Campaigners build themselves into a self-righteous position from which they cannot climb down, fuelled by selectively interpreted science. ‘Moral entrepreneurs’, lacking in empathy for their fellow man, forge a career for themselves, glorying in their political and financial successes. For success breeds success and their relentless proselytising finds willing adherents. Government is attracted by the sense of decisiveness attached to prohibition. And the general public is guilty as well, our neighbourly intolerance lending widespread popular support to bans.
Prohibitionists find willing allies in the commercial rivals of those producing the product in question. Brewers supported the early US temperance movement, hoping to damage distillers. Modern pharmaceutical companies fear that the rise of tobacco substitutes like snus will undermine the market for nicotine patches.
Yet for all this, prohibition is doomed to founder on the rock of human desire. It is in our bones to seek out physical pleasure, sometimes at considerable cost. “When the law cuts off one avenue of pleasure, new sources are invariably found,” as Snowdon puts it. If there is any great demand for a certain product, be it food, drink, drugs or sex, then the risks of purveying it are met by colossal rewards.
The Art of Suppression is full of great facts – its description of opium-addicted Britain before the wars is particularly memorable. But its real impact is its pithy denunciation of the prohibitionist cause. It ends with a modest proposal for a more practical and tolerant approach to drugs of all kinds. In his modesty Snowdon does not hold much hope for implementation. But this book must make that goal more likely.
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