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Bans, do they work at all?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 21-06-2017 Biju Dominic

We are in the era of bans. Ban on sale of cows for slaughter in animal markets, ban on alcohol sales in shops close to highways, ban on sale of alcohol across the state.

Bans serve some immediate benefits to their proponents. It is a clear display of “right intentions”. A chief minister who announces total ban of alcohol is signalling genuine interest in eradicating the menace of alcoholism from the state. In politics, whether it is in the US or in Bihar, being seen as having the right intentions is many a times more important than the ultimate result of the act.

Bans compartmentalize the general public into those who support and those who oppose the ban. A ban that protects the cow will have strong emotional support of those who consider the cow a holy animal. Anyone who criticizes the ban will be considered as belonging to an out group. The criticisms will further strengthen the resolve of those supporting the ban. These compartments of strong support are crucial for many a politician.

In the short term, some of the bans do show positive results. The vast majority of alcohol consumers are occasional drinkers. If any hurdles are placed in their path to consumption, many of them will curtail their drinking behaviour.

In the initial months of prohibition in the US, there was a 30% drop in alcohol consumption and decline in arrests for drunkenness.

For the politicians bans of any kind that consolidate some segment of their voter base and even show some immediate results are like manna from heaven. So they will not miss an opportunity to use it.

The more important question is of behaviour—what impact do these bans have on the very “wrong” behaviours policymakers want to curtail?

All bans generate psychological reactance. According to psychologist Jack Brehm, humans hate to lose any freedom. Whenever people believe that their freedom has been threatened, they enter into a reactance motivational state and act to regain their freedom. The individuals experience an increased motivation to indulge in the very behaviour that is forbidden.

When Vatican censured Just Love: A Framework For Christian Sexual Ethics by Margaret Farley, the book that was 142,982 on the Amazon Seller’s list rose to 16th position in a matter of few days.

As soon as prohibition was announced, whether it was in the US or in Gujarat or in Meghalaya, the liquor trade moved underground. As the underworld which now took over the business got more and more organized, the consumption levels went back to original levels and new problems like spurious liquor, gang wars and sale of other narcotic substances increased. As was discussed in this column before (“Can the government solve all our problems?” 2 March 2017), when any social problem becomes more of an individual action in a private space, the ability of the government to intervene to solve the problem becomes more difficult.

From a behaviour change perspective, the most significant consequence of bans is that it absolves the individual of the responsibility of solving the social evils he indulges in and hands over that responsibility to law enforcement agencies. For example, despite having a zero-tolerance attitude towards the drug menace, locking up millions in prisons and spending more than $50 billion a year on enforcement, the drug menace continues to haunt policymakers in the US.

This is where the way Portugal dealt with its drug menace offers huge learning. In the 1980s, Portugal reeled under the onslaught of drug and drug-related problems. More than 1% of the population was addicted to heroin, and drug-related AIDS deaths in Portugal were the highest in the entire European Union. The initial response to the problem was a familiar one—stricter law enforcement. But like other bans, this did not show any positive results.

It took the initiative of far-sighted individuals like Dr João Goulão to make the policymakers in Portugal take a unique approach to dealing with the drug menace.

One of the key aspects of the strategy was that Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs in 2001—everything from marijuana to heroin. By this masterstroke the authorities made sure that the problem was not driven underground.

The new strategy was focused on the individual drug user. As Carl Hart, neuropsychopharmacologist at Columbia University said, “The vast majority of people who use drugs, 80-90%, don’t have a problem. They’re responsible people that take care of their families, pay their taxes. They even sometimes become president of the US”.

Keeping this spirit in mind, recreational users, occasional users of drugs are asked to appear before a “dissuasion panel” consisting of legal, social and psychological experts. They suggest motivational counselling to opiate substitution therapy. The drug dealers and traffickers of course were sent to jail.

The philosophy of Portugal’s drug policy was to treat it as a public health issue and not as a criminal issue and ban it.

Today Portugal is seeing the benefits of its innovative policies. Portugal’s current drug-induced death rate is more than five times lower than the European Union’s average. Contrary to what the sceptics thought, decriminalization of drugs led to a consistent reduction in drug usage in Portugal over the past 15 years.

Bans don’t solve any behavioural problems. We need to develop new strategies to deal with various social evils.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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