Iran's Enlightened Prohibitionists


A New York Times story about alcohol prohibition in Iran notes that the government has stopped requiring that legally produced ethanol be adulterated with methanol to discourage recreational consumption. Nowadays a 600-milliliter bottle of unadulterated ethanol can be purchased in a pharmacy for less than $3. "The common recipe," the Times reports, "is to mix one shot of alcohol with two shots of juice, preferably pineapple." The story quotes an unnamed official who "said the decision to permit such widespread production of alcohol was made to limit the number of deaths and casualties caused by illegal drinks. Some 19 people were killed in 2004 after drinking bad bootleg liquor."

The conclusion that drinking, while a sin, does not merit the death penalty makes Iran's mullahs look enlightened and compassionate next to America's drug warriors, who reject "harm reduction" measures such as the distribution of clean needles for heroin injection because making drug use safer might make it more appealing. From this point of view, the unsanitary practices, unreliable quality, and unpredictable purity associated with the black market are not unfortunate side effects of prohibition but added deterrents to drug use. Defenders of mandatory adulteration during America's ignoble experiment with alcohol prohibition had a similar attitude: If you don't want to risk blindness, paralysis, and death, don't drink bootleg liquor.

Another way Iranian alcohol prohibition is milder than America's war on drugs: The penalties imposed on dealers–74 lashes, a fine, and three months to a year in prison–are nothing to sneeze at, but they don't compare to America's mandatory minimum sentences of five, 10, or 15 years, let alone the possibility of life imprisonment or execution for drug "kingpins." Maybe we should send James Sensenbrenner on a fact-finding tour of Iran.