Lessons of Prohibition
Drawing comparisons to the War on Drugs
Published: October 5, 2011
"Human beings have been drinking alcohol as long as there have been human beings," he says. "I think we ought to proceed with some caution that those who pushed Prohibition did not have. There are going to be unintended consequences. Legalization or decriminalization would decrease the attendant violence in our drug black market. So much is involved in cocaine and heroin it's going to be difficult and it's going to be tricky."
Supporters of ending drug prohibition often point to the failure of alcohol prohibition as preface to the failure of drug prohibition. Certainly the 40-year War on Drugs has failed if the goal was to eradicate their use. And illegal drug use is more widespread now than it was when President Richard Nixon declared the war in 1972. Indeed, Presidents Clinton and Obama have admitted to marijuana use in their youths, and it's a fair conclusion that George H. Bush used cocaine. Also, the hypocrisy of government on the issue was highlighted in the 1980s, when the CIA was involved with cocaine traffickers fighting the communist regime in Nicaragua.
Many marijuana-legalization activists attempt to coalesce around the issue politically by trying to focus on that to the exclusion of all other issues. For instance, activists applaud former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, a Republican, for calling for legalization of marijuana, but his views on most other issues are solidly conservative. Most marijuana activists don't want to talk about the rest of his platform. Maybe a closer look at Prohibition will open their eyes. The historian Burns warns us about "single-issue political campaigns."
"The past resonates with the issues in the present," he says. "It is not my intention to say this is what you do with these contemporary issues, but the past is the key to solving the problems of the present."
While some today see it simply — to toke or not to toke? — we're in the middle of a complex human drama that will not easily be resolved. As Prohibition points out, all of our constitutional amendments except the 18th are about expanding human freedoms. That one curtailed them. Maybe the words of Mark Twain, which open the Prohibition series, are most appropriate here: "Nothing so much needs reforming as other people's habits."
I guess some things do transcend time.
The final installment of Prohibition airs on WTVS-TV (Channel 56) Tuesday at 8
p.m.All three parts air back-to-back from 1 to 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9, on the station.
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