Today was Repeal Day, the anniversary of the official end of America’s brief experiment with alcohol prohibition. On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, and it once again became legal in the United States to manufacture and sell alcoholic beverages.
I’ve just finished reading Daniel Okrent’s incredibly well-researched book on the subject, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. The history of alcohol prohibition has unmistakeably strong parallels to our current prohibition on marijuana. And that begs the question, will it come crashing down in much the same way?
The end of alcohol prohibition came much quicker than mostly everyone expected at the time. By amending the Constitution to outlaw the production and distribution of alcohol (or, more specifically, “intoxicating liquors”), many people thought – even right up to the end – that it would be nearly impossible to undo. But just as overwhelming popular support for getting rid of the saloon in the 1910s ushered in huge majorities of dry-voting legislatures across the country, the experience of alcohol prohibition – with organized crime, political corruption, and overzealous enforcement – led to similarly overwhelming support for repeal less than two decades later.
In some ways, marijuana prohibition is quite similar to its ancestor. Each prohibition led to significant levels of organized crime and to corruption among government officials and law enforcement. In each case, the attempts to keep adults from engaging in an activity strictly on moral grounds backfired and led to less moderation and riskier behaviors. And even earnest law enforcement efforts were helpless to do anything to prevent black markets from arising, often leading them to more extreme tactics that often put the citizenry at far more risk than the intoxicating substances themselves.
But there are some major differences. One is that much of the organized crime and corruption caused by the current prohibition is based outside of the United States. The rampant official corruption that accompanied the astronomical profits from bootlegging liquor has its strongest parallel today to the drug trafficking organizations of Mexico, who’ve been able to subvert Mexico’s justice system to an amazing extent. I cringe when I hear people claim that Mexico’s corruption problem is a function of Mexico’s culture. That’s bullshit. As Okrent explains, America’s law enforcement mechanisms were just as corrupted during alcohol prohibition as Mexico’s are today. The problem is the policy, not the people.
Another striking difference about the respective eras is how tame the police abuses were that caused widespread outrage during alcohol prohibition. Part of this stems from the fact that the average alcohol consumer was mostly left alone under the legal framework set forth by the Volstead Act. This is very different from today, where hundreds of thousands of mere marijuana users are arrested every year. The fact that even well-liked celebrities are not immune from its enforcement represents a fairly significant difference between then and now. One example given by Okrent was of a Chicago-area woman who was shot to death because her husband was believed to be a bootlegger. As a result, the Chicago Tribune used the incident to rail against prohibition. In today’s prohibition, wrong-door raids and innocent bystanders being killed are not seen as the extraordinary aberrations they were at that time, and are often completely ignored by our media.
But the main difference – and the one that has allowed marijuana prohibition to continue to such an absurd point – is that unlike alcohol prohibition, there’s no “before” for people to draw comparisons to. With alcohol prohibition, people were able to compare the world of alcohol prohibition to what it was like before it was outlawed. People could see the organized crime, violence, and corruption that existed in 1930 and they knew that all of that didn’t exist in 1918. We don’t have that 20/20 hindsight today. When marijuana was outlawed at the federal level in 1937, very few Americans used it or even knew what it was. The tremendous growth in its popularity occurred entirely within the confines of prohibition, so the negative effects of that policy seem far more “normal”.
So today, we face a battle with some historical parallels, but also some fairly significant differences. Al Smith, the losing Presidential candidate of 1928, was against prohibition. He lost handily to the Republican Herbert Hoover, but the fact that he took that position in the first place shows how different the two prohibitions were from a political standpoint. Not a single U.S. Senator of either party has come out in support of ending marijuana prohibition, and only a handful of House members have. For an issue that polls at over 40% support nationwide (and over 50% along the west coast), this is an extraordinary disconnect between the people and our politicians.
So how will it end? If Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D-36) is reading the political climate correctly, it will end right here in Washington this year:
State Representative Mary Lou Dickerson (D-36, Queen Anne and Ballard) wants to go all the way—RIGHT NOW.
According to a bill she intends to pre-file this month for the 2011 legislative session, “We would legalize it, regulate it, and tax it,” she says. “I am serious. We have been wasting scores of millions of dollars on arresting and jailing people who have done nothing more than smoke marijuana recreationally. That has ended up harming people and costing taxpayers tremendously. So it’s a very high cost to individuals and to taxpayers—it’s a wrongheaded policy that simply needs to be changed. People need to stick their neck out and say enough already and people are starting to do that. You will see that we will have a very good sponsor [for a companion bill to legalize marijuana] in the senate, someone who is very well respected. I am dead serious about this.”
Dickerson expects the bill will pass—she was unflinching when faced with my skepticism based on the failure of less aggressive pot bills—because polling this year showed 54 percent support to legalize marijuana in Washington, she says. She’s working with the ACLU and she plans another round of polling before the session begins in January. “If we don’t pass it this year, there’s a possibility we will take our case to the people in the initiative process in 2012,” she says.
We’ll find out if Dickerson’s optimism is warranted. There have been a number of signs recently that do point in this direction. California’s initiative was the first statewide initiative on ending marijuana prohibition that failed not because of general opposition to the idea, but to the specifics of the proposal. We’re now at the point where state legislators are understanding that this is a reality, and that either they regulate it, or an initiative will regulate it for them, perhaps not in a way the legislature would consider ideal.
And that leads to what might end up being the most interesting parallel in how both prohibitions end. What likely accelerated the demise of alcohol prohibition the most was the state of the economy. As the boom of the 1920s led to the Depression of the 1930s, that revenue that had been lost by enacting the 18th Amendment loomed much larger. Today, the parallel is obvious, and the precarious economic situation that Washington state finds itself in may bring about a political sea change on a issue that was once thought untouchable.