The vast majority of Americans, Prohibition Party members excluded, will admit alcohol prohibition was a dismal failure. The so-called noble experiment, which lasted from January 16, 1920 until December 5, 1933, has a lot of similarities with the War on Drugs, and a few differences.
The primary difference between the two forms of prohibition is the most notable: alcohol prohibition became the law of the land via constitutional amendment while drug prohibition became law of the land by simple passage of legislation. While I am by no means a constitutionalist, I must ask why prohibition of one substance required the constitution be amended, while another form of prohibition did not. But I digress.
Another key difference is that during alcohol prohibition, consumption of alcohol was not prohibited. The History Channel reports, “The 18th Amendment only forbade the ‘manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors’.” Whereas today, under federal statute, it is illegal to merely posses cannabis, cocaine, heroin, or any other substance on the list of Controlled Substances without a valid prescription. However, the Controlled Substances Act states that any substance listed as Schedule I: “has a high potential for abuse… has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States… [and] There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.” In essence because cannabis is listed as a Schedule I substance at the federal level, despite recognition in more than 20 states of cannabis having medicinal qualities, no prescription is recognized as a valid defense against federal possession of cannabis charges. By contrast during alcohol prohibition, sacramental wine and medicinal whiskey were legal, and the profits from alcohol sales helped Walgreens grow to over 500 stores during the 1920’s.
On the darker side of alcohol prohibition, people who still wanted a drink turned to homemade concoctions labeled “bathtub gin” and other more potent alcoholic beverages. Because these drinks were often made with different ingredients and in sub-par conditions, it is estimated that more than 10,000 people died from tainted alcohol. That number undoubtedly includes people who died of alcohol poisoning, a condition whereby one overdoses on alcohol. Something similar exists today where people may take a illicit substance that is less pure than expected and later get a more pure substance and base the dosage on the previous supply, leading to an overdose. If you buy a Coca-Cola on Friday and another on Tuesday, you don’t have to worry about the caffeine levels being different, or on cola being diluted with water in order for the supplier to make more money. The same applies to drugs. If drugs, all drugs including crystal meth, were 100% legal to manufacture, purchase, possess, and use then supplies would be consistent. Which would decrease the number of people who die from overdoses or from tainted supplies.
Radley Balko writes, “meth is a product of prohibition… not an argument in favor it. We have a meth problem because we have drug prohibition.” Bathtub gin, for the most part, went away when alcohol prohibition ended. Just look at Portugal to see what happens when penalties for possession of drugs are removed: use and abuse of drugs was cut in half, deaths from overdose have declined, and the Washington Post reports the use of “so-called ‘synthetic’ marijuana, ‘bath salts’ and the like” is “lower in Portugal than in any of the other countries for which reliable data exists.” This is because there is no prohibition driving people to more dangerous alternatives. Additionally, Portuguese police are able to focus crime fighting efforts on crimes that actually have victims instead of wasting resources on people possessing a substance that will get them high. If decreasing the rates of use and abuse is the goal of the War on Drugs, maybe the US government should try a tactic that has been shown to actually decrease the rates of use and abuse!