Thursday, February 02, 2006

Prohibition Doesn't Work

George Santayana claimed that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I guess Americans can't remember the past.

On Jan. 19, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act went into effect, banning the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol across the entire U.S. (See WikiPedia for a summary of the Prohibition experiment. Did you know you could legally get whiskey during Prohibition on a doctor's prescription? I didn't.) This led to 13 years of increasing disrespect for the law, speakeasies, bathtub gin, lethal bootleg booze cut with poisonous substances, public gunfights between rival gangs of bootleggers, foreigners smuggling booze (legally obtained in Europe) into the U.S., etc. etc., until the whole thing was repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933, throwing the regulation of alcohol back to the states. For a detailed explanation of exactly how and why this experiment didn't work, see this article from the Cato Institute.

Does any of this sound familiar? We have another "Prohibition" experiment in progress worldwide right now, based solely on the fact that the U.S. government, for the last 60 years or so, has made it illegal to get high in this country except on alcohol or nicotine. As a result, we've created a worldwide network of illegal drug trafficking that makes the Prohibition bootleggers look like a Tuesday afternoon ladies' sewing circle. The economies of entire third world countries depend on the fact that it's illegal to buy heroin, opium, cocaine, etc. in the United States. The latest president of Bolivia was elected partly on his promise to make it easier to grow coca.

We could stop this, you know. In fact, we could save a lot of money, save a lot of lives, and probably advance the medical profession in a number of useful ways. All we have to do is legalize all drugs, and regulate and tax them exactly the same way booze and cigarettes are regulated and taxed (which would mean that minors couldn't legally buy them; you couldn't legally drive a car while under the influence; in some counties you'd have to go across the county line to get them). Yes. All drugs, including things like Ecstasy. Some of them will kill you? So will booze and ciggies. At least if they are regulated and taxed, we can control the dosage and purity of what is sold.

Getting high is immoral? That's a tricky issue. Even if you assume - and I don't - that the state has grounds for regulating morality, whatever that is, it seems to me that by legalizing alcohol and nicotine for the purpose, we've cut the moral high ground right out from under our feet. We don't really object to people getting high: we just object to
people getting high on those drugs. One of the lessons of Prohibition was that making a popular practice illegal doesn't reduce the number of people doing it. I'm talking public safety and public health here. The consumption of intoxicating substances, by itself, is a victimless crime; the crimes that create real victims are mainly related to the fact that the activity is illegal. In fact, the "drug war" is worse than Prohibition: in Prohibition you couldn't be busted for possession.

If we legalized all dope, we could:
  • Remove the incentive for international criminal gangs to run drugs into the U.S. (most recently, concealed surgically in the bellies of puppies).
  • Quit putting 30% of the population of our inner cities in the slammer for possession, or trafficking of minor amounts. Probably build fewer prisons.
  • Reduce the incentive for the constant gang wars in our inner cities, since the bulk of them are turf battles over drug sales.
  • Probably, reduce the number of police we need, by reducing the number of crimes they have to chase. At least, allow the police to concentrate on crimes against person and property; in my neighborhood, if you're burglarized, you can't get the cops to show up - they're all down in the ghetto chasing the drug gangs.
  • Certainly reduce the impact on our overloaded court system.
  • Do actual research into the medical properties of marijuana, and possibly other drugs, currently prohibited by our ridiculous laws. Who knows what we might find?
  • With any luck, improve pain management for people with serious chronic pain issues; right now much of the medical profession is so paranoid about "enabling addiction" that it denies opiates even to terminally ill cancer patients (if you're dying in pain, who cares if you're also addicted to Oxycontin??).
Of course, if we do this, there will be side effects; and we'll have to take other actions to deal with those:
  • The economies of many countries will be severely affected.
    • We'd have to give Colombia actual development aid, instead of military helicopters and "advisers".
    • We'd have to put serious effort into rebuilding Afghanistan, in much of which right now the only realistic cash crop is opium poppies.
    • The whole Golden Triangle (Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Laos) in southeast Asia would be affected.
  • On the plus side, with any luck the military junta in Myanmar would collapse; I'm sure they rely on drug money.
  • Ditto the FARC in Colombia; without drug money, they'll have real trouble supporting that insurgency.
  • We'd have to do something serious about our inner cities. Right now the only option available there, in which a young man or woman has a chance to make serious money with the kind of education and training our schools offer them, is drug dealing. This is a disgrace and we need to fix it; we never will while the drugs are illegal and the supposed easy cash is so good. (And if you want to find out just how mythical the "supposed easy cash" is, read the chapter in Steven Leavitt's Freakonomics entitled "Why do drug dealers live with their moms?")
  • We'd have to build educational programs to encourage people not to use intoxicants, because they are bad for you, just like the ones we have for booze and cigarettes. Some of this (NarcAnon) is already in place.
  • We'd have to expand the existing programs to help people get unaddicted, once they discover they really don't want to be. Right now there's no money for this because it's all going toward expanding the prison system.
But we are putting so much money into a "drug war" (aka Prohibition) that is not solving the problem, and that is in fact making the problem worse (go read that Cato Institute article: the more they enforced Prohibition, the more people drank), that by legalizing all the controlled substances, we could probably free up enough money to take care of many of the societal side effects of having drugs available at RiteAid and Costco. The Netherlands don't seem to have collapsed after legalizing many drugs.

Nothing in this is based on any detailed research; these are just the implications that seem
obvious to me, based on the last 30 years of reading the newspaper.

It'll never happen while the current administration is in office. It'll never happen while the party in power is willing to defer to the Religious Right on "moral" issues. That doesn't mean there aren't real public policy reasons for considering it. Thanks for listening to my rant.


  1. Anonymous6:47 PM

    Excellent rant, hedera.

