Opinon: research suggests that prohibiting alcohol at live music venues because of Covid-19 might have unforeseen circumstances

Ireland is at a sticky point with the Covid crisis. We want to save lives, but we just want to save our livelihoods as well. While the safety of the public should be the primary concern of any government at any time, there is an understandable desire to begin bringing back some elements of normality to our society and economy again. News that 'wet pubs' are starting to open up again around most of the country is welcomed by many Irish publicans and citizens, but not all aspects of normal life have returned to us yet.

Unrest and frustration from Ireland’s live performers and entertainers have been echoed through an open letter calling for government support to help the live entertainment and events industry to survive. Among the signatures are Irish performers U2, Christy Moore, and Hozier.

Irish entertainers will hopefully be delighted to hear that the government are considering bringing back music events for the public. However, concerns regarding individual’s ability to adhere to social distancing guidelines while at these events if intoxicated means that the government is suggesting these events should be alcohol-free, which I’m not so sure is a good idea.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Della Kilroy reports on calls for additional government support for those in the live music and enertainment sector affected by the pandemic

In principle, alcohol-free music events make sense: have a concert and prohibit alcohol to ensure sobriety and adherence to public safety guidelines. Musicians get back to work, the public get to socialise and everyone is happy. But prohibition of substances rarely works the way it is intended to. The most famous example of alcohol prohibition was in the United States from 1920 to 1933, where the government banned the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol.

Before prohibition, the most popular choice of drink in the US was beer, but it was spirits during prohibition. Making alcohol illegal meant drinkers had to turn to more easily concealable and potent drinks like spirits which became available on the black market. In addition to this, deaths from alcoholism and arrests for public drunkenness all experienced increases during the prohibition period.

The same damaging effects can be observed today in the many countries around the world which are experiencing opioid epidemics. People start to become addicted to prescribed pain killers and, when doctors suspect they’re becoming addicts, they cut them off and this sends them to the black market to seek illegal and unregulated alternatives like heroin. Research on this topic has concluded that the approach of prohibition "directly contributes to exposure to higher risk illicit substances, which has put many people at risk of overdose" and that governments now need to provide "a safe supply of pharmaceutical drugs" to properly treat the epidemic.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Aengus Cox reports on the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on the music industry, a sector that remains without a plan for a resumption of live activity

This phenomenon of prohibition leading to consumption of higher potency substances is referred to as the iron law of prohibition which is described by a study in the International Journal of Drug Policy as when "efforts to interrupt and suppress the illicit drug supply produce economic and logistical pressures favouring evermore compact substitutes" i.e. if something is prohibited and people still want it they need it in a form which is easy to hide (small) but still effective (potent).

Johann Hari's book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs discusses the war on drugs throughout the world. It describes events at college football games in America, where the drinking age is 21. Because alcohol is not served at matches, students resort to sneaking in spirits to drink instead of beer. Which is what I would fear may happen if the Irish government were to bring back music events on the condition that alcohol was prohibited at them.

Research on the topic suggests that prohibiting alcohol would see concert goers resort to higher potency substitutions than they might if alcohol could be sold at the event. Just to clarify, I am not saying that these music events should go ahead with alcohol being served at them. I have no doubt that being intoxicated may impede on one’s ability to follow public safety guidelines at mass gatherings.

However, the Irish government needs to consider the evidence on the matter of prohibition and not to be so naïve as to think that alcohol-free music events mean all individuals will then definitely be sober and able to follow public safety guidelines. If the government feels it is safe for the country to once again hold music events then fantastic - but making these events alcohol-free won’t make them any safer.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