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Addictions Anonymous, 31: Does Prohibition Work?

 article about Addictions Anonymous, 31: Does Prohibition Work?

This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.


Vulnerable Groups


Experience and research show that gamblers and other addicts entering treatment are not exactly like the general population on a number of important psychological dimensions. Rather, addicts appear to be drawn from one or another specific, vulnerable groups that include, but are not limited to:  the severely depressed, those with a genetic predisposition to addiction, those with significant mental disorders other than addiction, individuals suffering chronic pain, minor children, people with histories of severe credit problems, those with histories of addictive behavior, the elderly and other groups. In other words, addiction is seldom the only problem.


A common argument in favor of prohibition, limited prohibition, and government regulation of addictives such as alcohol, drugs, and gambling is the desire to spare these vulnerable individuals the additional burden of addiction; this argument suggests that the public interest lies in avoiding the huge financial burdens created when addicts resort to crime, public welfare, and bankruptcy. Gambling for many people, as an example, is not merely recreation but clearly a serious addiction associated with the mind-altering nature of heavy gambling and individual vulnerability to addiction.


Prohibition and heavy regulation of addictives is also championed by many religious groups who find addictions objectionable on moral grounds. Unfortunately, they fail to understand the complex dynamics of addiction and their efforts to obtain complete prohibition usually result in expensive failed efforts.


Unfortunately—from a liberal, progressive point-of-view—most existing regulations permit unrestricted access to gambling and gambling establishments by members of most vulnerable populations. Alcohol, prescription drugs, fattening foods, and many addictives are available in many venues to all ages without restriction. Other than proof of age, almost no controls are actually placed on who may use, or suffer exposure to, potentially addictive and emotionally dangerous activities.


What regulations there are seem designed to protect:  (1) government's interests in revenue and tax collection, (2) the honesty of merchants so that the first goal is met, (3) employment practices or (4) the general interests of the local community. One may wonder what, if any, additional governmental regulations should be imposed upon addictives in general in order to protect both the mental health of vulnerable populations and the public's interest in avoiding the financial burdens caused by addiction.


A libertarian view—as opposed to the liberal view—suggests a minimum of protection for vulnerable populations and, perhaps, even a position of social Darwinism regarding the misfortunes of those who abuse addictives in excess. Thus, regulation is bound up with popular political and moral perspectives. Whatever regulations are imposed result from political compromise and never from field-testing of the proposed regulation. With addictions, as in other                critical areas, science and social planning remain distant from each other. The desire for votes, money, and protection from competition are, therefore, usually the forces behind new regulatory efforts.


Supply-side and demand-side strategies


  It is helpful to distinguish two approaches to the protection of vulnerable populations. The first is the common emphasis on reducing supply while the second seeks to reduce demand.


Supply-side efforts seek to eliminate or reduce the availability of certain activities while demand-side philosophies include efforts to make consumers relatively immune to temptation and to treat them once they have become addicts. These are profoundly different approaches to addictive behavior and its consequences.


History teaches that prohibition, the ultimate supply-side tactic, always turns out to be a costly failure. On the other hand, efforts to abate demand through education, treatment, moral training, and persuasion, or by allowing individuals simply to suffer the results of overuse, suggest the Utopian dream of human perfectibility. It is also difficult to win popular support or election to office when one blames the consumer rather than the product consumed.


Nobody is elected by lecturing people to lose weight, drink less, and never gamble. Besides all that, putting the addict into the role of a victim also plays into the hands of those who would attract addicts into treatment and who hope to secure third party support for treatment rather than base their efforts on successful treatment outcomes and grateful patients willing to pay for services.


The Failure of Supply-Side Thinking


Efforts at prohibition have led us to alter our Constitution and even to intervene militarily in the internal affairs of other nations. Evidence for the continued, absolute, and catastrophic failure of prohibitionist thinking is abundant historically and in contemporary society. I quote from a famous document:


Amendment 18. National Prohibition


"Section 1. Prohibition:  After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.


"Section 2. Enforcement: The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


"Section 3. Conditions of Ratification: This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of submission hereof to the States by the Congress."


Thus it was, once upon a time in America, that prohibition of a mind and life-altering activity was possible only by virtue of due Constitutional process.


