prohibition nation


The other day I was watching an entertaining TED talk by Larry Lessig, the Net’s most celebrated lawyer, called “Laws that choke creativity.” It runs a little more than eighteen minutes, and is well worth your time.

In it, Lessig addresses the deep roots—developed in an earlier day—of the copyright laws which the music industry is attempting to use to prohibit the use of “sampling” in the access to culture which has become normative behavior amongst young people in our digital world. Most interesting to me is Lessig’s contention that in a prohibition setting, the access to (and use of) culture has been effectively criminalized by outdated laws that have not kept pace with normative activity. It encourages otherwise law-abiding people to live against the law. And this has unintended consequences that we should have learned many times before as inevitable.

If you mention the word “prohibition,” what comes to mind is America’s failed experiment from 1920 to 1933 with a prohibition on alcohol. According to Peter McWilliams in his book Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do  (and interpreted by Daniel Florien), there were twelve unintended, disastrous effects of Prohibition:

1. Prohibition created disrespect for the law.

If everyone breaks the law, it is disrespected. Practically everyone broke the law of Prohibition—making everyone criminals. If the law prohibited moderate consumption of something as pleasurable and harmless as alcohol, what else did it prohibit that was good?

Prohibition encouraged peole to see the law as whimsical and unimportant, instead of something good and protecting. It did nothing to encourage the respect and obedience the law deserves.

2. Prohibition eroded respect for religion.

Evangelicals were the main force behind Prohibition. They saw alcohol as the “devil’s drink,” hating it so much they explained away their holy book’s favorable references to it (and still do today).

They preached that God demanded total abstinence from alcohol. Much like today with homosexuality, conservatives thought drinking was responsible for many of society’s ills. If it could be made illegal, then God would bless America.

But instead of ushering in paradise, Prohibition increased alcohol consumption and immorality, created organized crime and caused massive political corruption. As they so often are, evangelicals were wrong. They made false promises and did far more harm than good. This jaded many people towards religion.

3. Prohibition created organized crime.

“Prohibition made the gangster not just well paid, but well liked,” McWilliams said. It took significant organization to bootleg the quantities of alcohol people desired. The result was organized crime, which didn’t differentiate between petty crimes like transporting liquor and real crimes like violence, murder, and theft.

Similarly, organized crime continues today because of the prohibition on gambling, prostitution, and drugs. Where there is demand, there will be supply.

4. Prohibition permanently corrupted law enforcement, the court system, and politics.
Organized crime was huge, and it had a lot of money and influence. Policeman and politicians were bribed and blackmailed. Said McWilliams:

If mobsters couldn’t buy or successfully threaten someone in a powerful position, they either “wiped them out” or, following more democratic principles, ran a candidate against the incumbent in the next election. They put money behind their candidate, stuffed the ballot box, or leaked some scandal about the incumbent just before the election (or all three). The important thing was winning, and more often than not, someone beholden to organized crime rose to the position of power.

It created a new class of candidates that were open to the highest bidder. Many court cases required payoffs to get a “fair” hearing. In other words, corruption abounded and the people began distrusting the government.

5. Prohibition overburdened police, courts, and the penal system.

You can’t throw everyone in jail—yet with Prohibition, even a small percentage of offenders couldn’t be locked away without overburdening the system. In 1923, for instance, the US District Attorneys spent 44% of their time on Prohibition cases. This takes time away from the real purpose of police and courts: to protect people and their possessions, not enforce a religious sect’s morality.

6. Prohibition harmed people financially, emotionally, and morally.

Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs because of Prohibition. People in the alcohol business had two options: to find lower-paying work or become criminals (that is, staying in their profession). Because of the rhetoric evangelicals were spouting, it was also hard to find a decent job coming from the “devil’s work.” This encouraged people to break the law just to support their families.

7. Prohibition caused physical harm.

Because alcohol was illegal, its purity was not regulated. While fruit, vegetable, and grain alcohol is usually safe, alcohol made from wood is not—but it is difficult to tell the difference until too late. Over 10,000 people died during Prohibition from drinking wood alcohol. Others who were not killed went permanently blind or had severe organ damage.

The same happens today with illegal drugs—most overdoses are accidental, a result from not knowing the purity or strength of the drug.

And who knows how many people died because of organized crime, or due to corrupt or overburdened police. When the police spend much of their time arresting and investigating crimes that cause no harm to others, the crimes that do cause harm increase and real criminals are more likely to go free.

8. Prohibition changed the drinking habits of our country—for the worse.

Instead of going out to drink, people began drinking mostly at home. When they did go out to drink, it was often to get drunk—you couldn’t been seen with a bottle, so it was best to finish it. Hard liquor became popular because it was more concentrated and thus cheaper to smuggle. To make hard liquor more palatable, cocktails were created.

Ironically, Prohibition also increased the amount people drank. Drinking has never again returned to pre-Prohibition levels.

9. Prohibition made cigarette smoking a national habit.

Cigarettes were also prohibited in many states, which seemed to make them irresistible. By 1930, cigarettes were legal everywhere and consumption nearly tripled. Smoking became fashionable and a sign of rebellion. It was also far more harmful and addictive than alcohol.

