The War on Drugs versus Prohibition: Neither works, both create debt

Just as prohibition did not work, neither will the War on Drugs. 
Photo: Images of Prohibition and the War on Drugs

WASHINGTON, September 25, 2013 – There are many obvious parallels between the Prohibition of yesteryear and the “War on Drugs” today.

Both efforts start with lawmakers and their supporters declaring they know better than you and I what we should or should not drink smoke or swallow.


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Both the War on Drugs and Prohibition has had majority support among voters in the United States.

Both have found that enforcement is nearly impossible, and both efforts spawned uncontrollable organized crime in the United States and prohibited items coming over the borders from South America and Mexico.

Thousands of people have died as a result of criminal syndicates domestically and around the world.

Is the War on Drugs as ill conceived now as probation was then?


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The 18th Amendment banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages went into effect on January 16, 1920.  

The Volstead Act, named for Andrew Volstead (R-MN), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, became a very strict enforcement vehicle, making Prohibition the law of the land.

This was a monumental event. It also had monumental consequences, most of which were unintended and unforeseen.

The most visible effect of Prohibition was the rise of organized crime syndicates in the United States, the price of which is incalculable.


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Another consequence of Prohibition was the lack of respect for the law that turned a large percentage of honest, law-abiding citizens into de facto criminals. As an example, there is the famous Michigan State Police raid on Detroit’s Deutsches Haus restaurant, a raid that caught the mayor, the sheriff, and the local congressman in its net.

The enormous accumulation of cash by the criminals led to the further corruption of police, judges and public officials taking bribes and other inducements to condone even greater crimes, including murder, torture, and extortion.

This distrust and contempt for the law and the lawmakers can still be seen today, in our television, movies, novels, and, sadly, even the press.

The one good thing that can be said about the 18th Amendment is that at least it was enacted through a democratic process. The same people who suffered under Prohibition and who ultimately saw it repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1934 had favored Prohibition in the first place.

There were also social, racial and political consequences. The picture of the Roaring Twenties following the 1920 enactment of Prohibition was the action of the upper classes, which treated the whole thing with certain nonchalance.

Working classes, who could not afford the stashes of liquor and beer, found in the homes of the well-to-do, resented Prohibition the most.

The working class felt the government had turned on them, telling them in effect that the State knew what was better for them than they themselves did.

Roosevelt’s support of Prohibition’s repeal during the 1932 election further reinforced the belief that he was the man of the people, and converted many working class voters to the Democrats, where they stayed at least until the Reagan era.

Because of the scarcity of their products, drugs now, alcohol then, criminals in both cases accumulated huge amounts of money, which in turn corrupt police, judges and politicians.

Both have also disproportionately penalized the underclass of society. American prisons holds more “criminals” as a result on the War on Drug than any other country in the world, even Cuba!

It is time for us to heed the lessons of Prohibition?

Government cannot effectively police the private behavior of its citizens. No matter what the social trends of the moment are. Government coercion is not the answer to changing private behavior.

The only thing that works is persuasion. Whatever we may personally believe about the ill effects of marijuana, cocaine, even heroin, speed or opium, making laws and trying to force people to abstain from these substances is not an effective or practical means of accomplishing that goal.

Let’s think in practical terms for a moment. If all these substances were decriminalized and made available at the corner drug store, a lot of positive consequences would follow.

The most important would be that the entire infrastructure of the criminal economy, which is supported by the illegal distribution of drugs, would collapse overnight. All the manufacturing of drugs would suddenly become the province of legitimate drug companies, who would apply all the usual quality standards to their products under the watchful eye of the FDA.

Gone would be the days of “bad” drug epidemics. If demand merited, the costs of these substances would decline, and so would the crime rate.

The shadow economy created by illegal drug trades would also collapse. The billions of dollars which flow through those channels would now become taxable revenues of the drug stores, the drug companies, the customers, and the transportation and warehousing companies.

In terms of treatment, there would be no reason to hide the use of these substances, and such visibility would lead to earlier detection and treatment of abuse, at least on the part of those who regretted their.

Our experience with alcohol is instructive. The vast majority of drinkers do not abuse the drug. Those who are caught performing illegal acts while drinking are punished, not for drinking but for their behavior.

Those addicted to alcohol find that society has created many treatment alternatives, both voluntary and institutional, all of which would now be available drug addicts as well.

Other impacts on our drug subcultures could only be welcome. No longer would shadowy persons make a living by selling illegal drugs. Those who now live off the drug scene would have to find real jobs, jobs which would not eventually land them in prison, and which might ultimately allow all those young males to be able to settle down with their families and take up their position as fathers.

The effects on illegal immigration are hard to predict. There is no question that a relationship exists between smugglers of weapons, money, drugs and people.

Another impact would be the diminishing need for the giant bureaucracy that today is engaged in trying to enforce anti-drug laws and the enormous costs to all levels of government. The immense investment the American people are making to fight the war on drugs is really incredible when you think carefully about it.

Let’s learn also from the greatest change in American social mores in my lifetime, the decline of cigarette smoking. It was slow, starting from the outcries of the scientific community, which targeted cigarettes as a leading cause of lung cancer.

These claims were followed by court cases against tobacco companies. Convictions in these cases led to restricted smoking areas in offices, then public places. Governments, seeing an opportunity for “moral” revenue, piled on taxes. As the pendulum of public opinion shifted more and more dramatically against smoking (and then smokers), local ordinances grew up to prohibit smoking in more and more places, until now smokers are condemned to cold, windy porches and outdoor alcoves, like pitiful outcasts.

Whereas smoking used to be a mark of masculinity and sophistication, it is now looked upon as a harmful, even pitiful, weakness.

All without guns, gangs, graft or violence.


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Lawrence J. Fedewa

Lawrence J. Fedewa is author, publisher, and speaker, he has addressed international audiences on both technical issues and events of the day. He is also a Contributing Editor for “A Line of Sight" magazine.

Lawrence J. Fedewa has worked with railroads, less-developed countries, and labor unions as a management consultant, and with professors, managers, politicians, and teachers. 

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