84th Anniversary of Prohibition Repeal

By David Jenison on December 8, 2017

"The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the Prohibition law," wrote Albert Einstein in 1921. "For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this."

In detailing his impressions of the U.S., Einstein expressed this criticism of Prohibition, which took effect one year earlier with the Eighteenth Amendment. Prohibition finally ended on December 5, 1933, a date now celebrated each year as Repeal Day. In the eight-plus decades since, many historians examined the negative outcomes Prohibition produced and determined that the "great social and economic experiment" was good neither for society nor the economy. These lessons provide many parallels to the ongoing cannabis prohibition, which will hopefully celebrate its own annual Repeal Day in the near future. 

Prohibition Invited Corruption

In 2014, The Nation published “The Real Reason Pot Is Still Illegal,” and author Lee Fang wrote, "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."

Anti-Prohibition forces successfully lobbied to re-establish civil service exams for the Prohibition Unit in the late 1920s, and this humiliated the anti-alcohol movement as nearly two-thirds of all agents couldn't pass the entrance exam. Further highlighting the corruption, the Supreme Court in 1927 felt the need to prohibit local judges from taking a share of the fines collected from alcohol-use offenders. Tragically, law enforcement currently has no such problem taking its share from cannabis-use offenders. 

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—[lets] the DEA 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."

Prohibition Relied on Untrue Propaganda

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) actively promoted the "scientific fact" that most beer drinkers die from edema or swelling, while so-called scholars produced a new version of the Bible that removed all references to alcohol. The propaganda even made its way into the classroom as prohibitionists insisted that school books only describe alcohol as poison. After Prohibition ended, the same government propagandists that vilified alcohol launched a hysteria-driven misinformation campaign against cannabis, claiming the plant turned people into murderers, rapists and lunatics. 

"In 1933, you find the end of Prohibition, and alcohol becomes legal nationally once again," University of Kansas professor Dr. Barney Warf told PRØHBTD. "That's when the 'elite-engineered' moral panic begins… [as former Prohibition agents] began this very conscientious campaign to demonize cannabis. They would have hearings in Congress and in state legislatures where you would get a doctor—someone who had never seen cannabis in their life— to come up and say, 'Well, I heard some Mexican guy smoked weed and then he killed his family with an ax.' It was just hearsay, but that was good enough [to make cannabis] illegal."

Prohibition Hurt the Economy

Writing for PBS, historian Michael Lerner argued, "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 Great Depression already had America in dire straits, and Prohibition only made it worse. Restaurants unable to support themselves with alcohol sales closed in droves, and unemployment skyrocketed as distillers, service staff and other related professions met with prohibition-driven pink slips. And 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."

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. 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 Empowered Organized Crime

The Eighteenth Amendment did reduce the availability of alcohol in the first few years, but it made bootlegging a highly profitable endeavor, and an unparalleled wave of organized crime followed. Prohibition enriched and empowered criminal empires with violent gangsters like Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, "Lucky" Luciano, "Nucky" Johnson and Bugsy Siegel whose names remain famous to this day. 

Organized crime kept alcohol on the street, and New York City alone had an estimated 30,000 speakeasies at its peak. This meant a massive loss of tax revenue and increased spending as the government dumped huge sums into law enforcement and prisons. At the same time, Prohibition increased fatality rates associated with alcohol. Bootlegging meant more bloodshed on the street, but it also meant the unregulated production of alcohol that was often less safe to consume. Likewise, Prohibition led to increased binge drinking, which in turn led to a dramatic increase in alcohol poisoning.

Prohibition Doesn'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."

The Treasury spent a fortune trying to enforce this economy-stripping repression, and the massive expenditure included hiring countless agents at the Federal Prohibition Bureau. What happened to these people after repeal? Harry Anslinger, the former No. 2 at the Prohibition Bureau, headed up the newly formed Bureau of Narcotics and absorbed many of the former Prohibition agents into the fold. The new bureaucracy put its primary focus on cannabis, and Anslinger himself told Congress that cannabis is "more dangerous than cocaine or opium." He got his new prohibition shortly after making that demonstrably untrue claim. 

Cannabis prohibition turned 80 in October, and taxpayers have spent a fortune financing its enforcement. The result: Cannabis use is at an all-time high, and 64 percent of the country wants cannabis prohibition to end. Clearly it's high time for old man prohibition to retire. 

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