December 26, 2008

Why Prohibition Doesn’t Work

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
- - George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Vol. 1, 1902

The Noble Experiment:

In 1898, while a law student at Ohio Western Reserve University, Wayne Bidwell Wheeler became engaged in the temperance effort. This particular cause was very popular with many of the influential people of the time, allowing the ambitious young Wheeler opportunities to mix with the power players of the day. Following graduation, Wheeler joined the Ohio Anti-Saloon League; working his way through the ranks and eventually becoming the League’s Superintendant. With Wheeler at the helm, the League waged a campaign to defeat incumbent Governor, Myron Herrick in 1906.

Wheeler did not campaign FOR John Pattison (who died in office in June of the year he was elected). Instead Wheeler and his gang from the Anti-Saloon League utilized pressure politics to defeat Herrick and ensure his own personal pro-prohibition candidate would win. Young Wheeler was fast gaining a reputation propelling him on to national prominence.

In 1919-20, as the 18th amendment to the Constitution was being debated, Wheeler conceived of and authored a house bill aimed at enacting the prohibition of alcohol as a federal mandate. The bill, sponsored by the House Judiciary Committee Chairman Andrew Volstead, became known as the Volstead Act.

The bill passed congress but was vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson. However, on October 28, 1919, the very day the veto was signed, it was immediately overridden by Congress. With Wheeler’s triumph and the ratification of the 18th amendment, prohibition (euphemistically called the Noble Experiment) became the law of the land.

One of the first responses to prohibition was bootlegging. Bootlegging started rather innocently with rum running from the Bahamas, but the mob quickly recognized an opportunity. It can be argued that prohibition gave the mob their first really profitable business, allowing for expansion into other lucrative criminal enterprises and institutionalizing organized crime.

We (the people) eventually recognized the 18th amendment to be a horrible mistake. On December 5, 1933 Prohibition was officially repealed with the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which also established state-based regulatory systems for alcohol. The months and years that followed produced a fair and equitable system of regulation and taxation.

Prohibition Part II

To a large degree, drug prohibition has paralleled the prohibition of alcohol. During the 19th century there was a smattering of attempts at controlling various types of drugs, mostly on the state level. The first substantial federal legislation for drug control was the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, which regulated importation, distribution and production of opiates and cocaine and effectively made anything except physician use of several substances illegal.

In 1932 the first federal law prohibiting the use of cannabis was enacted. The Uniform State Narcotic Act also encouraged the states to pass similar laws, however it wasn’t until 1937 that all states eventually complied. The 1932 law is the first known legislation labeling cannabis a narcotic.

In 1970 Congress passed the Controlled Substance Act to replace the 1965 Drug Abuse Control Act, organizing federally controlled substances into schedules, with varying limits and penalties. In 1986, and 1988, Congress passed Anti Drug Abuse Control Acts, which mandated minimum sentences for a variety of drug offenses. In 1988 we also saw the first “Drug Czar” appointed to a cabinet level position.

Prohibition was in full swing once again.

What Did We Learn?

The turn of the century alcohol prohibitionists were utopian moralists who believed that eliminating the legal manufacture and sale of alcohol would solve America’s social and economic problems.[i] The result proved just the opposite; people continued to drink and through illegal bootlegging the crime element increased.

The alcohol experiment and drug prohibition experiences of the latter part of the 20th century have close parallels. Beginning in the late 60’s, the ineffectiveness of drug prohibition was beginning to be recognized, and still later we would witness the futility of drug prohibition sheer cost, and damage being done to our own citizens. As a result of this ineffective prohibition, Americans ranging from politicians to homemakers to university presidents have advocated changing our approach. Decriminalization and even outright drug legalization has been proposed.

The Solution Remains the Same:


Legalization of drug importation, production and sales, and the establishment of regulation and taxation paralleling what has been done with alcohol are reasonable and practical. The prohibitionists of the last century proclaimed alcohol a substance too dangerous and addictive to be effectively regulated. We now hear the same cries from drug prohibitionists; however our past experience has proven them incorrect.

Like alcohol, drug prohibition is making the situation worse; not better. One interesting observation of the efforts of the drug prohibition experiment is the shift of usage habits from the milder drugs (cannabis) to harsher substances (cocaine, heroin). This can be attributed to the interdiction efforts making it more difficult to smuggle bulky and less profitable marijuana; enticing the smugglers to turn to the more compact, concentrated and lucrative substances. [ii]

The United States places the greatest stigma on drug use, applies the harshest punishment, and expends the greatest effort (and money) on drug prohibition efforts of any western nation. Other countries have prohibition policies that fall somewhere between our heavily criminalized policies and the regulated, decriminalized system of the Netherlands. Since the early 1990s the drug policy in Europe, Canada and Australia clearly shifted away from criminalization; however, these countries are bound by international treaties to have formal, legal, drug prohibition laws in place. [iii]

America’s drug policies are generally ineffective and bewildering, but our official attitudes toward marijuana are particularly incomprehensible. For years the voices in opposition to prohibition have grown louder. The American College of Physicians joined other medical groups this year in calling for legalization of medical marijuana. In a position paper titled Supporting Research into the Medical Role of Marijuana, ACP is asking our federal government to drop pot from the list of substances with “no medicinal value and a high chance of abuse.”

