We need to talk about prohibitionism
Devon Chenelle | Tuesday, February 14, 2017
When surveying the legacy of Progressivism, a political reform movement that surfaced in America’s cities in the late 19th century, there is much to celebrate. The Progressives demolished corrupt political machines, broke up monopolies and created the Federal Reserve. However, the Progressive Movement was also associated with several miserable policy failures, none more central to Progressives than the Prohibition they temporarily achieved with the passage of the 18th Amendment, banning the production, importation, sale and transportation of “intoxicating liquors.”
After the Amendment’s activation on Jan. 16, 1920, its proponents anticipated forthwith the birth of a better, drier society. The Anti-Saloon League crowed “at one minute past midnight … a new nation will be born.” Preacher Billy Sunday excitedly claimed, “The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs.”
To general shock and disbelief, the federal diktat neither vanquished America’s thirst, nor filled her pews, nor erased her crime.
Before Prohibition began, vast numbers of families bought out the entire inventories of alcohol retailers, emptying warehouses into their private stashes. Within weeks of Prohibition, small personal stills went on sale in the black market. Politicians’ defiance of the ban was so widespread that bootlegger George Cassiday estimated 80 percent of Congress drank.
Though Prohibition caused a modest reduction in Americans’ rate of alcohol consumption, few of the expected health benefits followed, and several negative ones did. High alcohol content liquors, easier to smuggle, grew in popularity and availability during Prohibition, and, in one of our government’s most twisted policies ever adopted, the Treasury Department decreed that the producers of industrial alcohols poison their products with methyl alcohol, in order to deter would-be consumers. Thousands died.
Prohibition’s effect on criminality — giving it a vast, profitable and accessible market — was perhaps the most profound, for it birthed crime syndicates that persist to this day. The Italian Mafia — which, before Prohibition, was a disjointed string of minor rackets — were transformed by rum-running and speakeasy operation into a nationally unified criminal outfit so rich and powerful that its growth would go unchecked for decades. Everywhere, America’s cities were plagued by the outbreak of violence following the flow of money and power into the coffers of criminal gangs, and outlaws such as Chicago’s Al Capone and New York’s Lucky Luciano became Prohibition’s chief beneficiaries.
In 1925, H.L. Mencken wrote “five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the 18th Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.” After Prohibition, long a cancer on the government’s finances, was ended by the financial exigence of the Great Depression, even former supporters of the law spoke of its miserable failures. In 1932, John D. Rockefeller Jr. wrote, “When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”
Yet it appears our national memory was short indeed, for we failed to heed Prohibition’s lessons, and eagerly began the War on Drugs mere decades after the utter collapse of Prohibition. Despite having already failed in a similar effort, America chooses to fail again, and remains in denial that the War on Drugs has not achieved what it has set to do, and has had unintended consequences so horrible it wouldn’t be justifiable even if it had. Could anyone say drugs are less prevalent in the United States than they were 50 years ago? Could anyone say our nation does not suffer, morally and financially, from locking in cages those found in possession of the wrong plant or chemical? In place of Capone and Luciano, we find Escobar and El Chapo, and the violence that extends from the fields of Colombia to the streets of Chicago shares a common root. The War on Drugs must end, for it, like all strict prohibitionist and penal policies, has failed. I only pray our nation will eventually recognize this, as it did once before.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.