THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 736, September 1, 2013
Please don't quit just when we're
almost where we want to be. Just
when we're almost where we need to be.
Prohibition—Why We Should Have Learned Our Lesson from the Speakeasy
Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
The argument rages on between libertarians and those of other political persuasions about the Libertarian platform on legalization of marijuana. Why it is that people seem unable to grasp the vast difference between supporting legalization and supporting use is itself difficult to understand. The case for legalization is clear, given the extraordinary amount of time and money wasted on pursuing citizens who personally choose to smoke; as well as the deaths, direct and indirect, which are attributable to this pointless campaign.
What Prohibition Did for Alcohol
Prohibition of alcohol between 1920 and 1933 was implemented with the intention of: reducing crime and corruption; reducing the tax burden on the taxpayer of prisons; resolving social issues; and improving public health and hygiene. So what went wrong?
We all know that Prohibition not only failed, but failed spectacularly. The very reasons for its failure are as applicable today to issues such as censorship, alcohol and tobacco, abortion and gambling. Prohibition of alcohol should have reduced consumption; which at the outset it did. It also made alcohol very much more expensive. What is more important to note is that national per capita alcohol consumption had already been falling before the inception of Prohibition and the decrease following criminalization was quite insignificant. It didn't take long though for consumption figures to rise and annual spending on alcohol was actually greater during Prohibition than previously.
Despite all efforts by law enforcement to implement Prohibition law, illicit production and distribution grew. The costs of law enforcement also expanded along with the illegal trade in alcohol. During the 1920's the Bureau of Prohibition's national budget rose from $4.4 million to $13.4 million. This does not include the budgets allocated by the Coastguard or by state and local government for enforcement.
Prohibition also had other unintended consequences. The deregulation of alcohol production and its subsequent move underground meant that there were no longer any checks or safeguards to ensure its safety. The underground economy moved rapidly into production of the more potent spirits. Lower alcohol level drinks like beer were less popular because they were harder to keep concealed; while spirits were more easily moved and hidden. During Prohibition the price of beer rose by 700%; brandy by 433%; but whisky by the comparatively small amount of 270%. Not only did alcohol still abound, but the strength of the underground products was higher, with alcohol content estimated at around 150% more during Prohibition.
Richard Cowan's "Iron Law of Prohibition" states that the more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the prohibited substance becomes. That when drugs or alcohol are prohibited, they become more potent and have greater variability in strength; in addition, they are more likely to be adulterated with unknown and possibly dangerous substances as they are not being produced under market regulation or guidelines. The national death rate from contaminated alcohol rose from 1,064 in 1920 to 4,154 in 1925.
Far from reducing crime and emptying prisons, Prohibition had the opposite effect. Thirty major cities experienced a rise in crime of 24% between 1920 and 1921. More money was spent on policing and more people arrested for violation of Prohibition laws; but drunk and disorderly arrests increased by more than 40%, while drunk driving arrests rose by over 80%. More crimes were committed through the destruction of jobs by Prohibition and the rise in black market violence. Instead of emptying the prisons, Prohibition filled them to capacity.
The War on Drugs
The US government states that a significant number of people being admitted to substance abuse programs for marijuana have not smoked during the month immediately before entering the program. Legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational use would have a noticeable effect on the cost of healthcare in the rehabilitation industry. The Deputy Director for NORML, made a statement to the effect that this made it clear treatment admission rates were a response to the prohibition of marijuana rather than as a response to marijuana use. Those people being referred for treatment by doctors or other healthcare professionals are ordinary citizens and not addicts; who have been unlucky enough to have been arrested and charged for possession; they have subsequently been forced to choose between prison and rehabilitation. Both state and national statistics show clearly the true situation, with approximately 60-70% of attendees at programs in rehabilitation centers having been referred by the criminal justice system. Less than 15% of marijuana related admissions into rehabilitation programs are voluntary.
The parallels between Prohibition of alcohol and the criminalization of marijuana don't need to be spelled out. Even those who don't support the use of marijuana would have to admit, using logical processes, that the war cannot be won; and the ever-escalating cost, not only fiscal to local, state and federal government, but the cost to society, is too high a price to pay for legislation that clearly does not work, has never worked and never could.