    My niece's boyfriend, before he succumbed to melanoma, was a champion of both medical marijuana and the logic of legalising drugs. He even appeared once on O'Reilly, but O'Reilly did his usual. Reminded me of the folly of anyone with a serious argument about a serious topic participating in a dog-and-pony show like Bilious Bill's.

    I agreed with him, and agree with you, having come to the same conclusion several years ago, and for precisely the reasons you offer. All it takes is a bit of historical knowledge, some semblance of attention to the information out there, and a modicum of rational analysis.

    Therein lies the rub: rational analysis.


  2. Anonymous8:43 AM


    Interesting argument. I agree Prohibition didn't work, but I don't know that repealing it has made our society so much better. I always hear people saying that legalizing drugs will solve a lot of society’s problems but I think it would also cause as many. The laws against driving under the influence haven't stopped people from driving drunk, the laws against underage drinking and smoking hasn’t stopped children from drinking and smoking underage. Of course they are also doing illegal drugs.
    I personally am not that opposed to legalizing drugs, I am just not convinced that it will all be sunshine and roses. I always get a little leery when people tell me everything will be better if we just lower this standard or that standard. Why not focus energy on making all the good come to pass without legalizing drugs? Why lower the bar?

  3. Stephen,
    I don't actually claim that legalizing all drugs will make society "better", or will solve "a lot of society's problems." Of course it'll create a new set of problems; but it will eliminate a large and expensive set of problems we now have, which aren't (as far as I can see) benefiting society much at all; and it'll free up money to deal with the new problems in (one would hope) more useful ways.

    You seem to get the basic point that people will do these things whether they're legal or not. You're certainly right about driving under the influence, smoking, etc. The point is, right now the laws against the non-favored drugs are so rigid that a young person who chooses to use them, and gets caught, stands a better than average chance of going into the federal slammer, at which point any chance of a change of life course or a useful future is gone. Especially if the young person is black.

    Certainly we can't just legalize everything and hope for the best. We'd have to build a whole new regulatory structure, or expand existing ones; build education programs, especially for young people; provide alternative career courses; etc. (This, of course, is why it'll never happen under the current administration.)

    Legalizing drugs does two things: it cuts the dollar incentive completely out from under the international drug cartels (nobody smuggles aspirin; for that matter, nobody smuggles booze). And it allows us to deal with the unpleasant side effects of the people who insist on using drugs, in an educational or medical way instead of through the criminal system.

  4. Anonymous4:42 PM


    Point well taken. I think hedera's response is correct. It's what I've said when someone raised your quite legitimate concern to me.

    I do think society, as regards alcohol, is better than it was under prohibition. I suspect DUIs are a function of the automobiles now available and the ease with which automobiles can hurtle down the highway, plus other factors in driver behavior, rather than the fact that alcohol is legal. When I was a kid, drunk drivers hit trees, and often not very hard, not other cars. I am trying to remember when I was first aware of DUIs as an increasing cause of fatalities. Health and family problems might be essentially the same. But one aspect of organized crime, with its violence now mimicked in drug wars, is gone.


    Be nice if voices like yours and Stephen's had a place at the table with decision-makers. But only the basest political considerations ever carry the day on this one. Statecraft does not enter even as remote possibility, rather like Cheney/Rove foreign and domestic policy in general.


  5. Anonymous7:23 AM

    Where are all the normal people? Why don't they ever run for office? Most people I know get along even if they disagree. Most people I know can see more than one side of an issue without feeling that they are compromising their integrity. What happens to politicians when they get elected that they lose their minds?

    Sorry, Davids comments about people sitting down and working things out struck a cord. Why doesn't it happen more often? Sometimes I dispair. It is not that hard to be open-minded.

  6. Stephen,
    It's a good question; I've wondered myself. Apart from personal revulsion at the things you have to do to be a politician (think of all the ribbon cutting ceremonies and rubber chicken), I'm afraid the real answer lies in the whole campaign finance mess:

    Because of the way political district boundaries are drawn, it is virtually impossible to defeat an incumbent. This is called a "safe" district.

    Because the districts are "safe", incumbents get out the vote by appealing to the extreme end of the spectrum (extreme left, extreme right), because these are the people who may get pissed off and not turn out if they feel the candidate isn't pandering to them.

    Districts are drawn to be "safe" because it costs a flaming fortune to run for any office above mosquito control board member, and nobody wants to raise all that money for a seat they might not win.

    This also means that the only realistic challengers are Very Rich, which means they aren't what you describe as "normal people."

    One of my personal political hacks, Lori Hancock, is pushing a bill for public campaign financing in the California Assembly. It's one of the few things she's done that I really agree with. I vote for her because the alternatives are always worse, unless she runs unopposed. (If only one person is running, I refuse to vote.)

  7. Anonymous11:16 PM

    Public financing of campaigns, coupled with non-rigged districts, would quite possibility bring us back out of our comatose political state.

    There are good people laboring tirelessly, but it seems Sisyphean at times. It is true that good people either won't run, can't raise enough money, or just get chewed up by the Rovians. We are at the hideous stage in electoral politics, along with being a really closed system. Sure hope it blows wide open in November, but I'm not optimistic.

  8. Anonymous, I agree entirely. Trouble is, and I'm certainly not the first to observe this, the Repubs have spent the last 30 years (since Watergate) building a superb grassroots political machine aimed at the single goal of getting and retaining power. This effort included building conservative think tanks and lists of public speakers which would give them effective control of the media.

    Their opponents, unfortunately, are still the party of whom Will Rogers commented that he didn't belong to any organized political party - he was a Democrat... The Democrats will never be able to take the Republicans on seriously until they quit arguing among themselves, take a position, and stick to it; and I don't have a whole lot of hope.