Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Oh, those were the days...

73 years ago today (December 5, 1933) alcohol prohibition in the U.S. was officially ended. Let us take a moment to reflect on the successful movement to end such a destructive policy, and to consider how our predecessors efforts might be instructive for our struggle today.


kaptinemo said...

Yes, those were the days. These are editorial cartoons from the period of alcohol Prohibition. Move your mouse over them and click to enlarge. Notice something? Then as now, prohibition fed corruption. Then as now, the self-appointed moralizers who foisted the idiocy upon the rest of the public were de facto allies of the very criminals they so loudly vowed to destroy. Then as now, innocent people were being gunned down by Prohibition enforcement for the most specious of reasons. Rather like the recent events in Atlanta and New York, no? The year on the calendar changed, but the process is the same as it ever was.

But notice something else, as well: Back then there was outrage that over a thousand people had been killed by Prohibition enforcers without the slightest shred of due process. Fast forward to today: the damage being done by enforcement of drug prohibition laws is vastly greater than that done by the so-called "Noble Experiment" of alcohol Prohibition. With the aforementioned murder-by-police of apparent innocents such as elderly Kathryn Johnston, the mainstream media is beginning to call for an end to this madness...as those editorial cartoons did so long ago. The outrage is beginning to build, and manifesting in those editorials. Let us hope that it gathers as much steam as it did with alcohol Prohibition...before more Ms. Johnstons meet up with equally earnest public servants on a mission to (ahem) 'save' people like her from drugs.

rachelrachel said...

It's misleading to think that alcohol probition was the doing of "self-appointed moralizers." In fact, the measure had broad public support, otherwise a Constitutional Amendment couldn't have been passed. First, you need two-thirds of the US Senate and House, and then you need three-fourths of the states. After the 18th Amendment was passed, the Volstead Act was passed pursuant to it as a means of enforcing it. The president vetoed, but there were enough votes to override the veto. Then, as now, the Congress was NOT self-appointed, but elected through the democratic process.

And it's a distortion to think of the sole impetus behind the Noble Experiment as moralistic. It's fashionable to think that it was, and certainly that was part of it, but looking at the literature from the Anti-Saloon League and other Dry organizations one gets a picture of a sincere attempt to deal with a very real and serious social problem.

The experiment was a failure, creating more problems than it solved, and thirteen years later, another Amendment was passed repealing Prohibition. The approach to both Prohibition and its repeal were pragmatic. It was passed because people thought it would work, and when it didn't work, it was repealed.

Today, a vast majority of Americans support drug criminalization (although the number of dissidents is growing), a far more restrictive regime than alcohol Prohibition, and I don't think it's because most of them are moralizers. It's because they think the policy does more good than harm or because they are afraid of what might happen if we legalize. Right now, there's a large chunk of people who think the War on Drugs isn't working, but are not quite ready to embrace the alternative. These are the people who can be swayed.

We went very quickly from prohibition to not being able to take alcohol seriously as a problem. Following the repeal of prohibition, alcohol consumption increased – and with it death and disease -- every decade until about 1980 or so, when attitudes about drinking started to change. I think there's still a lot we can do here with regard to science-based education, and I hope we won't make the same mistake with currently proscribed drugs.

This is the challenge for the modern drug policy reformer: how can you advocate reform without creating the impression that you don't take seriously the problems caused by drugs themselves?

Also, it's a mistake to talk about Alcohol Prohibition and Drug Prohibition as if they were comparable. Today's Drug Prohibition is a far more restrictive regime. During Alcohol Prohibition, there was no law against drinking or possessing alcohol. The drug users were not treated as criminals. It was only unlawful to sell or manufacture. Alcohol, during Prohibition, was by today's standards "decriminalized." Also, we have a greater number illegal drugs now than we did then; since the 1970s, we have made any intoxicating substance illegal without inquiring whether it would be a good idea for that specific drug. To deconstruct this massive edifice is a far greater undertaking than what we faced in 1933, but we'll have to do it one step at a time, making the best pragmatic arguments for each reform.

800 pound gorilla said...

I agree with the 2nd person. The focus during "the noble experiment" was to get rid of alcohol. We didn't arrest users or alcohol test. Actually, IF you made your own alcohol it was illegal before prohibition [avoiding payment of taxes on your production] while legal thereafter. Convincing the chickens that you were NOT selling is another story.