Now, a further quote of another amendment that found its way into the same important document a few years later:


Amendment 21. Repeal of National Prohibition


"Section 1. Repeal. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed."


Section 2 of this amendment accords to the States and Territories the power to regulate manufacture and importation of intoxicating beverages while Section 3 states the conditions of ratification that were soon met. Again, ratification was by due Constitutional process in the hands of the voters and their representatives. The serious social problems caused by alcohol abuse were not solved by prohibition which, in turn, introduced a wave of crime and violence the likes of which our country had never seen.


Our only national experiment with Constitutional prohibition ended when the prohibition of beverage alcohol proved to be widely unpopular, productive of widespread criminal behavior, hugely expensive and comically ineffective. The only positive thing one can really say about this social experiment is that it was accomplished—and finally undone—by a democratic process. Those who represent a prohibitionist mentality today, having learned nothing more than to evade the popular due process built into our Constitution (voting), now champion criminalization, oppressive regulation and repressive taxation in many areas of human life. Should they succeed, it would leave voters with little direct say in such matters but responsible for paying the bill. Open, informed debate of these controversial issues seems to be systematically avoided, and the efforts at prohibition are often backed by religious organizations seeking to dictate public morality. So it is with the never ending War On Drugs.


There is now afoot in the United States, for example, an effort to bring about a de facto prohibition of tobacco use. Having accomplished the protection of nonsmokers by banning smoking from most public places, those who would dictate social standards now propose huge taxes. These taxes, supposedly designed to discourage smoking are, in fact, designed to increase tax revenues from smokers, a group that is now a voting minority and admittedly among the lower income strata. This is a de facto form of prohibition that will punish those who have been defined as victims of an addiction. Will it work?  Not if gambling and drinking are examples. Gamblers already pay a heavy and steady income to the vendors of gaming services. If government dipped deeper into those revenues by way of higher taxes, the irrationality of gambling itself would hardly allow gamblers to notice the difference.


No one will ever propose a Constitutional amendment to prohibit the manufacture, distribution, and sale of addictive tobacco products in the United States of America. It would cost too much, and it would probably never pass the voters' democratic trial by fire any more than would complete gun control, or the prohibition of abortion or gambling. Such things will always be back by popular demand, usually in a more deadly form when illegal that when legal and regulated.


There never was any Constitutional amendment proposed for the War on Drugs that again is a de facto attempt to prohibit mind-altering substances of all varieties. It reflects the grossly inaccurate conviction of social control advocates that the majority of Americans are too stupid to avoid drug abuse. By now, the financial interests of law enforcement at all government levels have become vested as have the interests of the judicial system, the prison industry, drug testing suppliers, drug educators and the therapeutic community. Drug use and abuse continue to rise even as supply-side efforts lead us to mount financial and political invasions of other countries in efforts to induce them to copy our prohibitionist mentality within their own borders. From time to time the president of one or another Latin American country quietly suggests that the United States should reduce its demand for drugs, but such initiative only risks his country's foreign aid allotment from the U.S. Bribing and supporting corrupt foreign governments is yet one more tool of those devoted to social control.


It might be argued that the prohibition of all mind-altering drugs is justified by the fact that, unlike beverage alcohol, drugs were never approved for commercial distribution. This, however, is false in the case of drugs such marijuana, heroine and other opiates which were freely sold and used for a variety of reasons until early in the Twentieth Century.


One final example of the failure of prohibitionist supply-side thinking may be seen in Nevada prostitution. In the legal brothels of Nevada, sexually transmitted disease is virtually unheard of while in Las Vegas and Clark County, where prostitution is illegal, sexually transmitted disease is rampant. Further, among prostitutes whose behavior is declared illegal in Las Vegas, rates of drug abuse, suicide and alcoholism soar. For reasons beyond reason consensual casual sex for money between consenting adults is illegal in Las Vegas and legal a few miles away. The behavior police, in this case, are, of course, the casino interests that seek to avoid giving Las Vegas a cheap image. It is also remarkable that the casino lobby has recently joined the moralistic supply-side prohibitionists on the issue of Internet gambling. State lotteries, of course, are also forbidden in Nevada for the same reasons. Obviously, the suppression of competition, not concern for the mental health of gamblers, is the goal.


