The great journalist H.L. Mencken was a fierce critic of alcohol prohibition. He wrote in 1925:
"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 Eighteenth 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."
Mencken was right, which is why Prohibition was repealed in 1933, 70 years ago tomorrow.
No amount of legislation could curb America's taste for booze. What Prohibition did do was create a lucrative black market for booze and invite the ancillary crime -- organized and otherwise -- that comes with it. The corruption of the bootlegging industry infected every level of law enforcement. Local cops and prosecutors, members of Congress (which had its own private stock of liquor) -- even President William Harding's attorney general -- were buyable, bribable, and to coin a word, imbibable.
Forcing Americans to go underground to satiate their thirst for alcohol also brought with it a major public health problem. Americans drank harder, because they had to get their fix in one sitting, and didn't know where or when they'd get their next drink. And they drank more potent stuff -- bathtub gin and other home-brewed spirits, liquor that was unchecked by market forces or regulators, and so was not only vile and potent, but could at times be downright poisonous. By the mid-1920s, hospitalizations and deaths from alcohol poisoning soared. Some say we have Prohibition to thank for the success of the cocktail, as the only available alcohol was virtually undrinkable straight-up.
What's unfortunate is that our lawmakers still haven't learned the lessons of Prohibition.
For the last 40 years, for example, we've engaged in a prohibition of a different kind -- drug prohibition. The similarities are striking.
Despite harsher sentences, increased funding for law enforcement, more prisons, expensive public relations campaigns and frightening trespasses on our civil liberties, Americans still generally use illicit drugs with the same frequency they have since the drug war began, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Different drugs come in and out of vogue, but the percentage of the populace using them has largely remained the same for 30 years. The only difference is, as we make access to those drugs more and more difficult, the drugs become more expensive, making the drug trade more and more lucrative, meaning pushers will go to greater lengths and take greater risks because users will pay more money to get them.
The drug war has made war zones of some urban areas in much the same way Prohibition famously turned sections of Chicago into public shooting galleries. We've made millionaires of cocaine and heroin cartels in the same way temperance made wealthy men of Al Capone and George Remus. And we've made hardened criminals of small-time dope dealers the way alcohol Prohibition made felons of bartenders and distillers. The number of people behind bars in the United States for drug crimes alone now exceeds the number of people in prison in Europe for all crimes combined.
Now, increasingly, states and municipalities are going after tobacco, too, believing that higher taxes and bans on public smoking will persuade longtime smokers to quit. In New York City, which has long imposed a cigarette tax that is among the highest in the nation, a thriving black market for tobacco has emerged, serving as a copious source of funding for organized crime and smugglers, as well as international terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Al Qaeda.
The states of California, Delaware and New York now forbid smoking in public places. In the late 1990s, Canada experimented with an aggressive hike on cigarette taxes. The tax resulted in such an overwhelming wave of black market crime that lawmakers repealed the tax two years later. The United Kingdom has the highest cigarette taxes in Europe. Consequently, the U.K. has become a hub for international cigarette smuggling, the beneficiaries of which include such nefarious elements as the Irish Republican Army and the Italian mafia, among others.
American lawmakers haven't even learned the lessons of Prohibition when it comes to alcohol. In the last 10 years, a well-funded group of neo-prohibitionist advocacy groups have sprung up and have begun calling for a variety of public policy initiatives aimed squarely at restricting (again) the public's access to alcohol. Groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Center for Alcohol Marketing to Youth and the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse advocate such initiatives as raising taxes on alcohol, forbidding alcohol manufacturers from advertising, using zoning laws to limit the number of bars and liquor stores in a particular neighborhood, and making it more difficult for restaurants and pubs to obtain liquor licenses.
The hard lesson we should have -- but have not -- learned from our various "prohibitions" is that no amount of legislation or social engineering is going to prevent some segments of the population from using substances many of the rest of us disapprove of.
Perhaps our lawmakers will soon learn that we can't simply legislate away the supply or the demand for Americans' more peculiar appetites, no matter how distasteful we may find them. Certainly, there are people who abuse controlled substances. But the better course of action would be to deal with the individual. Sweeping, expensive, far-reaching bans, prohibitions and declarations of war have never worked, and history proves that they invite far more problems than they solve.
Radley Balko is a freelance writer and publisher of the weblog: TheAgitator.com. He's also the author of the new Cato Institute paper, "Back Door to Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking."