humanism climaxed with independence in the US and the French Revolution in Europe. Following the heady days of independence, the US witnessed a rise in popular politics as the most enlightened citizens were eager to put to test their newly gained freedom in support of those who had been left out. They formed coalitions with the excluded, mostly women and slaves, leading to the reform movements. In the pursuit of their noble goals, secular humanists often allied themselves with austere Protestants.

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution was being launched in the UK. Workers were transplanted en masse from their traditional rural settings to their new sordid urban settings. Massive drinking was their usual escape from their 14-hour workdays in filthy and often lethal working environment and their squalid living conditions. While socialism saw exploitation of the masses as the root of the evils that befell the working class, the temperance movement saw alcohol as the source of those evils.

As they gained political power, some reformists shifted from moral suasion with a goal of voluntary acceptance through persuasion, to forced compliance through legal or political coercion as a means to expedite the perfecting of humanity and eradicate its perceived misery. This perversion of humanism led to totalitarianism, the belief in coerced societal transformation, i.e. the belief that human nature can be forcibly transformed through coercive means. Communism wanted to put the common good above personal interests through forced collectivism and elimination of classes. Nazism, national-socialism, and fascism wanted to create a hegemonic race of superior human beings who derived their strength and sense of destiny from subordination of the individual to collective identity through obedience, discipline, dedication, and pride. Prohibitionism viewed coerced morality as a means to improve society. Prohibitionists wanted to legislate ethics and eradicate vice, a broad term under which were dumped all kinds of perceived immoral and sinful behaviors, the cardinal vices being gambling, alcohol abuse, and sexual depravity – pornography, prostitution, and homosexuality. Substance abuse was added later on, almost as a footnote. The temperance movements arose from overzealousness in the US, and from social blindness in the UK.

As for capitalism, the elephant in the closet, it is founded on a general belief in private property and laissez-faire economics. Based on the belief that free enterprise will naturally nurture a harmonious merit-based society of ever-increasing prosperity, capitalism doesn’t overtly pursue the betterment of humanity as societal improvement should inevitably ensue, or at least, so the theory goes. Nonetheless, the Industrial Revolution needed reliable workers and the newly emerging and largely fictional homo economicus had to be sober. Needless to say, prohibitionism violates the basic principles of capitalism (as well as the US Constitution) and, as we will see, it took a swelling succession of moral panics and deceptive maneuvers to shove prohibition down the throats of unsuspecting and frightened Americans.

The three major totalitarianisms were to blossom and bear their poisonous fruits throughout the 20th century, leaving a trail of devastation that is unprecedented in history, as victims numbered in the hundreds of millions. I will be the first to admit that prohibitionism is by far the most benign form of the ideological evils that haunted the 20th century; it is nonetheless clearly a totalitarian ideology with its propaganda machine, its censorship, its massive incarceration of deviants, and victims numbering in the millions over the last hundred years. And it is just as failed as the other two totalitarianisms. Alcohol prohibition failed; gambling is legal; homosexuals are out of the closet; the sexual revolution has brought overt sex splashing on every billboard and TV screen. Having lost most of its battles and severely weakened despite its pretense at world dominance, prohibitionism is also the last remnant, a fossil of an era that we would just as well leave behind. After its bruising defeat by alcohol thanks to alcohol’s unassailable position as a dominant psychoactive of Western civilization, prohibitionism fell with a vengeance on substances that were then minor psychoactive substances without any real constituency to support them, barely an afterthought on the prohibitionist agenda, collateral damage.

The War on Drugs was in many ways a cultural war and controlled substances were essentially traditional psychoactives of non-Western cultures or their derivatives. Coca leaf has been used by the Andean natives for thousands of years while cannabis is the traditional psychoactive of India, the Middle East and North Africa; opium was probably discovered in Mesopotamia and has been the prevalent psychoactive in Iran, Turkey, and Central Asia ever since. The increased cultural cross-pollination that started with the 20th century led to the growing popularity of non-Western psychoactives in Western countries, chief among them cannabis. The so-called “controlled substances” gained a constituency as lifetime use among Western adults reached anywhere from 25 to 50% and regular use reached 5 to 15% depending on countries. Control systems became grossly inadequate; or rather, control was turned over to the underworld. This last battle of the prohibitionist agenda is increasingly being lost as drug culture pervades pop culture and overflowing jails cannot contain the flood of users. Ironically, substance prohibition probably nurtured the drug culture.
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