On the Internet, one could gamble in the comfort of ones own home with virtual reality games of all sorts and benefit from more generous odds than those given by casinos where overhead is much higher. Arguments that fraud and cheating might bilk at-home gamblers are trivial in view of modern encryption technology, the pressures of the competitive market and credit card security. Thus, we see again that our supply-side thought police are driven by money, not morals or tenderhearted concern for the consumer.


Efforts to prohibit gambling and thwart or limit the public's free access to gambling recreation will certainly fail, as have past efforts to prohibit tobacco, recreational drug use, prostitution, witchcraft, pornography, and alcohol consumption. This failure will be enormously costly for the private citizen and extremely profitable for government as well as the special interests government represents. It is a fact of human nature, often ignored by prohibitionists, that obstacles placed in the path to a desired goal only increase the struggle toward that goal. `


The belief that prohibition in any form can solve social problems or protect vulnerable individuals from addiction is stupid; it flies in the face of history, research, and the experience of other countries. The most disastrous and expensive failure of prohibition has been our so-called War On Drugs which turns out, as usual, to be a war on vulnerable people. Like most prohibitionist efforts, the War on Drugs is driven by money rather than by any real feeling of concern for drug users.


Vulnerability and the popularity of stupid belief systems


I would guess that less than one percent of our population has had any formal education or training in how to think. University students once had to take course work in logic and rhetoric but, for the most part, it is assumed that somehow logical reasoning, respect for demonstrable fact, skill at inductive and deductive reasoning as well as the ability to distinguish between what is rational and what is irrational all are somehow magically achieved prior to adulthood without benefit of instruction. Thus it is, in America today, that Walt Disney logic is the accepted standard of the common person.


Psychology, in recent years, has concerned itself with purely intellectual elements of behavior, and we now know a great deal about different kinds of thinking and about how various behaviors are affected by cognition. Nevertheless, formal college level courses in logic, scientific thinking, reasoning, and experimental discovery are rare and lightly attended. The popularity of all sorts of addictives is stark evidence of the absence of meaningful instruction in how to reason, think, and plan.


Addiction, as a recreation, is incredibly expensive compared to all other forms of human play. Gambling, besides a minor social and relaxation value, is intellectually stupid regardless of its fascination for many. Las Vegas has been called a Mecca for bad mathematicians, and without doubt most players are completely ignorant or unmindful of the basic laws of probability. The casinos, of course, are not. And how much do alcoholics understand of the physiological effects of alcohol, or of its damaging consequences of long use? Does the drub abuser know or care about the multitude of physical complications of long term drug dependence? Our educational system simply does not prepare people how to deal with the any forms of dangerous behavior.


The notion that gambling is likely to produce significant winnings and offer healthy recreation, like the idea that drinking or smoking are sophisticated, are hardly the only dumb ideas out there in America today. Gambling is the single outstanding activity in which, from the consumer's view, the exception proves the rule.  The fact that a winner emerges from time to time proves, in the minds of gamblers, that gambling is both exciting and worthwhile. But this is America and we love our free market in dumb ideas. Uncounted billions of dollars are taken every year from the hands of generally bright people who act in stupid ways.


Let the reader beware!  I may be about to insult each and every one of you, so I hasten to add that stupid ideas—ideas without any factual basis—can be exceptionally entertaining. I love good entertainment, but I don't waste all of my time, energy, and assets on it. What really hurts is an attack on our ego investment in strong, irrational belief systems, so remember, we are only talking business, so don't take it personally, please.


