The Seattle PI’s David Horsey waded into the debate on California’s Proposition 19 this week. He looked to parallels with alcohol prohibition to understand our current predicament, but he missed the mark on a few of the details:
My mentor at the start of my journalism career was a man named William F. Asbury. He was a fine newsman and a recovering alcoholic. After he left the newspaper business, he began writing and lecturing about alcoholism prevention and developed a take on Prohibition that went against the conventional wisdom that it was an experiment in social control that did not work.
Apparently, not everyone was sneaking off to a speakeasy during the 1920s. According to Asbury, the ban on booze actually kept a lot of people away from alcohol, lowered the number of broken families and reduced the alcoholism rate.
That’s partially true, but it doesn’t tell the entire story. Once alcohol prohibition officially became the law of the land in 1920, alcohol consumption certainly decreased significantly. Since it was illegal, accurate statistics were hard to come by, but by looking at related statistics like alcohol-related deaths and arrests for public drunkenness, it’s believed that alcohol use quickly returned to about 60-70% of pre-prohibition levels. And in some cities, the number of speakeasies far surpassed the previous number of legal bars.
The gains that Asbury spoke of were a temporary one-time phenomenon that came from the shifting of alcohol production from legal distributors to organized crime syndicates. Once that transition ended, we saw the return of all the problems related to alcohol – with a grisly bonus in the form of significantly higher rates of crime from the organized crimes groups that were making obscene profits from the trade.
It’s likely true that a certain percentage of people who drank before prohibition refrained from breaking the law once it became illegal. But those were primarily folks who aren’t going to have a problem with alcohol ruining their lives in the first place. The barrier that prohibition put up only deterred the people least motivated to have a drink – moderate drinkers who aren’t going to wreck their lives on the stuff.
But there was one other particularly nasty aspect of alcohol prohibition that Horsey doesn’t discuss:
Amid this debate, one question sticks in my mind: What will this do to kids?
Like anyone who has raised children, coached a youth sports team or spent time in schools, I have seen how teenagers – especially boys – can be thrown off track by marijuana. The more they smoke, the less interested they become in school, in sports, in homework or in friends who don’t share their preoccupation with getting high.
Solid medical research has proven that human brains do not fully develop until a person is well into his twenties and that, the earlier a teenager starts using marijuana, the greater the risk of permanent impairment to the parts of the brain that govern rational behavior and mature judgment. The risk is exacerbated by the hugely increased potency of today’s drug, compared with the pot of the 1960s and ’70s. An early marijuana habit may enhance a kid’s prospects for winning a bit part in a Seth Rogen stoner movie, but cuts chances for achievement in most other endeavors.
I completely share Horsey’s concern here, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why we should be supporting Proposition 19 and an end to marijuana prohibition everywhere. While alcohol prohibition did manage to lower overall rates of alcohol consumption, that wasn’t necessarily true for younger people:
Drinking at an earlier age was also noted, particularly during the first few years of Prohibition. The superintendents of eight state mental hospitals reported a larger percentage of young patients during Prohibition (1919-1926) than formerly. One of the hospitals noted: “During the past year (1926), an unusually large group of patients who are of high school age were admitted for alcoholic psychosis” (Brown, 1932:176).
In determining the age at which an alcoholic forms his drinking habit, it was noted: “The 1920-1923 group were younger than the other groups when the drink habit was formed” (Pollock, 1942: 113).
Even worse, since there was a strong incentive to avoid getting caught with alcohol, drinking smaller quantities of more powerful forms of alcohol became more common. People carried flasks of homemade liquors as opposed to drinking less potent beers. When it came to preventing younger people from developing bad habits with alcohol, prohibition was a serious step back from the pre-prohibition era. And it’s very likely that if prohibition had continued for another generation that the end result would have been much worse than the problems of alcoholism before prohibition.
This is similarly true for marijuana prohibition today, as high school students continually report that it’s easier for them to obtain marijuana than alcohol. And compared to Holland, where marijuana sales have been tolerated for over 30 years, American teenagers use marijuana at a much higher rate. If Horsey is concerned about teenage drug use, his worries seem to be misplaced. It’s our current policies that put more young people at risk, not the policies that would exist with the passage of Proposition 19.