“Prohibition” seems to have had a strong effect on the American and world psyche as a kind of ultimate argument against regulation and in favour of libertarianism. See, say the conservatives, try to ban something and “pouf!”, gangsters. Curiously they fail to see that exactly the same argument applies to drugs – completely banning them with “zero tolerance”, and pouring ever more money into law enforcement and prisons while criminal organisations become rich.
Conversely, in relation to alcohol itself, prohibition having “failed” so spectacularly, Australia is now suffering the effect of what amounts to almost totally open slather on alcohol. Available 24 hours a day, licensed premises in huge numbers, liquor sales in and around even supermarkets, “mixer” drinks specially designed for addicting teenagers, massive promotion of alcohol via sporting events and teams, constant jocular remarks in media about binge drinking.
But US Prohibition failure isn’t an argument against regulation, it’s an argument against not regulating well. The problem in America before 1920 (and now here and elsewhere) was not ANY alcohol consumption but EXCESSIVE alcohol consumption, both at an individual and a society level. Closing off all alcohol consumption at the stroke of midnight, without support from business, and a large part of the population including police forces, and the failure to involve Canada and other neighbouring countries, was a recipe for the huge flouting of the law, and corruption, and violence, and health problems from bootleg liquor, which quickly became the norm.
If America had, instead, said that the aim was to reduce excessive alcohol consumption, then the approach would have been very different. A reduction in the number of licensed premises, and a reduction in the hours alcohol could be sold. A reduction in the number of places of retail sale. A reduction in advertising and promotion. Education for children about alcohol. Increased support for rehabilitating alcoholics and helping their families. Better training and support for police dealing with domestic violence. And so on.
Many such approaches of course could equally be applied to non-alcoholic drugs, instead of prohibition. Or to gambling, obesity, and perhaps other social problems. In fact “Prohibition” is an object lesson not against regulation, but in favour of doing it properly. Ninety years on we should be a lot more sophisticated in our approaches to more civilised societies.
[Note the title comes from the inscription on a jug that my grandmother, a very vocal teetotaller opposed to alcohol in all its forms, bought around 100 years ago. A period, as in America, which also saw moves to try to prohibit alcohol in England].