Did you know that Prohibition is 70 years old? Actually, the repeal of Prohibition is 70 years old today. On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, thus ending the federal government’s policy of alcohol prohibition as established by the 18th Amendment.
H. L. Mencken was a fierce critic of Prohibition, and The American Mercury published the following quote of his in 1925:
Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.
Has history shown that Mencken was accurate in this statement? History responds with a resounding “YES!” People spent much of their time and efforts during Prohibition to skirt around the law or to break it outright. Organized crime took over the production and distribution of liquor in the United States, because Prohibition had raised the cost of booze so high that it was well worth the time and effort for criminals to peddle drinks. But it wasn’t just organized crime that skirted the law; the money that could be reaped from rum-running caused normally law-abiding people to join in. Outlawing booze caused a black market for alcohol to sprout up, and led to all the shadowy people who both bought and sold there. Does anyone in the 21st Century now believe that Prohibition succeeded in creating a “dry” nation? I think we would be hard-pressed today to find more than a few people who still see it as a success.
I am a teetotaler — I completely abstain from drinking liquor for religious reasons. But although I do not drink, I understand that the choice to drink is one of the privileges of freedom. People should be allowed to drink, if they choose. But this privilege also comes with the responsibility to know your drinking limit and not to cross it. Driving while intoxicated, getting smashed and beating the wife, standing before Senators and calling judicial nominees “Neanderthals,” or any other alcohol-impaired action that affects others for the worse is not responsible drinking.
Tobacco smoking is this century’s particular Prohibition. The federal government is sending decidedly mixed signals when it subsidizes tobacco farmers with one hand, and increasingly restricts the use of tobacco in public and increases taxes on tobacco products with the other. Several states have now forbidden smoking in public places, and the outright ban or prohibition of smoking cannot be too far off. In the last decade, Canada hiked up the tax on cigarettes. This produced what any artificially-increased price produces: a black market. The Canadian cigarette black market was so monumentally successful that Canada repealed the tax a few years later. And this idea of high taxes is not limited to just the U.S. and Canada. England has a higher cigarette tax than Europe, so naturally, England has a large black market for cigarettes. This attempt to prohibit smoking through higher taxes has created the same situation everywhere it has been tried, just as occurred during the American alcohol prohibition of the 1920s and ’30s.
I am also a tobacco teetotaler — I completely abstain from using tobacco in any form. But although I do not smoke, I understand that the choice to smoke is one of the privileges of freedom. People should be allowed to smoke, if they choose. But this privilege also comes with the responsibility to recognize how smoking affects you and those around you. Smoking in a home with children, tossing your used butts out the window while driving, puffing smoke in the face of non-smokers, or any other cigarette-related action that affects others for the worse is not responsible smoking.
Yet smoking is not the best example of our nation’s current Prohibition. I am speaking of the prohibition against drugs. For many decades now, our nation has passed stronger and harsher laws against the use and sale of certain recreational drugs. This has increased the cost of drugs and created a thriving black market, as prohibition always does. Organized crime is heavily involved with the production, transportation, and distribution of drugs in our nation, and the high profit potential entices many normally law-abiding people to dabble in drug sales to make a quick buck. Increased jail time for drug users and pushers has not curbed the use of drugs, any more than the jailing of bartenders and moonshiners did last century, but we now have a situation where people who are convicted for drug-related crimes are sometimes punished harsher than those who commit acts of violence. Possession of over 50 grams of crack means a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, while a first-degree rape in the state of New York carries a mandatory minimum sentence of six years. Are we truly safer as a nation with all these drug laws that have created war zones in our inner cities and fund the actions of organized crime?
I am a drug teetotaler — I completely abstain from illegal drugs in any form. But although I do not use drugs, I understand that the choice to use drugs is one of the privileges of freedom. People should be allowed to shoot up heroin, if they choose. But this privilege also comes with the responsibility of curbing your actions while under the influence. Mugging someone for drug money, attacking police while hopped up on angel dust, frying your brains and forcing others to take care of you, or any other drug-related action that affects others for the worse is not responsible drug use.
I do have a problem with the idea of repealing all drug, tobacco and alcohol laws. While I am a firm supporter of personal freedom, I understand that in each of these three cases, there are plenty of people who have abused and will continue to abuse the freedoms of others through the mishandling of drugs, tobacco and alcohol. I believe you should have the right to puff away on a crack pipe, but if you steal to feed your habit, the response from society should be severe. Because the result of mishandled responsibility is so great, society has the right to protect the suffering innocents and punish the offender. Drinking a few beers with the guys while watching the Super Bowl is a responsible use of alcohol, but driving while drunk is not. Doing so proves that you are a menace to society, and a societal menace does not deserve freedoms.
While 70 years separate us from the repeal of Prohibition, I do not see much difference between last century’s attempt to prohibit alcohol use and our current attempts to stop tobacco and drug use. The comment H. L. Mencken made in 1925 is just as valid today. It is still a question of personal freedom and responsible use of that freedom.