On this day, 84 years ago, Washington finally stopped trying to keep Americans from having a drink. Today is Prohibition’s Repeal Day, a day worth celebrating:
It’s also a day worth calling attention to the Prohibition of our own era, the failed war on drugs.
Of course, the situations are not identical. For one, the federal Prohibition on alcohol was accomplished with a constitutional amendment. That doesn’t overcome the practical and ethical objections to the plan, but it at least brought an element of legal legitimacy. The drug war, by contrast, operates under no such constitutional authority. How the Constitution in its present state could be imagined to permit one ban and not the other is beyond me, but logic is not a major feature of the war on drugs.
Another difference is the longevity of these two Prohibitions. The ban on alcohol lasted 13 years — not a brief period, but nothing compared to the decades-long drug war. After more than 40 years of fighting the drug war, we’ve spent more than $1.5 trillion for the privilege of having the highest rate of illegal drug use worldwide.
Still, there are plenty of commonalities between these two misguided federal invasions of our personal lives. Crucially, both have led to increased gang violence and endangered the lives of those who use banned substances. Today, drug prohibition makes drug abuse more likely—and more likely to go untreated—while increasing violent crime. Back in the 1930s, the same thing happened with alcohol, as the Drug Policy Alliance explains:
Not to oversimplify things, but the Eighteenth Amendment (which established national prohibition) made a sizeable portion of the population criminals overnight. Even though the sale and manufacturing of alcohol was criminalized, the majority of the people who drank responsibly wanted to continue to do so. I’m not an economist but I learned that where there is a demand for something, a supply will be filled, whether it is legal or not.
So Prohibition didn’t make alcohol disappear, it just allowed famous mobsters like Al Capone to step in and provide an elaborate, yet dangerous, underground market. […] [T]he mob thrived, crime soared, and gangsters killed anyone and everyone who got in their way. Tens of thousands of people died because of prohibition-related violence and drinking unregulated booze.
We’re now 16 years away from the century mark of Repeal Day. Maybe in 2033, we can be celebrate ending the drug war, too.