Friday, March 30, 2007

Supercasinos, drugs and alcohol prohibition: more than a whiff of ministerial hypocrisy

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The sex industry, the drugs industry, and the gambling industry: Governments have always struggled with how to regulate certain pleasure seeking behaviors, especially when they clash with religious concepts of sin, which sex, drugs and gambling usually do. In law they they tend to come under the general description of 'Vice', which addresses the big three 'morality crimes'.

The problem for governments is that these activities are not always harmful (even though they can be), and in one form or another, they are as old as civilization and haven't shown much sign of disappearing despite the best efforts of our moral stewards. People, it seems, like pleasure and seek it out regardless of whether it is frowned upon, or even specifically prohibited and criminalised, as gambling drugs and sex work have been and remain to varying degrees in different places around the world. In the UK some drugs are legal whilst others not, prostitution is legal but soliciting and brothels not (although 'mini brothels' may be soon), and gambling is legal and licensed in various forms but not others (high street bookies, for example, were legalised and regulated in the 1961).

It is fascinating to see how politicians can tie them selves in knots of hypocrisy when it comes to regulating 'vice', as has recently been brilliantly demonstrated by Tessa Jowell, the UK's Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, who is charge of casino policy. The Government is very much in favour of regulated gambling and on the subject Jowell is apparently very clear, and very pragmatic. Regards online gambling:


"Broadly speaking we have three choices: you can prohibit, like the US, do nothing or regulate, like we have”

"I firmly believe we have chosen the path that will do the most to protect children and vulnerable people and keep out crime."

"America should have learnt the lessons of prohibition. The Volstead Act
[which brought in alcohol prohibition in 1919] was meant to stop alcohol from causing harm, but in practice it forced otherwise law-abiding customers into the hands of the bootleggers”

"If it goes wrong , there is a real danger is that off shore sites based in poorly regulated countries will become the modern day equivalent of speakeasies, increasing the risk of exploitation and fraud."



Here she is specifically summoning up the failure of a drug prohibition as an example of why we need to legally regulate gambling, albeit alcohol prohibition in 1930s USA. This wasn't a one off quip either. Jowell and her team have obviously decided this prohibition parallel argument is their strongest card in the gambling debate. She made the same point in the House of Commons last October a few days before the above quote hit the news:


"our approach to gambling regulation is different: to avoid prohibition, to introduce regulation and to avoid the damage that the free market will do".

Indeed she was making the exact same argument back in 2004:


‘The House should recognise, however, that gambling is at the boundary between personal freedom and state intervention. On one side of the boundary is the reasonable expectation of adults who, within the law, exercise their right to live their lives as they choose. On the other is the role of the state: to recognise human frailty, and in particular to respect its duty to protect children and the vulnerable. As a Government and a society, we have three options in that respect: prohibition, a free-for-all or regulation. We have no doubt about choosing the regulatory route. The question for the House is how best to apply the regulatory framework for the benefit of society as a whole'
You may be able to guess where I'm going with this...

Is it not obvious that the same logic should apply to currently illegal drugs? Why have we 'learnt the lessons of prohibition' regards gambling and alcohol, but not with the prohibition of other drugs?

Remember that the 2002 updated National Drug Strategy actually refers to itself as a policy of 'prohibition' (page 6). Jowell's self righteous position on gambling and alcohol prohibition is dramatically undermined by the howling contradiction with her Government's own policy on other drug prohibitions. (Also see 'Why this? - but not this?' for another brilliant example of Government double standards). Let’s just change a couple of words in Jowell's above quote and see how it sounds:

"The House should recognise, however, that drug use is at the boundary between personal freedom and state intervention. On one side of the boundary is the reasonable expectation of adults who, within the law, exercise their right to live their lives as they choose. On the other is the role of the state: to recognise human frailty, and in particular to respect its duty to protect children and the vulnerable. As a Government and a society, we have three options in that respect: prohibition, a free-for-all or regulation. We have no doubt about choosing the regulatory route. The question for the House is how best to apply the regulatory framework for the benefit of society as a whole"

eh? EH? EH?

Back in 2004 Jowell wrote a piece for the Guardian titled 'Grown-up politics for an adult world'. She liked it enough to run it a second time earlier this year. In the article (apparently adapted from a Fabian society essay she wrote ages ago) Jowell makes the same prohibition/regulation argument in some considerable detail, again invoking the foolishness of prohibiting drugs to make her point:

“On issues like smoking, drinking and gambling, government has three basic choices: we can prohibit, regulate or leave it to the market. Prohibition does not work - it drives the activity underground ....... Only ideological extremists favour a free-for-all where only the laws of the market hold sway. So the third option is regulation - and regulation with as much emphasis on the quality of the debate as the policy outcome. 'Better regulation' has to mean government engaging people in the decisions that affect their lives and doing so in new and better ways”.



