We seem to be living in a prohibition era. A century or so ago, drugs like cannabis and opium and cocaine were perfectly legal. I’m not sure that there were any ‘illegal drugs’ at all. All that were left, more or less, once these drugs were banned, were tobacco and alcohol. And Prohibition in America in the 1920s very nearly saw alcohol added to the list. And now, and for the past 60 years, tobacco is being subjected to a rolling prohibition.
Apart from America, it’s surprising in how many places alcohol was banned:
- 1907 to 1948 in Prince Edward Island, but for much shorter periods in other provinces in Canada.
- 1914 to 1925 in Russia and the Soviet Union.
- 1915 to 1922 in Iceland (though beer was still prohibited until 1989)
- 1916 to 1927 in Norway (fortified wine and beer also prohibited from 1917 to 1923)
- 1919 in Hungary
- 1919 to 1932 in Finland
- 1920 to 1933 in United States (and for a lot longer in several states)
I didn’t know that alcohol sales were banned in Russia in 1914.
Other warring countries (e.g. the UK, France, and Germany)) imposed certain restrictions on alcoholic beverages, but only Russia completely stopped the retail sale of vodka.
Funny that they had a revolution a couple of years later. I wonder if the alcohol ban had anything to do with it? Rather as I’ve been wondering if the recent upheaval in the Arab world has been in part a consequence of the introduction of smoking bans.
Now, of course, it’s tobacco that is in process of being slowly prohibited. It’s a creeping prohibition, which advances by one ban at a time. A little ban here, and a little ban there, and after a little while it’s impossible to smoke tobacco anywhere. Finland is currently planning to ban smoking completely.
Ilkka Oksala, state secretary in the health ministry, drew up the latest plans and his approach is uncompromising.
“The goal is to get rid of smoking once and for all. It is a long-term goal, but still we are going to achieve it.
There can’t be much doubt that where Finland leads, the rest of Europe will sooner or later follow. They wouldn’t want to be left behind.
And then, of course, they’ll be wanting to have another go at banning alcohol, after it didn’t work the first time. And work has already started.
Apart from the temporary defeats in respect of alcohol, it seems to have been very much a one-way process. Cannabis and opium and cocaine have been prohibited since the 1920s, and there’s almost zero chance of these prohibitions being lifted. Tobacco is now in process of being prohibited. And alcohol is being primed for the next huge offensive against it.
If you want to be regarded as ‘progressive’ these days, you go and ban something. That seems to be the hallmark of ‘progress’. And once you’ve banned opium and cannabis and cocaine and tobacco, you don’t stop there. You start banning sugar and salt and fat and meat. The culmination of this process can only be one in which everything has been banned. It’s not just that there won’t be any more alcohol and tobacco on sale anywhere, but there also won’t be any sugar or salt or meat or anything else. There won’t be any cars or motorbikes either, of course.
The 1960s might very well be regarded as a time when a number of the banned drugs – most noticeably cannabis – began to re-introduce themselves into society, bucking the trend. The 1960s might be defined not so much as the era of bands like the Beatles, or of long hair, but rather as the era of cannabis. The use of cannabis in countries like the UK is now very widespread. My own guess would be that about half the people in the country have smoked it at one time or other. I’ve smoked it, and more or less everybody I know has smoked it – and carries on smoking it. However, despite its very wide social acceptance, cannabis remains a prohibited drug.
And the 1970s onwards might be regarded as a time when a whole new set of illegal drugs began to make their appearance. LSD, Ecstasy, etc, etc. So it isn’t all entirely a one way street. For as soon as any drug is prohibited, a contraband trade in it commences. And not just that. New variants of the drugs, and entirely new drugs, begin to appear, usually far more potent than their predecessors. Instead of beer and wine, we now have whisky. Instead of opium, we have heroin. Instead of the coca leaf, we have powdered cocaine. Instead of cannabis, we have skunk. Soon, as e-cig technology develops, we’ll have super high strength nicotine. There are probably hundreds of chemists working on synthesizing it right now. It’s prohibition that drives this process, because in a prohibition era it’s necessary to minimize the amount of the illegal drug smuggled, by maximising its potency.
And bans are immensely socially divisive. I’ve now lived through two ‘prohibition eras’, and in both cases I’ve found myself belonging to a prohibited and separate subculture. For the 1960s drug subculture was a separate culture from the main culture of legally approved beer and cigarettes. Back in the 1960s you had to meet with trusted friends in secret to smoke the weed, and people were being fined and imprisoned left, right, and centre. A lot of people I know have been fined for possession of cannabis. Yet somehow or other, in the UK, after a few years of intensive police activity, the authorities decided to relax their attitude. After some 5 or 10 years of fighting the emerging new culture, the authorities decided to abandon the fight. For the time being, leastways.
What tobacco smokers are now experiencing is in many ways exactly the same as what cannabis smokers experienced in the 1960s. They’re becoming members of a prohibited, officially-disapproved subculture. They’re experiencing the same feelings of resentment and anger. They’re facing the same stone wall of officialdom, and the same media blackout. The principal difference is that the 1960s saw the arrival and renormalisation of a new drug (even if it had been around for several millennia), and the 2000s are seeing the departure and denormalisation of an old drug. It’s like a train station, where some people are getting on the train, and some are getting off, but apart from this one difference their experiences are all but identical.
My experience of the 1960s very much shaped who I thought I was for the next few decades. It really took about 30 years before I was more or less completely re-normalised and re-absorbed into the officially-approved main culture of beer and cigarettes. Only to find, ha ha, that it was just becoming an officially-disapproved culture. So I have a strong sense of deja vu about everything that is happening now. I’ve been through it before. And my attitude to tobacco is the mirror image of my attitude to cannabis 40 years ago.
One might almost say that the drugs you take serve to define who you are. If you drink traditional beer (and are a member of CAMRA), you belong to a different culture from people who drink lager or cider or wine or whisky. If you smoke Benson and Hedges or Marlboro, you belong to a different culture from people who smokes pipes or cigars or roll-ups. Same if you smoke joints or snort cocaine. Whatever you yourself do, you will regard that as ‘normal’, and will look down upon anyone who does anything different. In fact, you’ll very often be quite happy to see anything different prohibited. Beer drinkers don’t care if tobacco is banned. Tobacco smokers never worried about cannabis or opium smokers. And now cannabis smokers very often don’t give a damn about tobacco smokers.
All of which helps the prohibitionists. Divide and conquer is always their method. They could ban cannabis and opium when most people drank beer and smoked tobacco. Now that 25% or less of the population smoke tobacco, they can ban tobacco, safe in the knowledge that nobody else will object, and will more than likely thoroughly approve.
What’s been driving the prohibition craze of the past century? Lots of things. A puritan disapproval of pleasure of any sort. An eugenic programme of human biological improvement. The profits of pharmaceutical companies. The growing power of an expanding state. It’s probably been the chance confluence and alliance of a variety of quite separate interests that has given the prohibitionists their power.
But they do seem to love prohibiting things. There was a palpable sense of triumph among UK politicians at having banned smoking. A sort of glee.
But I’m not sure that it’s any different from the delight that a vandal gets from throwing a stone through someone else’s window.