A passion for prohibition

It seems crazy, but the US has given a huge gift to criminal gangs: virtually unlimited profit. Furthermore, the US has given this gift more than once.

In 1920, alcohol was banned in the US. The idea was well intentioned but wrong-headed. Supporters of an alcohol-free America naively thought that making alcohol illegal would make it go away. There is little evidence to that effect. Passing a law does not magically change appetites.

What the change in law did do was put legitimate bar owners, merchants, truck drivers, and brewery workers out of business and simultaneously opened up vast new business opportunities for outlaws. Suddenly, instead of providing a living for legitimate, law-abiding people, it was a criminal enterprise.

This period saw explosive growth for gangsters like Al Capone, who went to work putting together bootlegging networks. Inevitably, turf wars started, and violence followed. Additionally, since it was outlaws making the stuff, there was no regulation or safety inspection. People died and went blind regularly during this time due to bad batches of home-made spirits.

Wisely, Americans reconsidered, and prohibition was lifted in 1933.

The end of prohibition didn’t mean that alcohol was no longer a problem. It didn’t mean that there were no longer any alcoholics. It didn’t mean that people no longer drove drunk. It didn’t mean that people didn’t get drunk and beat their kids. It meant that we discovered that making it illegal caused bigger problems because it created opportunities outside of the law that were, naturally, filled by outlaws.

Legalizing alcohol wasn’t ideal, but at least that way there were regulations as to where and how it is made, and where and how it is made available. With it legal, law-abiding people could enjoy jobs and the alcohol itself. Plus it was safe to drink again. But best of all, it removed a powerful source of profits from violent and organized gangs.

But, during the Nixon years and especially under Reagan, the lessons of prohibition were lost. This time is wasn’t the prohibition of alcohol, but for virtually everything else: substances like pot, cocaine, and heroin. These drugs were already illegal, so it wasn’t prohibition in the sense that something that had previously been allowed was suddenly illegal. This time the change came in the form of a sharply increased emphasis on enforcement.

The result? Exactly as before. Prices went up, temptation went up, and gang violence grew. But this time, instead of admitting that we’d created an unregulated, ruthless, violent job market, we countered by stiffening the penalties. This helped only to stuff prisons full of offenders, but for every dealer imprisoned there is someone even more daring and violent ready to take his place. Stiff sentences might discourage half-committed offenders, but simply means that harder criminals step in. The result is increasingly violent, more psychopathic dealers.

Consider the graph here. In 1980 there were about 500,000 people in prison in the US, a figure that had been growing at about the same rate as the population since 1920. Thirty years later, we have 2.5 million people behind bars. The vast majority of these new inmates are serving time for non-violent drug charges. There is very little, if any, evidence that this radical increase in incarceration has curtailed drug availability, but nevertheless, tax-payers are footing the bill to keep them locked up. And again, these offenders are non-violent.

Just as alcohol prohibition was a gift to gangsters, the “War on Drugs” is a guaranteed source of income for criminals. Just as before, changes in law does virtually nothing to curb demand. All it does is drive prices up, which in turn entices increasingly ruthless dealers. (It’s sad that a nation that prises and encourages capitalism is surprised when the forces of supply and demand do exactly what we already know them to do.) Drugs, like alcohol, will be around as long as there is demand for them. And there is a demand for them, plainly and clearly.

Today we’re seeing the results of three decades of strict prohibition enforcement, and nowhere is that more evident than the Mexican border, where violence is escalating at an alarming pace. And it’s interesting to note that both ingredients of this problem — both the criminalization and the demand — are almost exclusively American in make. If we truly don’t want criminal factions penetrating the border, then we should remove massive form of profit that is clearly available due to drug prohibition. We got ourselves into this situation by trying to control morality by force. It didn’t work in the 1920s, and it’s not working now.

Legalizing drugs, just like legalizing alcohol, doesn’t mean that all of the problems will magically go away. But legalizing drugs isn’t, as it is often perceived, “giving up”. Nor is it embracing drugs. Quite the opposite: it’s taking control. By legalizing drugs, we can control how they are made, how much they cost, how strong they are, and where you can buy them. By legalizing drugs, you remove them as a source of gang income, while adding jobs, and tax money, to the economy. By legalizing drugs, you shine a light on the problem instead of trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

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