A change in this policy would be a step toward sanity, but the clamor is unfortunately falling on deaf ears. It is not surprising that the White House rejected this recommendation. Berta Madras, Deputy Director of the Whitehouse Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) stated, “What this would do is drag us back to 14th century medicine. It’s so arcane.”

The arguments against legalization or decriminalization of drugs are far from arcane. They can be perfectly understood. The continued prohibition of cannabis is an unsustainable experiment, just as was the 18th amendment.

The very fact that possession of cannabis has resulted in the prosecution of, and exaggerated prison sentences for close to half a million of our children should be sufficient cause for tremendous outcry.

There is no justification for maintaining the prohibition. History and research have proven prohibition a failed experiment, yet we continue very expensive interdiction efforts. Times are tough and we have better ways to spend our money.

The Terrorism Connection:

How do we justify financing a fruitless “war on drugs” when we have the oft trumpeted “War of Terror” to support? It has been estimated that a onetime expenditure of $2 billion would provide the necessary security for our seaports to prevent the smuggling of nuclear weapons into this country, and yet we have only budgeted $93 million to that effort. Marijuana interdiction programs drain an estimated $4 billion annually, and yet school children, who can’t buy a beer or a pack of smokes, have no trouble locating a dealer from which to buy a joint or dime bag.

Where do illegal drugs come from? Who profits from the vast sums of money made possible by our prohibition? By following the supply chains we have found that the very people we are fighting in our “War of Terror” are major traffickers. Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, and Shining Path are all large-scale illegal drug producers and exporters. The demand is here, and they are the suppliers.

America should reexamine her priorities. Through the very cause and effect of prohibition we are financing terrorist organizations that would destroy us, and imprisoning our children as a byproduct. This is insanity.
~~~
i. Gusfield, J R. 1968. "Prohibition: The Impact of Political Utopianism." In Change and Continuity in Twentieth Century America , eds. Braeman et al. Columbus : Ohio State University Press.
ii. Brecher, E. M. 1972. Licit and Illicit Drugs. Boston : Little Brown.
iii. Levine, H. G. and C. Reinarman, 1998. The Transition from Prohibition to Regulation. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc.
~~~

6 Comments:

Rogue Medic said...

You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else. Winston Churchill.

We just seem to be taking as long as possible to do everything else. I read comments from people, who drink, but are critical of marijuana smokers. They insist that marijuana is somehow worse than alcohol, but all evidence indicates that the opposite is true.

This is similar to the First Amendment. In order to be able to speak freely, I need to tolerate the unpleasant speech of others. In order to be able to practice my religion freely, I need to tolerate the unpleasant religions of others. Et cetera.

In order to be able to use a drug of my choice (I happen to like ale, on occasion), I need to tolerate the unpleasant drugs others like to use.

Is my drug better than the others? It is legal, but that has nothing to do with destructiveness, or mortality, or anything other than law. Alcohol is responsible for far more deaths and disabilities than all of the illegal drugs combined. If we listen to those who wish to continue the prohibition of these other drugs, we should be morally consistent and make alcohol illegal, as well.

Making these drugs illegal is not moral.

The inevitable destruction is tremendous and it is immoral. The destruction comes from the laws. We would be better off locking up these prohibitionists. The prohibitionists are more dangerous than the drugs.

jeg43 said...

Mule Breath, my congratulations for opening this can of worms. It is a subject that needs to be before the public. Excellent post!
My position is so similar to Rogue Medic's that any more from me would be redundant.
I hope both of you keep up your good work.

John Bartley K7AAY said...

And, the fallacy that we can't control the damage from illicit use is perhaps the biggest lie from the prohibitionists.

What's the peril of drug use? Impaired judgement and coordination.

We can measure judgement and motor skills, objectively, by computerized ignition locks and similar tests. We do it now under court order, for those who can't abstain from alcohol before driving.

If someone is impaired, don't let them drive, operate heavy machinery, or risky processes, and test for it; whether due to alcohol, narcotics, marijuana, other intoxicants, or lack of sleep, a problem prohibition can never reach and which is adjudged as risky as DUII.

MiniKat said...

Legalize it, set limitations, and tax the beejeebus out of it. Inform pot smokers that there are folks in the world who will go into anaphylaxis when exposed to marijuana smoke, so they should smoke in the privacy of their own homes if they don't want to put a bummer on someone's day. I don't know a single pot smoker who would want to purposely ruin someone's health...

Call the whole thing done and soak up the tax revenue and punish those who either don't pay their taxes or drive while under the influence. Sound familiar?

One Fly said...

I'm not a criminal and never have been but I am considered one by those who profiteer from it.

If ever the lobbyists are removed from the halls of congress we may stand a chance on many levels.

One Fly said...

To clarify profiteers-

government agencys at all levels.
companys that supply those
prison system-ect

You know those guys.