The ‘dry’ World Cup in the desert proves that prohibition isn’t based on science

The last minute u-turn on the sale of alcohol for almost all fans is evidence of the ideological and moral roots of prohibition...

by Niko Vorobyov

The Qatar World Cup’s been shrouded in controversy about the small Gulf nation’s record on gay and women’s rights, and migrant workers dying building the stadiums. Most outrageous of all, a number of fans have been mortified to learn that they’ll have to enjoy the games sober. Perhaps, considering the shameful history of drunk football riots, the Qataris have a point. So why do we in the West not only tolerate, but embrace it?

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of Qatar’s decision, it’s revealing how fans are upset about a lack of booze, but no-one’s complaining they can’t bring weed or Molly. 

At first, it seems self-evident. The Gulf region is famous for taking a dim view of any chemically-enhanced recreation, and Qatar is no exception. The possession and distribution of unauthorised intoxicants is severely punished, up to and including by death. And while many footie fans are certainly not adverse to a cheeky line, it’s still largely frowned upon by mainstream society, and outing yourself as an illicit drug user may not be wise unless you fancy joining the cast of Banged Up Abroad.

Evidence-based drug laws would regulate these substances based on the harm they potentially do to the human body and society at large. Is drinking a pint better or worse for you than smoking a spliff? Objectively, it’s hard to make the case that drinking’s the healthier alternative. Alcohol abuse is a factor behind liver failure, brain damage, domestic abuse and a history of disastrous decisions. The psychonauts responding to the Global Drug Survey put alcohol in third place, behind methamphetamines and spice, in terms of what most often sends them to the emergency room. Weed and shrooms were at the bottom of the list. 

But the buzz these other substances create may not be to everyone’s taste. 

“Cocaine is simply a hyper-stimulant, and opium a hyper-depressant – they don’t share the unique constellation of effects that alcohol produces,” said Edward Slingerland, Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia and author of the recent book Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization

“Humans have been making and consuming alcohol for as long as we’ve been doing anything organised as a species, much longer than we’ve had agriculture. And that’s because alcohol has been crucial for social occasions, both formal and informal, by relaxing inhibitions, ramping up pro-social chemicals like serotonin and endorphins, and making us more honest and trustworthy.

The world’s oldest known building, dating back to 10,000 BC, is Göbekli Tepe, on top of a hill in Turkey. Tubs inside were found to contain traces of oxalate, a leftover from water and barley. In other words, the very first thing our ancestors built may have been a bar. 

While cannabis, coca and opium have also been known for thousands of years, they failed to catch on in quite the same way (in regards to coca, at least, which is only found in the Andes mountains of South America, the reason may be geographic). Other drugs – heroin, cocaine, ecstasy – were only introduced much later, so missed out on alcohol’s millenia-long headstart.

Our society’s grown comfortable with alcohol in a way we simply haven’t with other drugs – politicians posing with a pint on the campaign trail is just a cliche at this point. So far, so good. The problem is when these cultural preferences are treated as a substitute for clinical facts, and those same politicians, happily seen pulling pints, pass laws that lead to the demonisation, incarceration and death of those among us with less socially-acceptable pharmacological tastes. 

Our familiarity with alcohol is contrasted with our unfamiliarity with the “Other” – immigrants, subcultures, minorities, colonial subjects. Take khat, for instance. A shrub grown and chewed for its energising effects in east Africa, khat was banned under the miraa ordinance in colonial Kenya as it was thought to be provoking rebellions in the northern provinces. The British, needless to say, did not ask the natives whether their khat chewing was problematic, and in postcolonial Kenya, khat is now an official cash crop.

In other words, decades ago, our ancestors in Europe and America decided that the drugs they liked (a glass of scotch and a pipe of harmless tobacco) were OK, while those of the lower classes, foreigners and assorted other Untermensch, were not. That drinking’s so central to our lives shows how the rules aren’t based on how dangerous or poisonous these chemicals are, but culture, familiarity and prejudice. 

At times, the government even seemed to side with the liquor industry against what might have been safer alternatives. The late 1980s-early ‘90s saw the rise of raves, the kind of parties where guests were more likely to be seen downing water than vodka. In 1994 Parliament passed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which criminalised raves by way of forbidding events playing certain types of music “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. At the same time, licences to pubs and nightclubs were extended, suggesting this may have been an attempt to lure partygoers away from ecstasy and towards alcohol and legal, taxable events. 

On that note, let’s get back to booze. Since everywhere else, from sub-Saharan Africa to the Far East, has their own drinking cultures, Slingerland argues that the Islamic world stands out.

“It’s not just ‘Western culture,’ it’s most cultures throughout history and across the world,” he explained.

“The prohibition of alcohol found in Islam as practiced in Qatar and other areas of the modern world is a historical outlier, in this sense. Islam itself has, historically, also not been completely consistent in enforcing alcohol prohibition.” 

Qatar is a Muslim-majority nation where alcohol, as a khamr (intoxicant) is considered haram (forbidden). Islam’s holy books come in two parts: the Qur’an and the Ḥadith (the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed). According to the Qur’an, there are rivers of wine in paradise. The early chapters were relaxed about drinking, and only warn against praying when you’re drunk. But after drunken antics descended into a tribal brawl at a party, later chapters came out firmly for sobriety. The hadiths, meanwhile, prescribe a punishment of 80 lashes for drunkenness. Not everywhere in the Muslim world follows these rules strictly – rakı, for instance, a kind of vodka made from grapes, is Turkey’s national drink – but generally, most mainstream Muslims refrain from drinking (at least publicly).

But it should be said that while Muslims may have a divine directive for prohibition, they can’t escape its consequences, either. The same consequences we in the Western world endure for our fanatical war on drugs. Alcoholics in Iran, for instance, suffer public shunning not unlike drug addicts, and methanol poisoning from moonshine, the same way one might overdose from black market drugs.

Apparently the Qataris were afraid of drunken fans causing chaos and their police unable to stop them. I have a solution. Hardened soccer hooligans under the lovey groove of Molly might be fun to watch.

Niko Vorobyov is the author of Dopeworld. Follow him on Twitter @Narco_Polo420

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