INDEPENDENT, UK – In selected watering holes across America, it’s party time tonight. In Washington, the festivities will centER on the venerable City Tavern in Georgetown; for $90, you can taste the cocktail offerings of the capital’s most expert bartenders (or “mixologists” as they like to term themselves), listen to a jazz band and, in the words of the invitation, “party like it’s 1933”.
In San Francisco, after a parade through the streets, celebrants will make their way to the 21st Amendment Brewery, gaining entrance to the revelries within by use of a special password. Similar events are being held in New York, Chicago, New Orleans and other US cities associated with an understanding acceptance of human frailty and having a good time.
By now the reason for these goings-on will be plain. Tonight is the 75th anniversary of the end of Prohibition – of 5 December 1933 when Utah became the deciding 36th state to ratify the 21st amendment to the constitution, and restore to the country’s citizens the basic human right to go out and have a drink.
Rarely in the annals of human experience has so well intentioned an idea been such a monument to failure as America’s 13-year attempt to eradicate the evil of alcohol. The National Prohibition (or Volstead) Act was passed by Congress in October 1919, overriding the veto of President Woodrow Wilson. The following January, the Act was ratified as the 18th amendment of the constitution after it had been approved by the required three-quarters majority of US states.
The “noble experiment”, as its supporters termed it, did indeed lead to a modest decline in alcohol consumption and an overall improvement in public health. But those meager and transient advantages were nothing compared to the unintended side-effects of Prohibition: a drastic decline in federal and state revenues, a surge in clandestine binge drinking and of course speak-easies, bootlegging, moonlighting and mobsters, not to mention the criminalization of millions of US citizens, including some its most eminent politicians, who were technically flouting the law of the land.
Ethan A. Nadelmann, Wall Street Journal – We should consider why our forebears rejoiced at the relegalization of a powerful drug long associated with bountiful pleasure and pain, and consider too the lessons for our time.
The Americans who voted in 1933 to repeal prohibition differed greatly in their reasons for overturning the system. But almost all agreed that the evils of failed suppression far outweighed the evils of alcohol consumption.
The change from just 15 years earlier, when most Americans saw alcohol as the root of the problem and voted to ban it, was dramatic. Prohibition’s failure to create an Alcohol Free Society sank in quickly. Booze flowed as readily as before, but now it was illicit, filling criminal coffers at taxpayer expense. . .
When repeal came, it was not just with the support of those with a taste for alcohol, but also those who disliked and even hated it but could no longer ignore the dreadful consequences of a failed prohibition. They saw what most Americans still fail to see today: That a failed drug prohibition can cause greater harm than the drug it was intended to banish.
Consider the consequences of drug prohibition today: 500,000 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails for nonviolent drug-law violations; 1.8 million drug arrests last year; tens of billions of taxpayer dollars expended annually to fund a drug war that 76% of Americans say has failed; millions now marked for life as former drug felons; many thousands dying each year from drug overdoses that have more to do with prohibitionist policies than the drugs themselves, and tens of thousands more needlessly infected with AIDS and Hepatitis C because those same policies undermine and block responsible public-health policies.
And look abroad. At Afghanistan, where a third or more of the national economy is both beneficiary and victim of the failed global drug prohibition regime. At Mexico, which makes Chicago under Al Capone look like a day in the park. And elsewhere in Latin America, where prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption undermine civil authority and public safety, and mindless drug eradication campaigns wreak environmental havoc.
All this, and much more, are the consequences not of drugs per se but of prohibitionist policies that have failed for too long and that can never succeed in an open society, given the lessons of history. Perhaps a totalitarian American could do better, but at what cost to our most fundamental values?
Why did our forebears wise up so quickly while Americans today still struggle with sorting out the consequences of drug misuse from those of drug prohibition?
It’s not because alcohol is any less dangerous than the drugs that are banned today. Marijuana, by comparison, is relatively harmless: little association with violent behavior, no chance of dying from an overdose, and not nearly as dangerous as alcohol if one misuses it or becomes addicted. Most of heroin’s dangers are more a consequence of its prohibition than the drug’s distinctive properties. That’s why 70% of Swiss voters approved a referendum this past weekend endorsing the government’s provision of pharmaceutical heroin to addicts who could not quit their addictions by other means. It is also why a growing number of other countries, including Canada, are doing likewise.