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by William H. Benson

December 6, 2001

     On January 16, 1920 the United States embraced a peculiar drama–Prohibition, a grand social and legal experiment designed initially to better people’s lives, and yet it was a dismal failure.  Fourteen years later on December 5, 1933 the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition and the 18th Amendment, and H. L. Mencken wrote that those years “seemed almost a geologic epoch while it was going on, and the human suffering that it entailed must have been a fair match for that of the Black Death or the Thirty Years War.”

     Indeed, the law’s intention was noble enough–to Americanize the new class of immigrants and their notorious drinking habits.  But by the Law of Unintended Consequences, the utopian belief that a law can stop people from doing something pleasurable slammed up against the utopian belief that trade and free enterprise should be left unrestricted.  Far from driving the alien minorities into Anglo-Saxon conformity it actually enabled them to consolidate themselves.

     New York City’s bootlegging operations were controlled by the Jews, the Italians, the Poles, and the Irish, and Boston had Joseph Kennedy, an Irishman who discreetly provided its citizens with bootlegged liquor.  But in Chicago it was the the Italians who were particularly adept at manufacturing and distributing liquor in large and inexpensive quantities.

     First there was Joseph Torrio who by 1924  had accumulated some $30 million from his enterprise and retired comfortably to a villa in Italy.  He turned over his entire business to Al Capone who promptly turned Chicago into gangster-land, with murder a daily occurrence and extortion a fact of life.

     Organized crime built around families found its impetus and start during Prohibition.  After liquor was legalized, the mob moved then into drugs, gambling, prostitution, and loan sharking–an unwanted and embarrassing heritage that Prohibition has left us.

     The law was a social catstrophe.  Walter Ligget testified before the House Judiciary Committee in 1930 that “there is considerably more hard liquor being drunk than there was in the days before Prohibition and drunk in more evil surroundings.”  And the Wickersham report, commissioned by President Hoover, ended all pretense that Prohibition had been a success.  Page after page told the sorry story of its failures.  The 18th Amendment had never been and probably never could be enforced.  It was part of the Constitution, but it lacked the power of the people.

     Walter Lippman denounced the “circle of powerlessness in which we outlaw the satisfaction of certain persistent human desires, and then tolerate what we have prohibited.”

     Some would aruge that alcohol is now more intelligently regulated; enforceable laws prohibit underage drinking and drinking while driving.  Plus, education and treatment focuses upon the physical and social affects of alcohol.  However, so many of the issues with drugs that we deal with today are the same issues that people dealt with in the 1920’s over alcohol.

     How does a society force its people to stop producing, selling, and buying a product that its users find appealing and yet has such disastrous individual and social consequences?

     I will leave the legal implications to that question to the politicians and courts, and I will leave the social affects of alcohol and drug use to the sociologists and counselors.  But from the historian’s point of view, it is a mistake to naively believe that a law can radically reform a sick society or make it tolerable to its law-abiding majority.  

     The former Senator from New York, Daniel Moynihan, said, “The nation’s choice of policy, legalization or prohibition, offers a choice of outcomes.”  And neither is great.  Legalization means increased health problems–millions of  new addicts that will overwhelm the nations’s hospitals, whereas prohibition leads to an enormous increase in crime that has overwhelmed the prisons.

     In the months and years ahead the citizens of this nation will be constantly confronted with a choice of how best to deal with the rampant drug use in our communities.  We will be asked to vote and decide.  What do you want?  More hospitals and treatment centers or more prisons?  Despite Prohibition’s undeniable and catastrophic failure in the 1920’s, that historical fact cannot and should not be used as an excuse to go ahead and legalize drug use today.  The war on drugs is a war that we cannot choose to lose.