31 Aug The Real Dark Side Of Prohibition.

There are many arguments against the current drugs policy – not just cannabis but all drugs. in particular we are well aware of what the prohibitionists euphemistically call the “unforeseen consequences” of prohibition; violence, destruction of communities, corruption of government and so on.

What is never discussed is how these “unintended consequences” came about. In part of course it’s a simple issue of supply and demand, but that only goes a part of the way to explain what happens. Under prohibition, large sections of society live outside of the law and therein lies the key to understanding how these problems developed.

In normal law abiding society was can rely on people to expose serious wrong doing because it’s in their interest to do so and they would have nothing to fear from the state as a consequence. When lifestyles are criminalised that situation changes. This is why laws which drive large numbers of people into underground cultures can be so dangerous.


Being involved in illegal sub-cultures has a set of rules: In order to keep your contacts secure obviously there has to be a code of silence, you are also at risk of being exposed as a criminal yourself should you speak out. In addition to the penalties the law carries comes social exclusion, ruined careers and destroyed lives. Because of all of this involvement in underground cultures has to be an all or nothing involvement, everything you see and witness has to be accepted and tolerated because you are all in this together. The harsher the law is, the more this code of conduct becomes important.

Stepping outside of the rule of law is a big step to take, so why do people do it? The reason is because they have a strong driving desire to indulge in something they consider to be an issue for themselves only, they are excercising their right as they see it to chose what to do with their own bodies. Also it’s very easy, a lot of other like minded people are doing it.

Now it’s fair to say that some people do not share this view when it comes to drug use but in a way that’s irrelevant, a large number do and on the whole they quietly get on with it, whatever the law says. The number of such people is huge – millions – and as such it’s valid to call it commonplace, actually even normal in today’s society. For these people the claimed deterrent effect of the law has simply failed and unless they get caught, which most don’t, the law has ceased to have any impact on them.

In creating the environment where so many people willingly join an underground culture, the prohibition law has opened the door to massive problems.

By way of illustration of just how bad these problems may become we can look at a now fortunately historical social issue unrelated to drug use: The right to express your sexuality as you see fit, which for simplicity we will term “Gay Rights”.

An important caveat: Of course being gay isn’t a lifestyle choice in the way drug use is but the driving force, the desire to chose your own destiny when faced with prohibition of those desires leads to not dissimilar outcomes.

Gay rights has seen the most amazing revolution in attitudes towards sexuality. These days – although we still have some way to go in overcoming bigotry – it is now pretty much accepted in UK society that some people are gay, it’s just how some people are, it’s not unusual and all people are free to form long term open loving relationships with their partners of choice. It wasn’t always so, we used to have a regime of gay prohibition.

Alan Turning who cracked the enigma code

Less than 50 years ago being a practicing homosexual was considered a very serious sexually deviant criminal activity. The penalties for engaging in gay sex were severe; take for example the case of a person we now think of as a war hero – Alan Turning who cracked the enigma code. Found guilty of engaging in homosexual acts In 1952 he was given the choice of a prison sentence or a course of oestrogen injections (chemical castration), he chose the injections. He committed suicide a few years later.

There were of course just as many gay people as there are now and so there were a lot of ‘criminals’ back in the days of gay prohibition.

Although most kept their heads down and many lived a life of denial about their true sexuality, a large number joined the widespread underground “sexual deviancy” culture. It was very secretive and frankly at times an extremely sordid affair.

Of course as now with drugs there were people happy to make money from it. As a result venues and services existed for those willing to pay. There was of course no oversight and no regulation, everything under the banner of “sexual deviancy” was catered for and this extended in some instances to paedophilia.

The whole subject was taboo and the thought that respectable people in high places could have been involved in such sordid company was unthinkable, but of course they were. As the Jeremy Thorpe case of the late 70’s showed being exposed as gay was the same as being exposed as a paedophile, in the eyes of the law it was regarded as virtually the same thing. The Thorpe affair demonstrated how at risk gay people were and why, therefore, they could not be expected to speak out about things they knew were happening.

This goes a long way to explaining how paedophile networks could have existed to the extent they seem to have done, extending throughout the establishment. The exposing of Jimmy Savile in 2012 finally opened the door on a very dark aspect of British culture which the prohibition created code of secrecy had previously kept very quiet.

Gay rainbow flag

Of course, as the gay culture has moved from the shadows of prohibition enforced criminality it has distanced itself from such sordid and exploitative networks. Being gay is no longer a crime and no longer something you can be blackmailed for. Paedophiles have lost their underground networking opportunities.

The point all of the above is making is relevant to drug prohibition because much the same sort of thing – the underground networking, the intimidation and fear – is happening in the underground drug subculture. It’s different of course, it’s not a place where paedophiles can operate but other, perhaps in some ways almost as destructive, issues exist. Drug prohibition has created a vast criminal distribution network primed to deliver the highest profit most addictive substances, people involved in minor drug use are not that far from those involved in much more serious stuff. Cannabis consumers of course support a growing industry implicated in people smuggling, child slavery and so on. The list of issues is very long.

The prohibition created underground scene is bound by the same “do not talk” code and those involved are at risk of being exposed. This is how all these “unintended consequences” have come into being, unseen and unspoken, a product of large numbers of people driven into an underground subculture. The more severe the prohibition law, the worse the “unintended consequences” are likely to become.

The lesson to draw from gay prohibition is that even draconian laws do not deter people from following a community they feel determined to be a part of. The idea of deterrence might work for a few, but for many millions of people it simply fails and in failing lays the ground for all that follows.

Prohibition will always do this because a large number of people will exercise what they decide are their fundamental human rights, people are like that. What constitutes a “human right” is at heart is a personal choice, something we all make. The point is that if sufficient numbers of people feel the same way powerful underground networks will develop to service them and with those underground networks come the really undesirable things, policing by consent goes out the window.

This isn’t an argument for decrimninalising paedophilia incidentally, of course some things are so evil, so exploitative, that the victims deserve the protection of society. It is an argument for not providing the networks to allow it to flourish and grow.

Making entry to the underground culture something that few desire to do is the key. It is, in effect, a numbers game and if too many people are motivated to cross the line of membership of an underground network, if the bar to criminality is set so low it becomes normal to cross, there really isn’t anything that can be done to prevent the truly dark side organising. That is where we were with sexuality laws and it’s where we are now with the drug laws.

Prohibiting drug use – especially but not only of cannabis – entices far too many people into the criminal sphere.

Derek Williams