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HBO's Boardwalk Empire Helps Us Understand Drug Prohibition

  1. Terrapinzflyer
    The California initiative, the growing drug policy reform movement, and shows like Boardwalk Empire are helping us reach a tipping point.

    I have worked at the Drug Policy Alliance for almost 11 years. We believe the war on drugs is a failure. We believe substance misuse should be a health issue, not a criminal issue -- and that when people struggle with drug misuse, compassion and treatment are typically more effective than punishment and prison. Fundamentally, we also believe drug prohibition doesn’t work, and that it causes much more harm than good.

    If I were to sum up one of our biggest challenges over the years, it is helping people distinguish between the harms of (legal and illegal) drug misuse and the harms of drug prohibition. For many years I felt frustrated that people didn’t see the difference.

    There is justifiable fear and terror around the drug trade. Everyday we read and hear about the bloody drug war in Mexico that has taken the lives of at least 28,000 people in a little over three years. We look out our windows or watch the local news and see shootings, murders and violence in our cities because of the drug trade. For too long, people associated the violence with the drugs themselves, rather than the policy of prohibition.

    It is not marijuana or coca that cause heads to roll in Mexico – it is the inevitable black market that prohibition creates. It is only because of PROHIBITION that these plants are worth more than gold. When a pound of weed is worth thousands of dollars, people will inevitably kill each other over the right to sell and profit off it.

    Finally, after years and years of pounding away at the point that “drug-related” violence -- whether in Mexico or in our communities in the U.S. – is the result of prohibition, it is starting to sink in. The heartbreaking violence in Mexico is being covered week in and week out. The initiative in California to control and tax cannabis has generated thousands of articles and most stories have voices pointing out that prohibition leads to violence. And now we have HBO’s new hit series bringing the failures of prohibition into our living rooms every week.

    In the first two episodes of Boardwalk Empire Congress declared alcohol illegal, alcohol moved into the black market, and people killed each other over the vast amounts of money to be made in the trade. It is there for all of us to see -- alcohol didn’t go away under prohibition, but we did have shootouts and killings over the trade. Today, no one dies in turf battles over the right to distribute Budweiser.

    In Boardwalk Empire and in our lives today, there are clearly health issues and problems stemming from alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse leads to nearly 100,000 premature deaths every year. We see in Boardwalk Empire and from our own experiences that some people do stupid and harmful things because of alcohol, from getting into fights (with strangers or loved ones), to hurting others or themselves by drinking and driving, to chronic alcohol misuse that can lead to loss of jobs and homes.

    These health issues with alcohol are real but they are different than the problems that we see under alcohol prohibition. Alcohol prohibition didn’t get rid of alcohol or drinking. Prohibition does lead to Al Capone, shoot outs, incarceration, corruption and many other unintended consequences.

    The tide is turning. It is the pro-drug criminalization folks’ greatest fear that people start to understand the failures and harms of drug prohibition. The California initiative, the growing drug policy reform movement, and shows like Boardwalk Empire are helping us reach a tipping point.

    Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol – that’s why it was repealed after just 13 years. Today, after several decades of drug prohibition, it should be clear that it’s never going to work. It’s time for an exit strategy from this unwinnable war.

    Tony Newman is communications director for the Drug Policy Alliance.
    September 30, 2010



  1. Code9
    This is probably one of the most potent arguments against prohibition and yet it's the one we most often forget about.

    It's interesting that he suggests that we are reaching a 'tipping point'. I hope he is right but I have my doubts. I think we'll have reached a tipping point when an article like this can be syndicated though Associated Press and others instead of on micro-publishers like AlterNet (though I love AlterNet). But this does show that serious discussion is still relatively underground
  2. mickey_bee
    There's been a noticeable amount of media attention on these issues in the UK recently, with the BBC and the major broadsheets running articles about drug policy reform, aswell as a recent 3 part series, 'our drug war' which exclusively looked at the results of the drug war.

    However, despite this high-profile coverage, f**k-alls going to change for a long time yet. The fact is, the majority of 'regular joes' still see addicts as criminal scum, and drug laws as being too soft, thanks to decades of propaganda, and the various scare-stories run in the tabloids (which despite being utter bollocks have huge circulation).

    No politician, (who's managed to get to power), would ever even give a moments thought to drug policy reform while most voters feel this way. That's why politics has become so meaningless these days - it's hard to tell the difference between the parties, as they simply chop-and-change their policies according to what will get them the most votes and public favour.......regardless of the cost to society.

    And it will take a LONG time to completely U-turn the views of the masses - indeed, until certain generations have died out.
  3. Code9
    This is the general and political sentiment across the pond as well. You're right to say that there is no choice anymore in politics, and it's only getting worse. Here in Canada, we've had minority governments without opposition coalitions for over 10 years. This is why it is so important to get the younger demographic involved in politics. Some kind of politics/ethics/social morality should be taught at every level in schools, while staying as politically neutral as conceivably possible of course.

    In high school, a political science teacher told me "If the law is unjust, it is your duty as a citizen to break it and bring it before the supreme court." This changed my life...!
  4. Erumelithil
    Well, after some downloading, I've had the opportunity to see the first two episodes of Boardwalk Empire long before it's air date in Ireland.
    As far as social commentary goes, regardless of all the hype, Boardwalk Empire hasn't been tackling the issues of drugs, alcohol, prohibition or social freedoms to the same degree as it has been exploring a more important (of the day) issue of womens rights.
    So far, from what I've seen, Boardwalk Empire has been far more focused on the 2nd class status of women in 1920's America, before they even had the vote.

    Don't get me wrong, I think it's a fantastic drama, but I don't think it's quite the examination of prohibition and allegory for modern drug culture, that the media has hyped it to be.
  5. Code9
    I'm actually enjoying the quite a bit also. I'm optimistic that the drug cartel allegory will develop further as the show progresses.

    So far it's looking like another awesome HBO series.
  6. Erumelithil
    Here Here, all Hail HBO. I think a more apt HBO reference for this thread would be the episodes of "The Wire" in which an area of Baltimore City was designated "Hamsterdam" by the police, and drug dealing was allowed in that area.
    In that (fictional) situation, drug dealing gangs (and related social implications) were removed from the streets and neighbourhoods because the dealers had a place to go where they would be immune from prosecution.
    For anyone who hasn't seen it, I'd highly recommend it as a provocative exploration of a method of semi legalisation.
  7. Code9
    Agreed, The Wire is bar-none one of the best shows of all time. Essentially all HBO shows cover different perspectives of drug use. Their realistic look at average recreational users might be one of the reasons the shows are so popular. Even Chleopatra in Rome was an opium junkie!
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