We Never Learn….

Thanks to the magic of TIVO, Bob and I were able to watch the entire six hours of Ken Burns’ “Prohibition”–we just watched the last 2-hour episode last night. I defy anyone to watch this documentary without recognizing the parallels with our contemporary drug war; they practically jump out of the screen and punch the viewer.

Prohibition was one of those periodic efforts made by still-Puritan Americans to use the power of government to ensure the “good behavior” of their neighbors. (The Puritans, of course, get to define “good behavior.”) As we all know, it was a disaster, which is why it was the only Constitutional Amendment ever repealed. Crime and murder rates rose exponentially, corruption was rampant, enforcement was selective–and more people drank during┬áprohibition than either before or after.

What is less often recognized is how significantly prohibition enabled the growth of the federal government’s infrastructure. Depending upon your point of view, that may be good or bad, but it’s ironic. As historians and political scientists have demonstrated, the “morality police” tend to be proponents of local control.

What is so discouraging about this exploration of our “great experiment” is that we have learned nothing. The only difference between alcohol and drug prohibition is that the former was constitutionalized. Otherwise, we are seeing precisely the same results. When a substance is forbidden, not only do people crave it, they are willing to spend more to obtain it, consistent with the risk involved. So we have more crime, more corruption, and (if experiments in countries like Portugal are any indication) more drug use.

At the end of the documentary, someone pointed to the obvious: when a substance is outlawed, anyone willing to break the law can get it. When it is legal, it can be regulated–the government can ensure that it isn’t adulterated with dangerous additives, that it is kept away from children, etc. As the noted libertarian Peter McWilliams once put it, “When was the last time you saw the owner of the local liquor store hanging around the schoolyard whispering “Hey, kid–just got in a new shipment of Stoli!”?

How many more billions of dollars must we waste, how many more lives must we ruin, how many more countries must we decimate before we re-learn prohibition’s lesson?/


  1. The parallels were jaw-dropping. Among them, the influence of the rural religious right on the policies which would affect large urban populations, and the not-so-subtle demonizing of certain ethnic groups as part of the process.

  2. Just curious: when you speak of an end to drug prohibition, do you think that only certain types of drugs should be legalized? Or are you saying just an overall allowance of all substances? I can definitely see your point in the case of drugs such as marijuana (I’ve long felt that it should be legal), but the other, “harder” drugs, not so much. Working in the medical field, I’ve seen what they do – destroying bodies, brains, lives, and families. While the same could be said of alcohol, I still see a difference – many drugs can often have a larger, more systemic impact on the body, and some have far more addictive properties than substances such as alcohol (or marijuana). I’m just curious to know if you see any limits to this legalization idea…

  3. I agree that the approach to harder drugs should be different, although even with them, I think we should treat drug abuse as a medical/public health issue rather than as a criminal justice one.

Comments are closed.