Here is a sample of some of the more lucrative and intellectually stupid ideas upon which fortunes are made every year:


·                    Poltergeists


·                    Witches, demons, ghosts, spirits and lost souls


·                    Area 51


·                    Out-of-body mythology


·                    Remote viewing


·                    Flying saucers


·                    Ancient astronauts


·                    Conspiracy theories


·                    The face on Mars


·                    The grassy knoll


·                    Time travel


·                    Mermaids and sea monsters


·                    Toxic waste monsters


·                    Herbal remedies for everything that ails you


·                    Water witching


·                    Astrology


·                    Palm reading


·                    Telephone psychics


·                    Theories of special creation


·                    Magic pills from rhinoceros horns


·                    The Diana Cult


·                    The Elvis Cult


·                    Now even the Sinatra Cult


·                    The analysis of body auras


·                    Near death experiences


·                    Teleportation, telepathy, telekinesis and mind reading


·                    Subliminal advertising


·                    Pet cemeteries


·                    Original sin


·                    Alien abductions


·                    Celation therapy


·                    Feng Shui


·                    Angels


·                    Nostradamous


·                    Vampires and werewolves


·                    Miracle cures by T.V. evangelists


·                    Tarot cards


·                    The face of Mary on shovels, oil puddles, tree trunks and screen doors


·                    Copper and magnetic bracelets


·                    Hypnosis for weight loss, smoking cessation or financial success


·                    Sleep learning


·                    Recovered memories


·                    Past life regression


·                    Miracle diets


·                    Psychic detectives


·                    Deep bowel cleansing


Thus, I would hope, one can readily see that addiction is not the only dumb idea out there in America today. If there is money to be made on good ideas, there is more big money to be made on dumb ideas. When one flops all you have to do is discover or invent a new one to sell to the gullible. As they say, there's another one born again every minute.


Although fun and profitable, stupid ideas are stupid and self-defeating. The sale and promotion of stupid ideas is driven by desires for money, power, and control, not by humanistic concerns. Buying into stupid ideas is driven by immaturity and is symptomatic of vulnerability. It is to be hoped that stupid ideas would vanish and lose their power when the market for them dries up. This can only happen in the distant future, when and if we master the art and craft of maturity and logical thinking.


Stupidity—whether rooted in emotional immaturity, cultural deprivation, or low intellect—has been made charming and attractive by the Merchants of Mindlessness. Regulation will diminish neither the demand for, nor the supply of, stupid ideas. It will only, as always, whet the appetite.


And so, to be better people, to be immune to life destroying addiction, we must pull ourselves up by our own boot straps. We must discover and teach ourselves how to be in the world without destroying it and ourselves.


All stupid ideas exploit the vulnerable; exploitation of the vulnerable is part of capitalistic, free trade economics, but not the major part. This is not necessarily a reason to join the Socialist Party. There is nothing wrong in giving people what they want and can pay for as long as there is minimal or tolerable harm and damage. In my opinion, there is nothing right about protecting adults from the consequences of stupid behavior, except in the most extreme and dangerous situations where inexperience can lead to immediate disaster. There are, however, a few special considerations.


Children and addictives: a special vulnerability and responsibility


Abundant research has shown that early onset is a characteristic of much addictive behavior. Children are especially vulnerable and defenseless; they tend to copy the behavior of adults. In Nevada, as in most states, minor children are forbidden access to taverns and bars where alcohol consumption is the primary activity. However, children freely walk the casino floors when accompanied by an adult. Children even have their own gambling training areas in arcades placed just off the regular gaming floor. Strollers have become a common sight in Nevada casinos, which encourage the notion that gambling junkets are fit vacations for whole families. It is my opinion that under no circumstances should minor children be permitted to enter the premises of any gambling or drinking establishment for any reason.


The Use of Intoxicants to Facilitate Excessive Gambling


Casinos have long used alcohol to lower inhibitions against excessive gambling. For some gamblers, alcohol works to reduce anxieties commonly and properly associated with risk-taking behavior. For other gamblers, alcohol gives a sense of personal enhancement, intensifying irrational confidence in personal power and control. Without free alcohol, casino revenue might be significantly reduced. However, some arrangements should be made to separate these two highly addictive and mutually enhancing activities. At least patrons should be informed of the danger of gambling under the influence. Lawsuits by customers against casinos arising from alcohol-induced excessive gambling seem not to have resulted in new case law. The potential liability of the gaming industry with regard to the use of free beverage alcohol needs to be clarified either by legislation or by successful pursuit of vendor liability in the courts.


