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Prohibition: Then and Now

Prohibition led to Al Capone and rising crime, violence and corruption, overflowing courts, jails, and prisons, the labeling of tens of millions of Americans as criminals and the consequent broadening of disrespect for the law, the dangerous expansions of federal police powers, encroachments on civil liberties, hundreds of thousands of Americans blinded, paralyzed, and killed by poisonous moonshine and industrial alcohol, and the increasing government expenditure devoted to enforcing the Prohibition laws.

Our government spends billions of dollars a year on arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating drug-law violators. Choked courts and prisons, an incarceration rate higher than most other nations in the world, and tax dollars diverted from education and health care are just a few of the costs our current prohibition imposes. There are health costs in drug prohibition. During the prohibition era, some fifty thousand Americans were paralyzed after consuming "jake," an adulterated Jamaican ginger extract. Today we have marijuana made more dangerous by government-sprayed paraquat.

Prohibition did succeed in reducing alcohol consumption and alcohol-related ills ranging from cirrhosis to public drunkenness and employee related absenteeism. But this was due to the effectiveness of the temperance movement in publicizing the dangers of alcohol. The decline in alcohol consumption during those years, like the recent decline in cigarette consumption, had less to do with laws than with changing social attitudes.

During the 1980s, for example, Americans began switching from hard liquor to beer and wine, from high tar-and-nicotine to low tar-and-nicotine cigarettes, and even from caffeinated to decaffeinated sodas, coffees, and teas.

Alcohol prohibition was repealed after just thirteen years while the prohibition of other drugs has continued for over 75 years. Why? Alcohol prohibition struck directly at society's most powerful members. The prohibition of other drugs, by contrast, threatened far fewer Americans with hardly any political power.

Only the prohibition of marijuana, which nearly 100 million Americans have violated since 1965, has come close to approximating the Prohibition era experience, but marijuana smokers consist mostly of young and relatively powerless Americans, though that may change -- given the tone and content of this article.

"I don't get angry when my mom smokes pot."

--Sublime, "What I Got"

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