Prohibition: Not Repeatable, But Not a Failure

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

With HBO’s hit series Boardwalk Empire, Ken Burns’ new documentary Prohibition, and Broadway’s Chicagoas the longest-running musical revival in history, the 1920s are enjoying a comeback. Last week, Burns’ documentary prompted many critics and viewers to make comparisons between alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and the status of illegal drugs today. Those in favor of drug legalization see Prohibition’s inability to survive as irrevocable proof that today’s “drug prohibition” is equally unsustainable. But this is a short-sighted argument, and the issue deserves more thoughtful scrutiny.

As Kevin Sabet explains in his insightful L.A. Times article, Prohibition had a number of successes: alcohol use decreased, cirrhosis of the liver was down 66% in men, and public drunkenness was halved. “Yes,” asserts Sabet, “organized crime was emboldened, but the mob was already powerful before Prohibition, and it continued to be long after.” So I see no strong evidence that Prohibition wasn’t temporarily useful to America; in fact, evidence shows some profound positive effects. However, I wouldn’t be naïve enough to suggest that we return to prohibiting a drug (alcohol) that has been ingrained in the fabric of our society and how we have socialized for centuries.

Comparing alcohol to today’s illicit drugs is something of an apples-to-oranges analogy. “It’s such a stupid parallel to draw,” insists Ken Burns in an interview. “Drugs have always been parts of some very rare subcultures, but every culture drinks alcohol as fermented or distilled spirits.” Opium, for example, has a long history of use – and opiates certainly have a place today as a viable medical treatment – but it has never beenintegrated into the daily life of healthy humans in the way that alcohol has. Scientifically, too, alcohol and other intoxicants are just not the same. Unless you’re a recovering addict, a glass of wine per day is absolutely not going to hurt you, and we’ve even seen evidence of minor medical benefits from light drinking. The same cannot be said of illegal drugs—imagine having a little bit of heroin each night with your dinner!

Another dubious argument some make in favor of drug legalization involves potential income from taxes. With our economy failing, why not legalize drugs and heavily tax them for extra revenue? Because we know from our experience with tobacco and alcohol – two of the highest taxed items in the country – that even the amount brought in by these extraordinary taxes doesn’t come close to covering the costs of these items to society. Plus, as Sabet points out, when an intoxicant is legal “powerful business interests have an incentive to encourage use.” We have seen this with alcoholic drinks like Four Loko marketed dangerously to teens.

Alcohol’s current societal costs and marketing monopolies raise the question: if alcohol were prohibited today, would our government be saving money on social, health care, and criminal justice costs? Probably. But between the history, the lobbyists, and the medical facts, reinstating alcohol Prohibition just isn’t feasible and would certainly be a disastrous failure. We learned during the 1920s that alcohol prohibition was unsustainable, and it would certainly never work today. That horse may be out of the barn—but using it as an excuse for drug legalization would be irresponsible and catastrophic. Let’s not go crazy and free the whole farm.

Deni Carise, Ph.D.
Chief Clinical Officer
Phoenix House

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  • Libio

    Although I agree with the incomparable analogy between heroin and alcohol, evidence shows that marijuana has MORE medical benefits that marijuana. I believe that if we were honest about “why” drugs such as marijuana was criminalized we can take a stand for social justice. Prohibition of drugs has many racial connotations. I agree that Alcohol prohibition should’ve never been lifted, but which population was vying for the repeal of this law? Which race was benefiting from the legalization of alcohol. Furthermore, evidence shows (History) that criminalization of COCAINE, OPIUM, and MARIJUANA was racially motivated. Can I get a witness!

  • Maybe legalization is not the answer but doing nothing indicates support of our nation’s failed policy of imprisoning tens of thousands who suffer from the disease of addiction. As a Phoenix House graduate, I would like to believe this not the writer’s or the organization’s official position.

  • eedelman

    Absolutely, Howard. Phoenix House supports decriminalization instead of legalization, and treatment instead of incarceration. Sending non-violent drug offenders to prison only exacerbates the problem. To read more about our position, check out these blogs:

  • Thank you E. Edelman for your response. Both of Howard Meitner’s statements are clear about the absurdity of sending non-violent substance abusers to prison when we could be making treatment or alternatives to incarceration available in the community. Stating we should “provide offenders with a proper balance between treatment and supervision.”, is not support of decriminalization as much as it supports coercive treatment. Were we to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, non-violent drug abusers would not be offenders. Calling for a “balance between treatment and supervision” keeps law enforcement involved in what is clearly a medical or mental health issue.

  • Mark Nason

    Good article. Legalization of drugs (versus decriminalization) will likely increase use and problems. The ease of getting medical marijuana in some states has probably contributed to the rise in use among youth—they witness “medical” use by adults which is in most cases really just about getting high. For example, Grammy winner, Alanis Morissette, was quoted in Runner’s World magazine as saying, “I occasionally indulge in red wine, and it’s fun to have medical marijuana once in a while.” Pro legalization organizations are correct that the percentage of youth in Amsterdam who use marijuana is lower than it is in the U.S. This is largely irrelevant, though, since the two cultures and histories around marijuana use are quite different. In addition, these organizations fail to point out that the percentage of youth using marijuana in the Netherlands prior to the government choosing to not enforce the law in the cafes was much lower than in the U.S. and it actually rose nearly 4 fold since the time the de facto legalization began, from 3% in 1988 to a high of 11% in 1996 ( Locking people away in prisons is not the answer, neither is legalization. Decriminalization is a much better approach.

    I am not denying that marijuana shows promise for treating some illnesses. However, the argument made by many people that marijuana is safe because it can be used as a medicine is completed flawed. What medicine is safe? Morphine is a very useful medication, but it would be high risk to use it to get high. Addiction to prescription drugs is a major health problem. We should focus on real issues, not be thrown off by red herrings.

  • John

    Drugs are a lot worse than alcohol on the mind and body. They are 3 times more addictive than alcohol. Drugs cause more social problems than alcohol. Trust me, my family is full of Ex alcoholics junkies and crack heads.

  • John

    There’s nothing wrong with cannabis because it doesn’t make you violent and actually makes you very happy and loose. No one has ever killed anybody on purpose on weed. It’s also good for cancer, body aches and glaucoma autism, ADHD EBD schizophrenia bipolar disorder osteoporosis and arthritis. the only people who don’t know this is people who have never tried it.