This Guardian article is subtitled 'Voters want choice, respect, dialogue and responsibility. The Government must learn to deliver '. Well Tessa, I am an grown up and I want some grown up politics. I want choice, respect, dialogue and responsibility – so why don't you grow up, and lets apply your obviously sensible arguments to the evident failure of drug prohibition. You know, 'issues like smoking and drinking'.

Just to thrash this point a little further, the current big boss of UK drug prohibition is John Reid, who as health secretary appeared on the Jeremy Vine show (11.11.04) discussing tobacco policy, noting on the subject:

“Prohibition doesn’t work, as the US found out many years ago.”

Aside from this politically-selective analysis of prohibition’s failure, the other glaring problem for Jowell with the new supercasino legislation is that it goes way, way, beyond her alternative proposition of sensible legal regulation.

As the various minister's prohibition analysis correctly demonstrates with alcohol, when demand for illegal drugs exists, and where this demand isn't met legally, criminal supply inevitably fills the vacuum and mops up the extraordinary profits prohibition hands them. These are the inescapable economics of illegal markets, with disastrous effects for all to see; untaxed illicit profits, crime, violence and so on.

However, in contrast to drugs, demand for gambling is being more than met legally, in fact the market is being saturated. There are casinos all over the country and they are not overflowing and turning people away at the doors. People can also gamble online, on the lottery, in bookies on every high street (since 1961), at the horse races, at the dogs, on fruit machines in every pub and kebab shop, even with their mobile phone bookies, 24 hours a day, wherever they are. There is no excess demand for gambling that is not currently being met, which is precisely why there is almost no illegal gambling in this country, bar the occasional cock fight.

That is what is so completely mystifying about the super casinos plan: There was no public demand for them. Sure, once they were proposed and their number limited (initially to one) then certain interests started demanding a piece of the pie. The foreign investors (willing to throw tens of millions into their lobbying efforts) obviously want them, and no doubt some star-struck local government officials think they are good idea too. But before the Government floated the plan in the first place there were no NGOs, grass roots campaigns, policy analysts, or gamblers associations, calling for supercasinos to fill some leisure gap they were being so cruelly denied.

Supercasinos, one assumes, will be allowed to aggressively advertise in the same irresponsible way online casinos already do, including, I think disgracefully, to children via sports sponsorship. The multimillion pound casinos with their multimillion pound marketing budgets will be actively increasing the total amount of gambling that takes place. That is very much not responsible regulation any more than letting alcohol brands aggressively advertise to young people through sports sponsorship is (e.g. The Carling Premiership) when we have the highest youth drinking in the Western World and an exploding problem of alcoholism and liver cirrhosis.


Catch'm young. Totally inappropriate regulation in action: baby football kits sponsored by drug brands (Rangers), and online gambling (Villa)


The idea that these new casinos will help regenerate inner cities is a particularly perverse justification. They are going to be built in deprived areas, earning a significant proportion of their revenue from those low income populations. They wont be bringing money into these areas, they will be bleeding it away from the populations most vulnerable to their illusory promise of a quick buck. What's more, most of the the profits will largely be leaving these areas anyway, flying off to the overseas investors. Supercasinos bring the same level of culture and enhanced well being to communities as ‘The Mint’ phone-in ‘quiz’ brought to our television schedules.

I have to confess: I’ve visited some supercasinos in Vegas and Reno USA, for my sins, and I can report that (*personal bias warning*) they were pretty vile. Nothing like those swanky places in Bond films, these were grotesque industrialised / warehoused gambling spruced up with lots of tacky flashing lights and full of lonely rather glum looking people losing money. If I had a couple of hundred million pounds to spend on enhancing a deprived community I can think of a couple of hundred million better way to spend it than the financial, spiritual and cultural black hole that is a supercasino.

For organisations such as Transform, arguing for sensible legal regulation of currently illegal drugs, it all sets a strikingly bad precedent. The equivalent in drug terms would be to let Colombian cartels build a glitzy new heroin and crack mega-mart in the middle of Moss Side. And then let them sponsor Manchester city.

The Cocaine Premiership anyone?


No. Of course not. If you want to learn about how it should be done please read:

'After the War on Drugs - Options for Control' (2004) by Transform

'A Public Health Approach to Drug Control (2005) by the British Colombia Health Officers Council (Canada)

Effective Drug Control:Toward A New Legal Framework' (2005) by The King County Bar Association (USA)

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2 comments:

chrisbx515 said...

Brilliant stuff yet again!

Bob said...

I've also done casinos in Canada, I know what you mean about the row upon row of machines. Basically its a room the size of a B&Q superstore full of pub 'fruit machines'.

Yes, these might create some jobs, but the whole reason for a casino is for people to loose, and loose big. You dont invest £200m without expecting a whole lot more than that back.

Half of the people who live in East Manchester, the recomended location live purely on benefit!