This article belongs to Great American Dumb Ideas column.

Americans can't claim any special ability in thinking up dumb stuff. However, we do have a talent for carrying a dumb idea to the extreme.

In the beginning

When something bothers, hurts, or scares us, prohibition immediately comes to mind. The urge to prohibit, ban, excommunicate, or banish is primal and childish, "Mommy, make it go away!" In practice, prohibition is just another form of magic thinking that almost never works.

The appeal

It is such a simple idea, and if we could just prohibit something, we would get immediate relief from the hated problem. Complications, of course, include enforcement costs, lost tax revenues, and unintended side effects.

A few of the things we humans have tried to prohibit by law are alcohol, gambling, abortion, sex education, pornography, swearing, masturbation, automobiles, guns, war, contraception, sex before marriage, divorce, slavery, spitting, witchcraft, Christianity, immigration, suicide, homosexuality, prostitution, and on and on.

The price

I certainly agree that the world would be a far better place if we could be rid once and for all of such things as slavery, war, and assault weapons in homes. To make the big and really important changes in behavior, however, we have to change people before changes in the law will work effectively. Changing people is difficult, but it can be done. Prohibition, on the other hand, is a story of failed social policy.

The American experiment with the legal prohibition of alcohol was bought at the price of a crime wave that bred amateur breweries, speakeasies, and gang violence. It turned millions of drinkers into scofflaws.

The real price of any legal prohibition is, of course, the loss of freedom. We lose the freedom of choice. When we prohibit gambling, for example, we may help a compulsive gambler here and there, but we deprive millions more of the freedom to use a popular recreation. The great majority of citizens can use gambling, alcohol, and drugs in moderation without becoming addicted.

Making money on it

The years-long American War on Drugs cost billions of dollars, never worked, resulted in a massive crime wave, put hundreds of thousands of people in jail, and forced the United States to tamper with politics in drug producing countries. Yet we keep on doing what never worked, a program that was never approved by voters. The explanation of this self-defeating behavior is, as usual, money. The War on Drugs is a jobs program for the judicial system, law enforcement, public and private prisons, testing labs and federal workers. If the demand for recreational drugs suddenly dried up, many thousands of workers in those fields would be out of work.

Prohibition often wears the mask of morality. Prostitution, for example, is said to be immoral and to destroy families. The truth is that legal, regulated prostitution promotes the health and safety of sex trade workers and may, in fact, allow traditional marriages to hold together when practical matters, rather than sex, require the partners to stay married. Hundreds of young women have earned their way through college by working summers in the legal brothels of Nevada. When prostitution is illegal, prostitutes are the victims of crime, assault, disease and exploitation by pimps, and even by police looking for easy arrests. Police delight in setting traps for both prostitutes and their customers.

Is there a better idea?

Well-regulated commercial prostitution, where it has been tried, has not resulted in social collapse or crime waves. There is a middle ground between making something illegal and legalizing it. That middle ground is de-criminalization. If we simple de-criminalized the ownership and use of small amounts of mind-altering drugs, and if we licensed responsible prospective users by examining their knowledge and history, we would extend personal freedom of choice, put illegal drug dealers out of business, and create new industries to supply safe and clean products.

Generally, when we try to prohibit something, we are concerned with what can be called dangerous behaviors. Walking you dog has some risks as do most daily actives, but they are reasonable risks. Driving a car is more dangerous and can lead to significant harm and damage to people and property. Using alcohol and recreational drugs can be even more risky, especially when they are criminalized and the products go unregulated for quality.

What is dangerous behavior? Dangerous behavior is whatever we, as a democratic society, decide it is, and our definition will include any action or habit that carries with it an unusually high possibility of harm or death to anyone involved. Smoking tobacco results in significantly higher levels of illness and death than taking a morning walk with the pooch. Dangerous behavior is the use of any substance, agency, device, or activity that poses a significant risk of harm or damage to self or to others. Significance is measured by finding elevated death or accident rates among those who engage in a certain behavior.

There are many ways aside from complete prohibition to control dangerous behavior, but none of them are as deceptively easy or quick as prohibition. Experience, however, tells us that other ways do work. Effective social control methods other than complete prohibition fall into two general groups: supply and demand.

The War on Drugs is, as alcohol prohibition was, a war on supply and suppliers. Little attention is paid to the reasons why people want to alter the way they feel with recreational drugs. We simply impose total prohibition which, in itself, often becomes dangerous and expensive.

Supply side tools, other than outright prohibition of sales or manufacture, include sanitary inspection, food labeling, state control of sales, licensing of manufacture and distribution, restrictions on sales children, and so forth.

On the demand side we have consumer education, counseling to reduce need, punishment for foolish use, and so forth. Most effective, of all, I think, is consumer or user licensing. We demand a demonstration of skill and judgment in awarding automobile drivers' licenses. We license aircraft pilots, physicians, psychologists, contractors, and many other professions and trades. The licensee supports the bureaucracy with licensing fees and is subject to government regulation. If one can prove good judgment, skill, safe and moderate use, why not license those who would gamble, drink, use mind altering chemicals, etc.? Moderation and responsible use are complex skills than can be learned by most people.

With user or consumer licensing, we impose selective prohibition on those who lack the skills and maturity for responsible use. When unlicensed people do something they are unqualified to do, they break the law and can be selectively punished while the rest of us are left with choice.

And if the pooch you walk in the morning is an aggressive pit bulldog, well, that could rise to the level of dangerous behavior, and we should license both dog and owner.

Next month: Government for profit