When Prohibition Works

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One fun fact about America’s endless war on drugs is that there is one—really only one—success story: Quaaludes.

Quaalude is the trademarked name for the generic sedative methaqualone. It was once among the most popular and common recreational drugs in the United States. If you have seen The Wolf of Wall Street, you know the basic outline of the story:

Jordan Belfort’s précis is accurate. The United States government managed to get Quaaludes off the streets—you can’t buy them anymore. When you look at the list of Schedule 1 drugs, they stand out as basically the only one that has been successfully eradicated.


The reasons for this are pretty obvious. Other drugs are easy to produce or easy to smuggle into the United States. It will never be possible to ban alcohol, because humans have been making it for thousands of years. Marijuana prohibition will never work for similar reasons.

But Quaaludes were a drug invented by a drug company, and produced only by other drug companies—much too complex to synthesize in a home lab. The way to end American consumption of Quaaludes was to ban their manufacture. The American government did so, and strong-armed nearly every other government into doing so as well. It worked. Some minuscule number of Americans still manage to get their hands on them, or pills claiming to be them, from the one or two countries that still do manufacture them. But they are mostly gone.


Methamphetamines, as it happens, only remain common because the pharmaceutical industry successfully beat back the government’s attempt to do something similar to ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are still produced in great quantities, completely legally, by drug companies. Enforcement has focused, instead, mainly on attacking and regulating the importation and sale of those drugs, with predictable whack-a-mole results.

Which brings us to guns.

You cannot grow an AR-15 in your shed or make it in your bathtub. You cannot build one at home with commonly available materials. Even the technologies that make it “easy” to manufacture guns at home—like the “Ghost Gunner,” a machine that advertises home gun creation—rely, like meth labs, on the easy availability of all the component parts of the gun—the fact that all the pieces that make up an AR-15 aren’t banned. (You have to buy a thing that is “80 percent” of the gun’s “lower receiver,” which the machine cuts down, and then you go to the gun store to buy the “upper receiver.” You are still just legally buying a gun.)


Rifles are much more like Quaaludes than they are like cannabis or heroin. In other words, it would be easy for the U.S. government to ban them, if it really wanted to.

One set of arguments against gun control measures—one of the supposedly “serious” ones, made not by ghouls shrieking about “liberty” but by sober-minded “researchers” and “experts”—is that meaningful gun control is simply impossible. The truths of this argument—we do already have far too many guns, everywhere, all over the country, and collecting and disposing of every single one of them would be a gargantuan, potentially tyrannical endeavor for any government—help disguise the more tenuous foundations. Take this interview with James Jacobs, a constitutional law professor and criminologist. After going through the usual arguments (i.e. “We would not be a safer society if we could eliminate all of the assault weapons because people could substitute for them non-assault weapons that are exactly the same.” Yes, clearly, experts agree: We cannot ban guns without banning guns.), we finally get to his actual explanation for the “impossibility” of meaningful gun control:

But the U.K.’s policy could not work in the U.S. because we have a Constitution, we have a Second Amendment, and we have a Supreme Court decision that guarantees the right of Americans to keep and bear arms in their home for lawful purposes. So we cannot have a prohibition of private ownership of firearms.


This isn’t an argument for why it can’t work. It’s a description of why it currently isn’t being tried: Because one tendentious interpretation of the Second Amendment, backed up with the force of a fervent political movement that is hugely overrepresented in our government, currently is the law of the land. Laws change.

The most intellectually honest argument for the easy availability of military-style rifles, at the end of the day, is that they are fun to shoot. This is also one of the stronger arguments for Quaaludes.


The story of the successful eradication of Quaaludes is not a black-and-white tale of the morality of prohibition. Quaaludes were not exactly a completely benign party drug, as Bill Cosby’s horrific pattern of predation demonstrates, but neither were they as dangerous and life-destroying as various other substances that it is still perfectly legal for pharmaceutical companies to manufacture in great quantities and market widely. It is a pretty clear-cut story of how to craft an effective prohibition policy, though, at least in terms of goods that are difficult to produce completely from scratch.

The lesson of ‘ludes versus meth is that when you go after the capitalists legally profiting from a supposedly illicit trade, instead of the users or the dealers and criminal gangs operating primarily as middlemen in the conversion of legal substances to illegal ones, blanket bans work.


Basically everyone knows we’d eliminate the vast majority of gun deaths in this country by eliminating handguns, and the vast majority of spree murders by eliminating military-style rifles like the AR-15 and its variants. It would be exceedingly difficult to seize every one of these weapons currently on the streets by force, but it would be easy and effective—given sufficient political will—to ban their manufacture and sale.

This is not the political case for how prohibition could happen. That will have to be decided by the politicians we empower in the future. Nor is it the legal or constitutional case. That will be determined by the judges and Supreme Court justices those politicians appoint. I’m just saying it would work.