The past can only teach us lessons if we are ready to learn from it. 101 years ago, on January 17th 1920, the Volstead Act became law in the United States. A constitutional amendment introduced a nationwide ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. It did not stop drinking in the US, it simply made it illegal, and placed those who did wish to drink alcohol into conflict with law enforcement agencies, making criminals of millions of ordinary Americans.
Large numbers of Americans wished to continue to drink alcohol during the Prohibition era that lasted from 1920 – 1933. Criminal gangs were only too ready to supply Americans with what bars and liquor stores no longer could. Liquor was smuggled in from Canada in trucks, or from the Caribbean in boats (dubbed rum runners). The day of the speakeasy had dawned, where bathtub gin was served out of teapots.
One man was to represent that culture of satisfying public wants through criminal, corrupt and violent activity. By a quirky coincidence of history, the date of January 17th was also the day that in 1899, Al Capone was born. He came to dominate Chicago’s bootlegging industry, making millions of dollars a year, sufficient to buy police chiefs and judges. Capone used to be cheered when he entered sports stadiums. The public supported the larger-than-life figure who gave them what they wanted. Gangsters killed each other as they fought turf wars over the booze trade, and occasionally innocent bystanders died in collateral damage.
The narcotics trade is arguably the modern equivalent, with illegality of drugs the equivalent of prohibition. Countless “wars against drugs” have been fought and are being fought. Thousands die each year in Central and South America over drug turf wars or in conflicts with government authorities. This happens almost entirely because drugs are illegal in the United States, and therefore command prices way beyond their actual costs or production. There is money to be made, and where that occurs, criminals follow. US prisons have large numbers of people there because, like bootleggers, they supply something people want and will pay for. Some are there simply because they consume the product.
There are signs that perhaps some people are ready to look at history and learn from its lessons. Some European countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands are taking a more relaxed attitude towards drug consumption. If the UK were to treat drugs as a medical, rather than a criminal problem, it would transform the whole corrupt and criminal subculture that sees teenagers killing each other on the streets in drug turf wars. And it would empty some of our prisons.
Prohibition did not work then with alcohol, and it is not working now with narcotics. Maybe it is way past the time when we should be learning those lessons from what happened before.