Decriminalisation is often floated as the solution to New Zealand's horrendous drug problems, but it's the last thing we need.

Let's continue to prohibit the use of illegal drugs — therefore reducing their ready availability.

Prohibition of a product harmful to the general public is a worthy aim and while it may not prevent such consumption, it limits the damage.

The main argument against prohibition seems to be based upon a faulty understanding of the law introduced in the United States from 1920 to 1933.

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But what was achieved during that era deserves more scrutiny in my view.

Estimates are that alcohol consumption dropped up to 70 per cent during those early prohibition years, perhaps rising to about 50 per cent of pre-prohibition levels towards the end of the era.

Ask any politician if they'd consider it a failure to reduce alcohol-related problems by around half — even for just a few years.

No, they'd love to take full credit for the corresponding reductions in assaults, murders, road crashes, domestic violence and health expenditure generally.

The notion persists that Prohibition in America failed to prevent people drinking alcohol.
But Prohibition never actually made it illegal to do so.

The 18th Amendment merely forbade the "manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors".

If you had a stash at home, you could still legally drink it, even after the law was passed. It follows that the quantum of booze consumed in the US during this era can only ever be estimated.

Nobody knows how much liquor was smuggled and distributed by the bootleggers, or how much moonshine was brewed in the woods. We can't plumb the lakes of wine produced for "medicinal purposes" or "church communion". And we can't say how much grog was consumed aboard "party ships", outside the three-mile-limit, and so forth.

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But allowing for all that, the overall total was vastly less than when the liquor trade was legal.

The bootleggers were forced to drive delivery trucks at night and operate saloons in secret.

Then as now, most people choose to obey the law, and a product whose supply chains are driven underground is always consumed in correspondingly smaller quantities.

Jack London


Novelist Jack London, the larger than life 'Bear Grylls' of the early 20th Century, helped to get the temperance movement over the line public-opinion-wise.

His autobiography "John Barleycorn", was probably the first celebrity tell-all tale of addiction.

Coming from a macho perspective, it argued strongly for prohibition, though London died before seeing its introduction.

In his short life (1876-1916) London dominated the popular culture with stories and articles of manly adventure.

The powerful Boy Scouts of America endorsed his books, including "The Call of the Wild," "The Sea Wolf" and "White Fang".

His fiction and articles were based on experiences sealing, gold prospecting, riding the rails as a hobo and marching on Washington with an "army" of homeless men. He covered wars in Korea and Mexico and wrote America's first magazine article on surfing in Hawaii.

But London was an alcoholic. He argued that he would have gone further and achieved more had he not been exposed to heavy drinking from a young age.

He saw the idea of prohibition as a courageous social experiment.

In John Barleycorn he recommends it with all his heart, vividly unpacking the hypocrisies, self-deceptions and general foolishness of male drinking.

London describes being drawn into drinking as a young sailor, wasting his wages, brawling with his friends and suffering various injuries.

His superbly written book appealed to men — widening the argument against booze beyond women's temperance movements of the time.

John Barleycorn

For example, it informed this editorial published in an editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal editorial in 1923:

"At Windsor, Canada, where a lot of liquor is smuggled across the river into Detroit and on to other cities, the police find a dead man wrapped in a blanket and buried in a marsh.

"Another victim of the rum-runners," the police say. Quite a common thing to find mysteriously murdered victims around Windsor. ... The worst element of the underworld cooperates with the bootlegging traffic. Its big profits lure crooks who otherwise would be blowing safes or holding men up with pistols.

But ... the crime that trails prohibition is small compared with the crime that was hatched in the old time saloon days. ... Let's not lose sight of the crime that accompanied the wide-open bar.

John Barleycorn always was a bad citizen. He was the king of the underworld. Driven to cover, he naturally continues his operations to as great an extent as possible.

People have become so intensely interested in discussing prohibition that they are inclined to overlook ... the real problem is just what it was originally — the havoc of liquor.

It took generations of education and publicity to arouse people to the evils of King Alcohol. The injuriousness of liquor — to the health, to the home, and to the nation — should be remembered indelibly. The details of prohibition enforcement are secondary."