Thursday, January 16, 2014

Prohibition Then And Now

My favorite history site, This Day In History, reminded me that on this date in 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes," was ratified.  

To make sure that no one drank grain alcohol destined for other uses, the government required that all alcohol be poisoned.  That’s right:  Lovable old Uncle Sam poisoned his people.

Prohibition took effect in January 1919.   

Interestingly, I am currently reading about Prohibition in a fascinating book called The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.  The book discusses the various poisons and their uses at the turn of the last century, and the attempts of the fledgling Medical Examiner’s office to detect those poisons in the victims.

In the months leading up to January 1919, New York’s Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Charles Norris, joined other doctors around the country in denouncing prohibition.  

They knew that people would continue to drink.  They knew that poisoning the alcohol would not stop it.  They predicted, correctly, that after January 1919 deaths from wood alcohol poisoning (wood alcohol is deadly and was added to grain alcohol by government order) would multiply drastically.  No one really knows how many people died from drinking bad alcohol – certainly over 10,000 people, with countless more made blind or ill.
Alcohol was easy to get at a speakeasy.

Before prohibition, the sale of alcohol was making a lot of money for the government:  corporate taxes from manufacturing, sales taxes, income taxes from alcohol workers and sellers.  (In the first 6 months of 2013, the State of Connecticut took in $1,300,000 in liquor taxes.)  After prohibition, alcohol was no longer a money-maker for the government.  Instead, millions were spent on federal agents tracking down bootleggers and their clients.

Besides the dollar cost of enforcing prohibition and the human cost in poisonings and people shot down by rival gangs of bootleggers (think Al Capone and the Valentine’s Day Massacre, although the reality was that more small-time bootleggers were shot down every week in New York than were killed in that ‘Massacre”), prohibition also did more damage.
Prohibition created a new type of criminal

The court system was overloaded with citizens dragged in for illegal drinking, and often politicians were bought by the easy money available from the bootleggers.  Respect for the law was destroyed as people flocked to hidden bars to party.  In fact, it is estimated that drinking became more popular as a result of prohibition.

In other words, instead of making the country more moral, it increased every existing vice and created a few new ones.

As Abraham Lincoln is claimed to have said, ”Prohibition goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes crimes out of things that are not crimes.”

In 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was passed and ratified, repealing prohibition.

Now think of this:  For thousands of years a certain plant has been used to relieve pain, cure some diseases, and make fabric.  Then evangelizers proclaimed it to be evil, and this country prohibited the growth, possession and use of marijuana.  In the country that has a larger percentage of its population in jail than any other (We’re number one!  We’re number one!), murderers get short sentences because thousands of marijuana users are filling up jail cells and harmless people are turned into criminals.  In the meantime, people suffering from glaucoma, chronic pain, and the side-effects of cancer treatments are denied relief in most of the country.

As a child of the 60’s, I know first-hand how effective the prohibition against marijuana is.  As the college student told the visiting family, marijuana was no problem at all in the dorms.  The law was a joke, police were not respected, and rather than having their lives destroyed those smokers of the past are the lawyers, doctors, bankers, and politicians of today.

A recent report by Jon Gettman (Gettman, Jon. 2004. Crimes of Indiscretion: the Nature, Extent, and Costs of Marijuana Arrests in the United States.) estimated that national criminal justice expenditures for enforcing marijuana laws is $7.6 billion per year.  Apparently prohibition is not stopping the use of marijuana, 80 years after it was made illegal.  On the other hand, the State of Colorado estimates that the first year of legal sales will bring in approximately $67 million a year in taxes.

Here is another voice of reason on prohibition:  the cops at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nonprofit organization of criminal justice professionals "who bear personal witness to the wasteful futility and harms of our current drug policies."

Because if he really said that, Abraham Lincoln was right.  

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