What Prohibition Has Taught Us

What Prohibition Has Taught Us

This article was originally published at The Libertarian. This past Friday marked the anniversary of national alcohol prohibition. Prohibition would have been 94 years old on January 17th; the 18th Amendment first went into effect on that date in 1920. The state of Georgia had tried alcohol prohibition as early as the 18th century, and wisely abandoned it after finding it a failure.1  As with the War on Drugs today, though, legislators 94 years ago were slow to learn from the past. Supporters anticipated “an era of clear thinking and clean living.”2 Instead, as the late Peter McWilliams put it, “Prohibition created an organized criminal class that is with us to this day.”3 The reason it is “with us to this day,” of course, is that the basic attitude of prohibition was never abandoned. It was simply transferred to other, less popular drugs, with similar results. Just as with the modern War on Drugs, Prohibition predictably led to widespread corruption. The criminal justice system came into contact with the vast sums of money the law had made available to organized crime, and many politicians succumbed to the same type of temptation. The Wickersham Commission, appointed by President Hoover, documented not only the rise of organized crime and major corruption but widespread brutality among police at the time. Contrary to the aims of prohibitionists, the law did not rid the country of the harms of alcohol, but instead made drinking more dangerous. With production now in the hands of unscrupulous characters, cheaper and much more toxic liquids such as wood alcohol were passed off as drinkable. About 10,000 unlucky consumers died from unsafe alcohol. Many others suffered consequences such as blindness and kidney, liver, and brain damage.4 The same problem can be seen today with deaths from adulterated ecstasy and heroin. Although Prohibition is widely understood to have been a mistake, public officials seem to be only now beginning to recognize its lessons for contemporary policy. On Wednesday of last week the New Hampshire House of Representatives became the first legislative body in the US to pass a bill legalizing marijuana sales. Outside of the US, official support for legalization is growing in Latin America, where low-level marijuana possession is already widely decriminalized. Uruguay in particular has already signed a limited marijuana legalization measure into law. Just as in the case of alcohol Prohibition, high-ranking officials cite issues with organized crime as urgent motivations for reform.

Detroit police with an illegal brewery / wikimedia.org.

  President Barack Obama has recently admitted that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, and even less harmful in terms of its effect on the user. Arguments for prohibition have always been based on exaggerated claims of the dangers of drug use itself. Would Obama have supported alcohol prohibition? If not, what possible rationale could there be for continuing marijuana prohibition? Legalization of other drugs remains far less popular, and polls on the subject of drugs often avoid them altogether. In one recent poll, only 9% of respondents supported legalizing powder cocaine, along with 8% for heroin, 8% for crack cocaine, and 7% for methamphetamine. These are sobering statistics, suggesting that we still have far to go before the basic attitude of prohibition is rejected. One of the most prominent drug policy organizations explicitly supports legalization of all drugs, though. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, founded in 2002 in the US, includes many current and former law enforcement officials who speak from experience concerning the harms of modern-day prohibition. Although founded in the US, the organization now has speakers available in numerous countries. These include not only Canada and Australia, but also numerous European and Latin American nations.5  Along the same lines, the Global Commission on Drug Policy recently called for a reconsideration of drug prohibition. The Prohibition era officially ended on December 5, 1933, when Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment. Rather than declaring alcohol legal, the federal government merely returned control of alcohol to the states. Today, many states are defying federal prohibition even without such a concession. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have effective medical marijuana laws, for example, despite the federal insistence on keeping marijuana a Schedule I drug. New York will soon join them. In 2012 the US states of Colorado and Washington became the first states in the nation, and indeed the world, to pass ballot initiatives legalizing the trade in the drug. Legal sales began in Colorado on the first of this month. All that is necessary for these efforts to continue to spread and for sensible policies to prevail is for the federal government to restrain itself from interfering.  


1. Peter McWilliams, Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Society (Los Angeles: Prelude Press, 1992), 62. The text can be accessed for free here. Georgia’s prohibition law was enacted in 1735 and abandoned in 1742. 2. McWilliams, 67. 3. Ibid, 72. 4. Ibid., 75. 5. Outside the US, they are most numerous in Canada and Brazil. LEAP speakers are also available in Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico. Representatives can also be found in seven European countries, including two in the UK. There is even some representation in third-world countries, namely India, Haiti and Sierra Leone.