Lessons of Prohibition
Drawing comparisons to the War on Drugs
Published: October 5, 2011
The three-part miniseries from Ken Burns, Prohibition, which concludes on Public Broadcasting on Tuesday and repeats locally Sunday, is a penetrating and meaningful look at a colorful and controversial piece of U.S. history. One thing that impressed me was the way Burns presented the complexities of an issue that from a distance seems fairly simple: to drink or not to drink?
The era now seems almost cartoonish, with a sense of Keystone Kops chasing lawbreaking but lovable bootleggers who supplied a public that went to speakeasies and ordered "tea" with a wink and a nod. Even bloodthirsty gangsters are seen as ersatz Robin Hoods who gave the people what they wanted. In a time when, in most places, any adult can walk into a store or bar and order just about any kind of alcohol concoction, the Prohibition era seems laughable. But as Burns shows, it was really an era when passions ran high and in many cases lives were on the line.
It's not difficult to see how alcohol prohibition and drug prohibition are similar, though Burns didn't pursue that angle. "Our film is a history of the 18th Amendment," Burns told me in a telephone interview last week. "We were aware of marijuana use from the project we did about jazz. Marijuana was making one of its appearances in a subcultural world. We didn't have as widespread use as now. Alcohol abuse was a huge social problem in the United States."
But Burns does not live with his head in a hole. He went on: "But you can't help but see parallels with today: single-issue political campaigns, demonization of immigrants and African-Americans, the decay in social discourse, smear campaigns, warrantless government wiretaps, perpetual questions about the role of government. One of the connections that any intelligent viewer will make is, what about drugs today? In the criminalization of marijuana there are many, many parallels."
But alcohol prohibition lasted only 14 years at the federal level. Marijuana prohibition, which came in definitively at the federal level with the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, seems to have lasted much longer. That's a matter of perspective. Prohibition starts off detailing issues around alcohol abuse and a preacher's published sermons railing against demon rum in the early 1800s. When you couple that with the fact that there are still dry counties in the United States where alcohol sales are illegal, it stretches the fight over alcohol use in this country much further.
One lesson learned, if alcohol prohibition is a model for marijuana prohibition, is the tremendous and complex political action involved on both sides of the issue. I'm talking presidential politics. In the 1928 contest between Republican Herbert Hoover and Democrat Al Smith, Smith was vilified for being a "wet" (anti-Prohibition) and a Roman Catholic. Mabel Walker Willebrandt, a lawyer who had been assistant attorney general in charge of prohibition enforcement under President Warren Harding, was one of the leading and most effective speakers against Smith. When Hoover won and didn't appoint Willebrandt attorney general, she left the Justice Department for private law practice. One of her first clients was Fruit Growers Ltd., which was marketing Vineglow, a grape concentrate that could be made into wine.
And to further highlight the hypocrisy of anti-alcohol politics, Willebrandt herself was known to enjoy the occasional drink before joining the prohibitionists. Harding was known to drink and stock the White House with bootleg liquor.
"Harding was for Prohibition, he said, but had booze delivered to the White House," says Burns.
One of the most enduring bad consequences of Prohibition was the rise of organized crime. Detroit's Purple Gang, Al Capone in Chicago and numerous New York mobsters fought over turf for more than a decade while supplying a public that increasingly flouted the law.
"The lasting unintended consequence of Prohibition was the creation of organized crime in the United States," Burns says. "We would not have organized crime if not for Prohibition."
That prompts questions about violence in drug trafficking. There certainly would not be powerful drug cartels if marijuana, cocaine and heroin were legal; street gangs would not be fighting each other in turf wars; and there would be few users mugging folks for their next fix under a health care model of drug policy. Not that marijuana users are out there mugging folks; that element is among coke and smack users.
Law enforcement officials, including Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, claim that marijuana dispensaries attract crime, but a study released last week by RAND Corporation found that there was more crime near Los Angeles marijuana dispensary locations after they were shut down than when they were open. Researchers said the crime detected near closed dispensaries relative to open dispensaries could be due to a loss of foot traffic, more street level drug activity, fewer nearby police patrols or a loss of security provided by dispensaries. Police have disputed those findings, but RAND is known for the rigor of its studies.
While the issue is hot now, with both sides pushing to have their point of view backed by law, Burns sees the whole issue through a historical lens.
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