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Dr. Madsen Pirie: The Lesson of Prohibition

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.

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Spike
Spike
1 month ago

You say Capone got so rich he was able to buy police and judges. Of course, Prohibition meant he had to charge a price that would let him buy police and judges. You do go on clarify that illegality drives high prices today as well.

The statesmen of Capone’s day at least knew they had to amend the Constitution to give government such power. With the War On Drugs, we just did it. And from there to open-ended martial law over a new virus.

Ian Baxter
Ian Baxter
1 month ago

“There is money to be made, and where that occurs, criminals follow.”: Told you that capitalism was criminal. You’re welcome! — The Guardian

Boganboy
Boganboy
1 month ago

I understood doctors in the UK used to be able to prescribe illicit drugs to addicts. Certainly far cheaper than wasting police time and the public’s money on chasing down drug smugglers, and then giving them free bed and board in jail.

John Galt
1 month ago

Got to agree. At best the “War on Drugs” was politically motivated by Nixon, who knew that he couldn’t make black people or hippies illegal so made the drugs they consumed illegal instead. It was always an unwinnable proxy war and nothing else.

I’m not a fan of full legalisation, but if making it available to those that want it on some controllable basis is the only way to end this futile war, then so be it and screw the US administration.

Charles
Charles
1 month ago

Why was it necessary to have a constitutional amendment to ban alcohol, but not to ban other drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, and heroin?

Boganboy
Boganboy
1 month ago
Reply to  Charles

My guess would be that this was the only way the federal government could overrule the states. But I’m certainly not an expert on US law.

Spike
Spike
1 month ago
Reply to  Boganboy

Youse are not as ignorant as you think. It DID require an amendment to ban drugs; they simply did not enact one. Article I, Section 8 (1787) lists the powers the States about to be United DELEGATED to their new federation, and Amendment X (1791) clarifies that, if it isn’t in that list, it is “reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.” By the way, I § 8 also enables Washington to pursue the “general welfare,” and its writers were clear that this was not an open-ended grant. It certainly didn’t cover gov’t as charity, even if you… Read more »

Boganboy
Boganboy
1 month ago
Reply to  Spike

You’ve made me think – now see what you did!! Given the American love of lawyering, I’d expect anyone accused of a drug offense in a federal court to claim lack of jurisdiction.

Are all drug prosecutions handled by the states? That would explain how some states managed to get away with legalising marihuana.

Spike
Spike
1 month ago
Reply to  Boganboy

The prosecution would cite its choice of precedents where courts had upheld the gov’t action. The defense would have to want to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, where a majority now may favor a literal reading of the Constitution, but only Justice Thomas and maybe a couple others would follow this belief wherever it leads. The Food and Drug Administration regulates all drugs including recreational drugs. The Drug Enforcement Administration is the modern vice squad. Some states have legalized marijuana even though it remains illegal on the federal Schedule. Depending on the President, the federal government may… Read more »

Michael van der Riet
Michael van der Riet
1 month ago

The war on drugs is working just fine. In spite of trillions of dollars invested by drug growers and traders, only a small percentage of the population is addicted. Stop the war and the percentage will zoom into the high double figures.

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