Friday, December 05, 2008

I Bet Prohibition Really Sucked

Today is the 75th anniversary of the 21st Amendment. In case you're not familiar with the amendments to the United States Constitution, it's the one that overturned the 18th Amendment.

Still confused? The 21st was the amendment that banned the sale and production of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. (with the exception of those intended for religious purposes). That's right, on Dec. 5, 1933, Prohibition ended in the U.S. when Utah (of all places) became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment.

The odd man out in the states back then was South Carolina which had the dubious honor of being the only state to reject the Amendment, although there were eight (including my own) that didn't ratify or reject. They just reaped the benefits. Honestly, I'm not sure how anyone could have thought the continuation of Prohibition was a good idea. It didn't really stop alcohol abuse. Instead it just made drinking riskier because the product was no longer regulated. Obviously guys willing to risk prison to make the stuff aren't really worried about prison for making people sick or dead. The 18th Amendment also more or less created the Mafia as we know it. Bootlegging was where they (and the Kennedy family) earned the money that made them large and powerful. That's right, Prohibition gave us both Al Capone and JFK. Alcohol gave us Ted Kennedy in more than one way.

My wife and I both actually had great-grandfathers who were involved in illegal alcohol production in some way. Maybe 200 yards from the ancestral home where I grew up were the ruins of the shack that housed the old still my great-grandfather likely used. K's grandfather made wine in very large volumes in his basement back in the days of temperance.

Of course Prohibition isn't entirely gone despite the repeal of the amendment that created it. It's still technically illegal to homebrew in Utah. Several states have limits on the alcohol content in beer (but not wine or liquor) and many states have weird laws dealing with alcohol like no sales on Sundays and the three tier system keeping alcohol producers from selling directly to the public. The weird combination of progress and stagnation in alcohol regulation leads to situations like you find in Georgia where you can't buy a six-pack to take home to drink on Sunday, but you can get sloshed in a bar and then have to find your way home.

But those are all minor issues when you think about it. The really sad part is that we as a country haven't been able to transfer the lessons we learned in Prohibition to other areas of our legal lives. We still have Prohibition, just not for alcohol. Now, instead of banning beer and other booze, we've banned other types of drugs. We haven't stopped drug abuse or the drug trade (and we never will) and we pack our tax-funded prisons with low-level, nonviolent drug offenders all the while basically funding organized crime in the U.S. Do you really think street gangs would have so much allure and power in poorer neighborhoods if the black market drug trade suddenly dried up? And does anyone really think that punitive measures do more to prevent drug use than education and rehabilitation efforts? Several Western European countries handle drugs much more intelligently than we do. What's keeping us from looking at our own history and their success and following suit?

No one's saying that heroin use is no big deal. I'm just saying that there's going to be a demand for it regardless of what our government does. It just seems to me the money we waste on the enforcement of drug laws could be put to better use, and that taking away the most profitable industry organized crime has couldn't hurt our country's relatively high violent crime rate.


Julie said...

Oddly enough, I read an article on MSNBC recently about how the Swiss passed a bill approving a legal heroin program but the bill legalizing marijuana was rejected.

Mickey said...

Good points, all. If we end up in Utah, I'll definitely have to take up homebrewing, not only so I can get good beer on a consistent basis but also as a from of civil disobediance.