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July 4, 2008

How long does an experiment need to continue before it’s declared a failure?

For alcohol prohibition, our US version, it was about 13 years. Between mafia crime, poisonings from adulterated beverages, and the dropping age at which people were becoming alcoholics, Americans decided that the “Noble Experiment” — whether it should actually be regarded as noble or not — was a bad idea. And they ended it. New York State did its part 75 years ago today, ratifying the 21st amendment to repeal the 18th amendment, bringing the Constitution one state closer to being restored. It took another half a year, until December 5th, to get the 36 states on the board that were needed at the time to get the job done. But Americans of the ’30s recognized the failure of the prohibition experiment, and they took action by enacting legalization of alcohol. Industrialist John D. Rockefeller described the evolution of his thinking that led to the recognition of prohibition’s failure, in a famous 1932 letter:

“When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.” Link

The “experiment” with drugs, it appears anywhere you look, is headed for the same devastating failure. In the United States, the trend is going opposite the intended direction: addiction is worsening and the industry is flourishing. This despite the billions of dollars poured into the effort, not to mention thousand deaths and executions littering the path. And surprisingly, figures show higher percentage of users in countries where draconian measures are on employ, like the US.

To be clear, the above article comes from a pro-drugs site likely maintained by drug addicts. Yet, while the idea is unpopular, its pitch for legalization makes sense. For ultimately, the economics of the market will force the issue. Prohibition does not and cannot eliminate the twin forces of supply and demand. That much is clear, notwithstanding the nobility of the mission to shield people from the perceived evils of drugs. It can for a time stand in the way but like water seeking its own level the forces of supply and demand eventually adjust to find their equilibrium. Basic economics, pure and simple. Price goes up sky high to reflect the deadly risks involved in the equation. Indeed, the business maxim that risk and profitability are in direct proportion to each other, is just as true here. Which means a more dogged enforcement coupled with laws made more severe would only jack up the price of drugs even more. With a margin of profit two-arm lengths wide, you have an extremely lucrative business opportunity in your midst openly luring all sorts of risk-takers from far and wide, from high and low, from every nook and cranny to cash in quickly real big time. And as it is prohibited by law, business go nowhere but underground, naturally— into the hands of shady characters that very well belong there, people whose reason for being is to kill and die for every piece of action. Over time, wealth overflowing in limitless abundance accumulates in the wrong territory. You have a fountainhead of great power in the hands of Darth Vader. That which has had a humble start paying off and threatening lowly cops, moving gradually up, eventually graduates into bankrolling a presidential campaign. Then they take decisive control of society, these shady characters and their troops of gangsters, with a president as their front.

Follow closely how the P4B shabu haul in Subic will eventually disappear from view. It is instructive. Law enforcement finds its limits where this is said: “take this fortune and get out of the way or you and all the people you love will perish”. Show me one who will dare cross the line and I will show you a fool.


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