Another fact is that most people didn't miss alcohol. Unlike today's war on [arbitrarily banned] drugs alcohol use didn't skyrocket 2000 percent. The percentage of the population who drank diminished considerably during prohibition and there was little rush back. The number of users actually dropped from the beginning of prohibition to nearly a decade after.

Alcohol prohibition made no pretense about "dangerous drugs". It banned alcohol. It was legally and constitutionally passed without pretense. This is totally unlike the Controlled Substances Act that is deliberately written as open ended and without guidelines. The 18th Amendment never gave a political appointee the authority to ban any other drug on a judgment call.

The sensational headlines about successes during the Volstead Act involved destruction of alcohol and not mass arrests of drug users. Also nearly all the alcohol available was legally made - elsewhere. We didn't have amateurs making over 90% of the illegal drugs. People didn't commit crimes to pay for their addiction then either. They committed crimes to eliminate competition in the liquor black market [they do in todays prohibition but it is superceded by addicts paying for drugs].

kaptinemo said...

Rachel and 800lber, if there were no were no such people as evangelist preacher Billy Sunday, fuliminating, ranting and raving about the (supposed) inherent immorality attendent in alcohol consumption, it's doubtful that the Constitutional amendment would have passed as it had.

The entire purpose of the temperence movement was to impose its view of morality (needless to say, a rather extreme view of it) upon the rest of the country, and that view was not' overly concerned with the economic aspects that alcohol Prohibition would engender. They were not coldly and shrewdly calculating social costs, financial ones to the national and State treasuries, etc. They were monomaniacally intent upon subjecting the rest of the populace to their political will to achieve their envisioned moral utopia. The pols only went along as they wanted to keep their jobs...or hobestly believed the same rhetoric.

A most enlightening article on this point is USC Law School Professor Charles Whitebread's "The History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States" in which he makes quite clear the sentiments regarding the impetus behind that prohibition, and by extension, the one behind drug prohibition. To quote from his article:

"Large numbers of people supported the idea of prohibition who were not themselves, opposed to drinking. Want to see it? Let me give you an example, 1919. You are a Republican in upstate New York. Whether you drink, or you don't, you are for the alcohol prohibition because it will close the licensed saloons in the City of New York which you view to be the corrupt patronage and power base of the Democratic Party in New York. So almost every Republican in New York was in favor of national alcohol prohibition. And, as soon as it passed, what do you think they said? "Well, what do you know? Success. Let's have a drink." That's what they thought, "let's have a drink." "Let's drink to this." A great success, you see. Do you understand me? Huge numbers of people in this country were in favor of national alcohol prohibition who were not themselves opposed to drinking...

later on he recounts why:

"Would we be outraged if the California State Police came barreling through the door and arrested us for violation of California's prohibition on gambling? Of course we would. Because, who is not supposed to gamble? Oh, you know who is not supposed to gamble -- them poor people, that's who. My God, they will spend the milk money. They don't know how to control it. They can't handle it. But us? We know what we are doing. That's it. Every criminal prohibition has that same touch to it, doesn't it? It is enacted by US and it always regulates the conduct of THEM. And so, if you understand that is the name of the game, you don't have to ask me, or any of the other people which prohibitions will be abolished and which ones won't because you will always know. The iron law of prohibitions -- all of them -- is that they are passed by an identifiable US to control the conduct of an identifiable THEM.

Yes, it's always 'them...who usually belong to a group you don't like. In the case of temperence supporters, who, given their writings regarding their version of morality, claimed the vast majority of those who did not support their version of it were, of course, immoral. They had to be brought into line with the ideals of the temperence movement...and force supplied by the government was the only vehicle through which that would take place. In short they tried to legislate morality...and we all know what happened, just as we know what has happened with drug prohibition. To downgrade the importance of the religio/social factors involved in favor of pure socio/economic ones is to risk not gaining a more complete explanation. Those cartoons represent an encapsulation of the effects of imposing the religio/social factors upon the reality of the socio/economic ones.

And as to arguing that the number of people who drank during alcohol Prohibition had dimished, we run into the same problem as trying to determine how many illegal drug users there actually are today: self-incrimination. How many would be willing to admit that they are engaged an illegal activity? Obviously not many. Not then, and not now. All we have are estimates based upon some some people's willingness to engage in such a study...and even then the results are as suspect as their motives for doing so. But judging from the general crime and lawlessness of the period of alcohol Prohibition, supply earnestly accommodated demand...then, as now.

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