When Colorado and Washington voters passed measures legalizing recreational marijuana last week, they demonstrated—probably unknowingly—a rueful familiarity with the failure of Prohibition.
Guess whether I’m describing the 2010s (before last week, at least) or the 1920s: Government strictures make it impossible for people to legally acquire a substance they want. However, anyone who really wants it has no trouble getting it. As a direct result, large criminal enterprises create a vast underground—and not-so-underground—market. The federal prison system is forced to expand.
Also: The amount of money on the table is so great that these criminal enterprises engage in outright warfare with each other to get their hands on it. The flow of contraband across one of our international borders becomes a flood. Government spending on enforcement grows and grows, but the market isn’t curtailed. All the while, local, state, and federal governments in desperate need of revenue watch helplessly as hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal profits remain beyond the tax man’s reach.
Of course, I’m speaking of both then and now.
Another parallel: In the 1920s, one of the few ways to get liquor legally was to purchase a prescription from your physician—the going rate was $3 each—and take it to the local pharmacy. Today, Southern Californians can go to Venice Beach and find doctors advertising the on-the-spot availability of prescriptions, which can be filled at licensed dispensaries.
The only difference? As with everything else, the price has gone up.
Personally, I carry no brief for marijuana. I never liked the stuff myself, and when my now-grown kids were indulging, it filled me with anxious concern (and introduced a great deal of lying into the child-parent relationship).
But after spending five years researching and writing Last Call, my history of Prohibition, I could not ignore the reality confronting me: Prohibition didn’t work then, and for exactly the same reasons, it doesn’t work now. If people want something badly enough, they will find a way to get it. Every known society has tried to get rid of prostitution, and that hasn’t worked, either.
Now Colorado and Washington can help us find out whether modern prohibition mirrors its predecessor in another way. Of all the anomalies and ironies of the original Prohibition, the most startling one I discovered was this: It was harder to limit liquor consumption during Prohibition than afterward.
Before Prohibition was repealed, anyone capable of bribing the local cops—and in Philadelphia, that appeared to be almost everybody—could sell liquor anytime, anyplace, to anybody. Fifteen-year-old kid wants a double shot at 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning? No problem.
But when repeal arrived, suddenly there was regulation. In Pennsylvania and many other states after repeal, only the state itself could sell liquor; in others, strictly licensed retailers controlled the market. Age limits took effect. Blue laws put liquor out of reach on Sundays. Bars were compelled to close during certain hours, and those that violated regulations lost their licenses.
Bootleggers had to find new businesses, and the vast majority of them ended up in legal enterprises. Per-capita alcohol consumption didn’t return to pre-Prohibition levels for years.
And this is especially important, given the condition of our modern state and federal treasuries: Governments began collecting taxes on alcohol. In 1934, the first post-Prohibition year, taxes on potable alcohol accounted for fully 9 percent of federal revenue. State taxes were similarly bountiful.
The short answer? Tax, regulate, and legalize. What we’re doing now isn’t working, and it’s costing us an awful lot.
Daniel Okrent is the author of Last Call and the curator of the National Constitution Center exhibition American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
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