10. Prohibition prevented the treatment of drinking problems.

It’s a lot harder to say you have a problem when it could land you in jail. Legally, you were either sober or a criminal—both occasional drinkers and drunks were lumped into the same category. You couldn’t go to your pastor or counselor for help — you might end up in jail.

11. Prohibition caused “immorality.”

Evangelicals were expecting a New Jerusalem of Sobriety, but what they got was an explosion of immorality. Men and women began drinking together—they were partners in crime, and they became partners in bed. Unmarried sexual activity increased and the decade became known as the “Roaring 20′s.”

12. Prohibition was phenomenally expensive.

Some estimate the total cost was about a billion dollars in a time when a Ford factory worker made $5 a day. The government also lost a significant amount of tax revenue because alcohol sales went underground. This made the price of alcohol artificially inflated, and people spent a lot for a little liquor.

Prohibition was a massively failed attempt at legislating morality. The government’s role is to protect citizens and their property—not legislate what people are allowed to do for recreation, who they can love, or what kind of sex they can have.

All the unintended consequences that accompanied the prohibition of alcohol are present with the prohibitions on marijuana. We spend billions of dollars a year on “the war on drugs” and have only defeat to show for it. Meanwhile, the police and courts are tied up with people whose only crime was enjoying or selling a recreational drug. They were hurting no one, except possibly themselves. And what business of the government’s is that?

In 1930 new machines for breaking hemp into its useful parts, were invented in the US. It became easier to convert the pulp into paper, plastics, etc. But 1937 saw the banning of hemp farming under the Marijuana Tax Act. At the same time DuPont was developing nylon.

After 1937 massive effort was put into huge campaigns to frighten the public. Marijuana/hemp was described as a highly addictive and toxic drug which induced ‘reefer madness’ and even death. It was necessary to create these lies about cannabis in order to get the public to accept prohibition of the plant.

There was a temporary upset in 1943. The US entered the war and it was not possible to produce the necessary rope from synthetics alone. The Hemp for Victory program urged American farmers to grow hemp again. But hemp farming was outlawed again in 1955. Once the massive anti-hemp propaganda machine has successfully spread its lies, the road for the petrochemical and pharmaceutical companies was open to them to make untold billions at the expense of the environment.

By then the majority of people believed that cannabis/hemp was a highly dangerous drug. For years governments told the people that use of cannabis caused insanity and led to hard drug use. Now it is becoming clear to the majority of Americans that they have been fooled and lied to all this time.

The people have been deprived of the healing properties of cannabis, which if legal, would eliminate up to 90% of prescription drugs and eliminate untold human suffering. Farmers have been deprived of hemp crops. Our courts and prisons have unnecessarily become crowded at great expense to the state, and combined nonviolent inmates with violent criminals. Young people are sniffing glue and taking “bath salts” and other, more harmful substances. Convictions for marijuana possession can mean restrictions on jobs, housing, and limits on travel. There is a loss of revenue which should come from tax on profits. Many people, especially the young, are being alienated from governments they cannot trust or believe. And why? To protect certain businesses and further enrich certain industrialists.

The American experience proves that prohibition does not work, regardless of the substance or activity forbidden. It creates the direct opposite of what it is sold to create. And it is just plain wrong.


Groove of the Day

Listen to The Missourians performing “Prohibition Blues”


1 Response to “prohibition nation”

  1. 1 Frank Manning
    May 12, 2014 at 2:26 am

    My father was a kid during Prohibition, and he always expressed disdain and ridicule for it and the two-faced politicians who brought it about. He told a story that showed just how contemptuous officialdom were of the stupid law the most repressive elements in society had managed to get passed. In fact, they were simply above it.

    In the oldest part of the New York City borough of Brooklyn is the area known as Downtown Brooklyn. It is a compact gridless mass of large buildings housing borough and city administrative offices as well as state and federal courts. Many politicians, bureaucrats, judges, and lawyers work and socialize there. Innumerable political deals take place there every day. During Prohibition the Elks Club owned a large multistory building in Downtown Brooklyn. On the top floor was a luxurious bar, the favorite watering hole of all those politicians and judges, including the prosecutors who were enforcing the federal prohibition law. Now, New York State had rescinded state prohibition in 1923, but the federal law remained in force until Repeal in 1933. So almost all those persons who embodied The State in those many political and judicial jurisdictions that were headquartered in Downtown Brooklyn back then were in flagrant violation of the very law that Elliot Ness and his Untouchables were so zealously enforcing.

    When my father was 16, around 1929 or 1930, he worked as an elevator boy at the Elks Club in Downtown Brooklyn. One day there was a big commotion in the lobby, and a man pushed a wheelchair onto my father’s elevator car. My father looked down at the man in the wheelchair. Grinning broadly, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt looked up at him and said in that patrician accent of his: “Take me to be bar, son, I’ve got a helluva thirst!” Upon arriving at the top floor, FDR tipped my father a silver dollar.

    One of Roosevelt’s first actions upon becoming president in 1933 was to set into motion the repeal of alcohol prohibition. Recently in both Colorado and my own state of Washington we the people, through the ballot, have brought about the repeal of cannabis prohibition. We have set a wildfire that will not be extinguished.

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