Consumer Education, Disclosure, and Deceptive Advertising


In a perfect world the addiction industries would be forced to follow honesty standards established in other industries. Food labeling, for example, once vigorously opposed by the food packagers, has provided outstanding consumer awareness of what it is we are eating. Labeling has not forced consumers to buy any particular product nor has it deprived us of desired items; it has only helped us to make wiser decisions and selections.


In my opinion, every gambling device and gaming area should contain clearly worded statements of the odds for each bet. The same should hold for places where alcohol is sold When and if a player's gambling activity is being recorded in a data bank, the consumer should be made aware of this and of the uses to which that information will be put. Further, as with alcohol and tobacco products, every gambling device and gaming area should carry a clearly worded and visible warning such as: "Caution: Gambling is Potentially Addictive and May be Harmful to Your Mental Health."


Taxation and Socialized Addiction


Due to lower overhead, illegal gambling and drug sales often give the consumer the best bargain for money spent. Internet gambling has the potential for offering a much better return on the bettor's dollar than casinos. Government, of course, offers the worst consumer value for the recreational gambling dollar and forbids recreational drugs; only by maintaining a government-enforced monopoly are we able to keep the regressive taxation known as a lottery. Since government is a highly interested and an always-hungry party, it should not, under any circumstances, offer, provide, operate, or advertise any addictive service. It is difficult to reconcile government owned gambling activity with a free market society or with Constitutional limits on the power of government, and I am firmly against what I call entrepreneurial government. If we do not accept socialized medicine in the United States, how is it possible that we tolerate socialized, state operated addictions such as alcohol and gambling in any form?  Say what we will about privately operated casinos and taverns, they are generally consistent with a free market economy.


Political contributions by the gambling, alcohol, and tobacco industries should be carefully monitored, publicized, and limited. The gaming industry should not, for example, be permitted to govern a state such as Nevada. However, state government seems to be actually what they do by controlling who will be nominated to office, who will have the funds for an active campaign and which bills will pass in the state legislature.


Education and Moral Development


Addiction has been called a mental illness, a disease. This medicalization of problem gambling has resulted in the rapid growth of treatment programs the proprietors of which demand and expect third party payment from insurance companies and from government. The irrational gambler is placed into the role of a disease victim by all except, of course, the Twelve Step programs, which still recognize the importance of dealing with character defects. Although it is politically and financially unpopular, we must be willing to ask not what is wrong and evil about addiction, but what is wrong and missing in vulnerable individuals who also happen to be voters. We must begin to understand and inculcate mental health at an early age in our children, and back away from our obsession with mental illness as an excuse for every human frailty. The proper solution to the problems of widespread, irrational gambling, drinking, and drug abuse is the elimination of individual, personal demands for addictive activity. This, in turn, will require important and difficult changes in values, expectations, beliefs, and reasoning abilities like those I have described in earlier chapters.


What shall we do about all those vulnerable people?


Nothing is a tempting answer. Leave them alone to experience the consequences of bad judgment and emotional immaturity since tough love works best for those with any capacity for personal growth and development. The protectionist response might be, "What about all those poor families, children, employers, parents, and associates of irrational people who fall victim to someone else's excessive addictive behavior?"  The answer, again, might best be, "Nothing."  Leave them alone to experience the consequences of the bad judgment and poor the taste they have shown in picking addicted friends. Noble intentions may be as irrational as gambling itself and are hardly less selfish in nature. Certainly, the willingness to allow others to find their own way in life is among a noble human characteristic.


A kinder response to addictions that harms others would be mandated and active participation in an appropriate rehabilitation program. To do that effectively, we need more comprehensive laws regarding dangerous behavior. Driving a car, flying an airplane, and hunting with deadly weapons are dangerous behaviors. Fortunately, these behaviors are covered by licensing laws. To obtain a license in any field, from medicine to law to game fishing, a license is required. And to get that license, one must meet certain standards of age, experience, and competence. It is time to license the dangerous behaviors of gambling, drinking, and recreational drug use. In doing this we could define responsible use of addictives and make violators themselves liable under the law. We would have the legal basis, then, to mandate treatment and education. We should license users and consumers of dangerous activities right along with licensing vendors.


What we have been doing doesn't work. Maybe it's time to try a little tough love. We have not got very far trying to snuff out supply, so why not try working with demand and see if things get better for us all?



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