New York Times Glosses Over Harms of Alcohol Prohibition in India

Last month, the New York Times published an article declaring the prohibition of alcohol in the Indian state of Bihar a success. The author cites the decline in consumption and sale of alcohol, falling crime rates and increased household spending as evidence of the success of prohibition, emphasizing the leading role played by Bihari women in the enforcement of the law. The article skims over that fact that 42,000 people have been arrested and are awaiting trial.

It isn’t insignificant that 42,000 people have been arrested in just one year of prohibition. That’s 42,000 more people stuffed into overcrowded prisons in a state with scarce resources, where nearly a third of all human rights complaints relate to police and prisons.

42,000 people imprisoned simply for drinking alcohol.

Let us remember that the majority of people in this world use drugs, both for pleasure and for pain. Bihar’s unemployment rate is amongst the highest in the country and 35.8 million people in the state live below the poverty line. Should we really expect the people of Bihar never to have a drink, when so many of us do the same thing, with a fraction of the problems they are facing?

The Bihari law not only punishes those who manufacture, distribute, transport, possess, purchase or sell alcohol, but also criminalizes family members of the accused and the owner and occupiers of any premises where the “illegal act” is taking place.  It allows authorized persons to arrest the offender without a warrant and to confiscate or destroy seized alcohol or any material which they deem to be related to the committing of the “offence”. These provisions sound eerily similar to asset forfeiture provisions in the U.S., which have been widely abused by law enforcement.

Prohibition has never worked. It didn’t work here in the U.S. and it hasn’t worked in India either, despite repeated attempts by various states. Merely prohibiting alcohol doesn’t address the structural problems and emotional pain driving people to drink. It typically only drives the market underground, exposing the population to all the dangers associated with an illicit, unregulated market and often leads to the consumption of more potent substances.

The law has flipped the gender dynamic in the state, giving women greater influence, but this carceral variant of feminism, which relies on the repressive machinery of the state, often ends up hurting the most marginalized women. And what about the wives and families of the 42,000 imprisoned for drinking? Do they support prohibition?

It is worth thinking about the metrics we use to evaluate the impact of a policy before deeming the prohibition of alcohol in Bihar a success. While the state has full authority to carry out a public education campaign to curb excessive consumption, criminalizing and imprisoning thousands of people cannot be considered a truly successful policy.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.


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