Lessons from historical drug prohibitions


New Zealand just rescinded its ban on tobacco smoking at the same time that Donald Trump just suggested the death penalty could cure the drug problem. What did New Zealand learn? And how has drug prohibition worked out in the past?

In 1511, the governor of Mecca, Khair Beg, had a serious problem. A powerful stimulant was coming into common use and was spreading throughout the city. This stimulant was clearly psychoactive and, like most stimulants, increased energy and interfered with sleep. The governor and his advisors felt that it also stimulated radical thinking and was a threat to society in general, as from his assessment, it was stimulating subversive activities. Some Muslim scholars and imams felt that the use of this stimulant was a form of debauchery and agreed that it must be stamped out.

He closed every business where the drug could be found and instituted severe physical punishments for those caught using it, including the death penalty for some. Unfortunately for the governor, the Sultan of Cairo, Al-Ashaf Qansuh al-Ghawri, had already fallen under its influence and overturned the ban. Khair Beg was investigated and determined to be guilty of embezzlement. He was executed in 1512, not having realized what some people will do for their morning cup of coffee. That’s right. The terrible drug tearing society apart was coffee. Now considered an integral part of Arabic culture.

A similar situation occurred in China in 1639, when Emperor Chongzhen, the last ruler of the Ming Dynasty, banned the smoking of cigarettes. It turned out the Emperor had heard a children’s rhyme about smoke smoldering across an empire destroyed by rebellion and war, and determined that the smoke responsible must be due to tobacco. Don’t laugh. It’s as logical as anything seen in the film Reefer Madness. He ordered that those addicted to the substance should be executed. This prohibition and death penalty were later expanded to anyone caught using it by Emperor Kangxi. Smoking persisted underground and helped foster a black market that funded organized crime and gangs.

In 1935, Chiang Kai-shek issued a decree to stamp out cigarettes within six years and other drugs in two, demonstrating a realistic understanding of nicotine’s hold on users and proving that the earlier prohibitions had failed. Three hundred sixty-nine thousand seven hundred five people were arrested and punished, some with decapitation, which might be a very effective preventative to relapse but is not indicative of a society we should aspire to. And it did not stop people in China from smoking. When the war broke out between the Chinese Communist Party and Chiang’s Kuomintang Party, the rebel hipster Mao Zedong was often photographed puffing on a cigarette. The rebels won, and smoking became common again until about 2003, when there was again another clampdown on tobacco. Ten years later, the percentage of the population who smoked had still not budged.

Today, in the United States, we are seeing a similar failure to stamp out the use of marijuana. The psychoactive ingredient in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and while I don’t think any psychoactive substance is smart to use recreationally, it is not nearly as addictive as nicotine, which kills about 600,000 people a year in the US, or even alcohol, which kills over 50,000 and impairs far more. We know what happens when you try to ban alcohol in America, and I hope to never see what a prohibition on tobacco would generate. Probably Civil War Part Deux. Cannabis toxicity has killed no one so far that I can find. Between 2001 and 2010, 8.2 million Americans lost their liberty for possessing marijuana. This accounted for about 11 percent of all arrests nationwide.

We are now in the midst of cannabis decriminalization, not because the powers that be support this action, but by referendum. That troublesome old problem of democracy, which keeps limping along in this country. The most recent state to do so was Ohio, and opponents lamented the audacity of the people having an opportunity to voice their opinion. It looks like the federal government might finally budge, also, taking marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III, which is progress, I suppose. I think cannabis should be regulated and taxed just like alcohol and tobacco, with taxes going to pay for treatment and prevention programs. I absolutely think it should be kept away from children and adolescents, but I can tell you right now, as a physician and scientist who has spent years studying substance abuse and addiction, I fear youth exposure to alcohol and tobacco much more than I do cannabis.

But don’t think that smoking or vaping anything is benign. Studies are already showing that there might be an increased risk of cardiovascular problems. Now they will need to separate smoking from vaping and vaping from edibles, etc.

As far as harder drugs, Fentanyl and methamphetamine are extremely toxic drugs. Mexico and China should be held responsible for taking action against the production and exportation of drugs in those countries. This will probably require US support for Mexico. China, on the other hand, is probably trying to get us back for the Opium Wars, and, while I feel their pain, the people responsible are long dead. Let it go. But our government must accept responsibility for its failure to keep these from coming across the border. If federal resources were effectively redeployed to the border, and technology like infrared scanning drones were used, we could intercept illegal border crossing and put a stop to a significant amount of drug smuggling. Drugs made here, like meth, are harder to deal with, but if we focus all criminal resources on the manufacturers, and start issuing severe civil penalties, fines, and mandatory treatment programs for the users, I think we would have a chance.

A wise person, the philosopher George Santayana, is credited with the phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Whether he said it or not, we should remember the lesson of the past and work toward a better future.

L. Joseph Parker is a distinguished professional with a diverse and accomplished career spanning the fields of science, military service, and medical practice. He currently serves as the chief science officer and operations officer, Advanced Research Concepts LLC, a pioneering company dedicated to propelling humanity into the realms of space exploration. At Advanced Research Concepts LLC, Dr. Parker leads a team of experts committed to developing innovative solutions for the complex challenges of space travel, including space transportation, energy storage, radiation shielding, artificial gravity, and space-related medical issues. 

He can be reached on LinkedIn and YouTube.






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