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4 Lessons America Can Learn from Alcohol Prohibition

By David Jenison

4 Lessons America Can Learn from Alcohol Prohibition

A century ago this month, the Senate passed a resolution that started America down the road to alcohol prohibition, which went into effect as the law of the land in January 1920. Thirteen years later, America reversed course. The reasons for the dramatic change illuminate the many problems associated with prohibition, be it alcohol or cannabis. 

Prohibition Invited Corruption

In 2014, The Nation published “The Real Reason Pot Is Still Illegal,” and author Lee Fang wrote the following: “During Prohibition, the Eighteenth Amendment was enforced through a law called the Volstead Act, which exempted federal liquor enforcement agents from Progressive-era civil service exams. Without these exams, the Prohibition Unit became a vehicle for awarding patronage jobs to political allies. Almost immediately, these 18,000 federal jobs were marked by scandal and corruption. According to one Treasury agent, the ‘most extraordinary collection of political hacks, hangers-on, and passing highwaymen got appointed as prohibition agents.’ They set up illegal roadblocks, killed innocent civilians, and extorted money from bootleggers rather than arresting them. The wet lobby successfully pushed to re-establish civil service exams for the Prohibition Unit in the late 1920s—a shift that embarrassed dry-lobby supporters, because nearly two-thirds of all agents couldn’t pass the entrance exam. Further weakening support for Prohibition, the Supreme Court declared it illegal in 1927 for local judges to pay themselves with a share of the fines collected from Volstead Act cases.”

The Supreme Court said local judges cannot take a share of the fines collected from alcohol-related violations, but law enforcement saw no problem taking its share from cannabis-related offenses. Modern seizure laws allow law enforcement to take property, assets and cash without a conviction or even charging an individual if cannabis is somehow involved. In 2015, the Washington Post characterized the issue in this headline: “Law enforcement took more stuff from people than burglars did last year.” How big was their haul? In 2014, the Treasury and Justice Departments raked in more than $5 billion. 

“The seizure law—it’s astounding that this is constitutionally allowed—where the DEA can seize your house, car and other things if you're in possession of a supposedly illegal drug,” former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura told PRØHBTD. “The laws allow them to do that without even proving you’re guilty. It happens without a court involved, and then you must go to court to get your stuff back. In other words, you're guilty until proven innocent, which runs in the face of the basic concept of law in our country. It's horrid.”

Prohibition Hurt the Economy

Historian Michael Lerner, writing for PBS, explained, “Prohibition's supporters were initially surprised by what did not come to pass during the dry era. When the law went into effect, they expected sales of clothing and household goods to skyrocket. Real estate developers and landlords expected rents to rise as saloons closed and neighborhoods improved. Chewing gum, grape juice, and soft drink companies all expected growth. Theater producers expected new crowds as Americans looked for new ways to entertain themselves without alcohol. None of it came to pass…. On the whole, the initial economic effects of Prohibition were largely negative. The closing of breweries, distilleries and saloons led to the elimination of thousands of jobs, and in turn thousands more jobs were eliminated for barrel makers, truckers, waiters, and other related trades.” 

The problem did not stop there. One of the most profound consequences involved lost tax revenue and a new focus on funding the government through income tax. 

Lerner continued, “With Prohibition in effect, that revenue was immediately lost. At the national level, Prohibition cost the federal government a total of $11 billion in lost tax revenue, while costing over $300 million to enforce. The most lasting consequence was that many states and the federal government would come to rely on income tax revenue to fund their budgets going forward.”

Cannabis prohibition already costs taxpayers billions of dollars, and as previously reported by PRØHBTD, a fully enforced prohibition would cost about the equivalent of 25 percent of all revenue from federal income tax. 

Prohibition Inspired Insidious Acts

According to the 1962 book Prohibition: The Era of Excess, prohibitionists argued that alcohol offenders should be punished with torture, lashings, sterilization, death, concentration camps, brandings, being forced to drink castor oil, public imprisonment in glass bottles and even being hung by one’s own tongue. While most of this did not happen, the crusaders did find a way to murder alcohol consumers. 

Slate.com published “The Chemist’s War” in 2010 explaining how the federal government “ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols… regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits.” The idea was to deter lawbreakers by increasing alcohol consumption risks, and if lawbreakers died because of it, some argued they got what they deserved. Indeed, the so-called “chemist’s war” added another 10,000 fatalities to prohibition’s kill list.

A Chicago Tribune editorial criticized the poisoning in 1927 saying, “It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified,” while Omaha Bee asked, "Must Uncle Sam guarantee safety first for souses?" NYC’s chief medical examiner Charles Norris summed it up best as “Our national experiment in extermination.”

The federal government has not directly poisoned cannabis plants, but it did use taxpayer money to finance synthetic cannabis, which has killed many Americans. The idea was to create a fake version of the plant that might provide the medical benefits of the real deal (and allow for corporate copyrights), but instead it built its own body count. 

Prohibition Didn’t Work

In the aforementioned PBS article, historian Michael Lerner recounted, “In 1928 and 1929, nearly two-thirds of the criminal cases in federal courts were related to Prohibition, and in 1930 federal prisons housed twice the number of prisoners they could normally accommodate. In May 1929, President Hoover appointed a commission to study ‘Law Observance and Enforcement.’ The commission, in its report released in January 1931, recommended efforts to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, but its findings indicated how difficult that would be. The report documented increased consumption of alcohol, a rise in criminal activity associated with the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, and the crushing burden on law enforcement forces and the nation’s courts.”

When America finally wised up and repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, the alcohol prohibitionists quickly sought a new substance to ban, and they kept their jobs by demonizing cannabis, which they called “more dangerous than cocaine or opium.” Cannabis prohibition turns 80 in 2017, and taxpayers have spent a fortune financing its enforcement. The result: Cannabis use is at an all-time high, and 60 percent of the country wants its prohibition to end. 

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