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October 2, 2011

As criticisms of pot prohibition continues, new PBS documentary "Prohibition" is must-watch TV

S4791-lg I highly recommend everyone join me in setting the DVR to record the new PBS three-part documentary "Prohibition."   In my town, this terrific-looking program begins airing tonight (Sunday, Oct. 2); I am hopeful that even those without TVs can find ways to watch the whole series via this official website.  Here is a preview from that site:

PROHIBITION is a three-part, five-and-a-half-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that tells the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed.  The culmination of nearly a century of activism, Prohibition was intended to improve, even to ennoble, the lives of all Americans, to protect individuals, families, and society at large from the devastating effects of alcohol abuse.

But the enshrining of a faith-driven moral code in the Constitution paradoxically caused millions of Americans to rethink their definition of morality.  Thugs became celebrities, responsible authority was rendered impotent. Social mores in place for a century were obliterated.  Especially among the young, and most especially among young women, liquor consumption rocketed, propelling the rest of the culture with it: skirts shortened.  Music heated up.  America's Sweetheart morphed into The Vamp.

Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun, encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country.  With Prohibition in place, but ineffectively enforced, one observer noted, America had hardly freed itself from the scourge of alcohol abuse — instead, the "drys" had their law, while the "wets" had their liquor.

The story of Prohibition's rise and fall is a compelling saga that goes far beyond the oft-told tales of gangsters, rum runners, flappers, and speakeasies, to reveal a complicated and divided nation in the throes of momentous transformation.  The film raises vital questions that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago: about means and ends, individual rights and responsibilities, the proper role of government and finally, who is — and who is not — a real American.

I do not think one needs to be a committed critic of the modern war on drugs to be worried that, now in 2011, the enduring national prohibition on marijuana often "turn[s] law-abiding citizens into criminals, [makes] a mockery of the justice system, [causes] illicit [drug use] to seem [comical] and fun, encourage[s] neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permit[s] government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and foster[s] cynicism and hypocrisy."  

I am rooting not only for this documentary to be a stark reminder of the failures of alcohol prohibition, but also for it to encourage new persons ask hard questions "about means and ends, individual rights and responsibilities, the proper role of government" and American virtues and values in conjunction with modern federal pot prohibtion.

October 2, 2011 at 01:40 PM | Permalink


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I'm skeptical that our "leaders" will manage to see the parallels. The reason the old Prohibition failed is because it was unpopular to begin with, so it was easier to convince legislators that it was an unmitigated failure. The current Prohibition is just as disastrous, but is slightly more popular, and its destructiveness falls upon people who are not well-represented politically. Because it is more popular a policy, it is easier for the government to sell misinformation to the populace, who are primed to believe the propaganda. Finally, the current Prohibition has created enormous economic incentives for powerful interests who lobby for its continuation: prison guard unions, private prison companies, local governments who benefit from seizures and federal grants, law enforcement organizations, drug "treatment" companies, and others all will see their bottom lines suffer dramatically from legalization (so would the illegal drug cartels, but they don't have a viable political voice).

Posted by: C.E. | Oct 2, 2011 9:23:50 PM

Prohibition was associated with explosive economic growth, huge drops in medical consequences of alcohol consumption, and huge decreases in its social welfare costs. That was true with only a 50% reduction in consumption of alcohol, due to the protection of the lawyer of the alcohol industry,in betraying the constitution and our nation. Second to syphilis, alcohol was the biggest cause of hospitalization in gigantic state hospitals. So, lots of government workers lost their jobs just from a 50% reduction in consumption. That is why it was repealed.

Crime markedly dropped since half the murderers are legally drunk, as are half the murder victims. You will never hear that from that Commie propaganda outlet, PBS. They will never advocate for any remedy that reduces the size of government.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 2, 2011 10:30:44 PM

So you think Prohibition "reduced" the size of government, SC? Do you make the same claim about the modern "war on drugs"?

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 3, 2011 8:30:14 AM

I saw about half of the first episode, and I found it fascinating. I had not been very well informed about the details of the 18th Amendment's adoption, and I thought the German angle (association of beer brewers with German-ness, combined with massive anti-German sentiment in run-up to our entry to WWI) was particularly interesting. The temperance organizers/leaders seem to have been very skilled politically.

I do wonder if the second or third episode will have any voices specifically addressing/debating the parallels (or lack thereof) between Prohibition and our current era of prohibitory laws.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 3, 2011 12:04:58 PM

(Not that you had to be Lee Atwater to come up with the German/Hun angle... just to clarify, I was referring not just to that particular tack, but to the overall guiding of the movement over the first two decades of the century, as described in the program.)

Posted by: Anon | Oct 3, 2011 12:06:18 PM

Supremacy Claus, can you give a cite or a link to support any of the stuff you wrote above? For example, where do you get the "50% reduction in consumption of alcohol" figure? Considering reading this ( http://ow.ly/6LZCt ) from the Cato Institute:

"Although consumption of alcohol fell at the beginning of Prohibition, it subsequently increased. Alcohol became more dangerous to consume; crime increased and became "organized"; the court and prison systems were stretched to the breaking point; and corruption of public officials was rampant. No measurable gains were made in productivity or reduced absenteeism."

That is just the historical fact of prohibition. It was a total failure. The contemporary war on drugs is a rehash of the same situation, except vastly more expensive.

Posted by: Alex | Oct 3, 2011 1:15:08 PM

Prof. Berman: The current War on Drugs is a failure except in the expansion of government and rent seeking. One has to explain why a failing policy continues for decades. The only answer can be people are profiting from it.

The rate of drug use is lower than with no enforcement. The rate of opiate abuse by American soldiers in Vietnam was around 40%, but it falls to around 5% back in the US. The US users are similar in character to non-vet users in the US. However, the rate of abuse was not brought down when compared to prior US usage. I oppose the current policy, and would support either a more draconian approach to a drug free America, or an end to drug laws. No legalization could ever match the damage done by cigarettes and alcohol, yet these are legal (medical rent seeking is as big as lawyer rent seeking).

Here is what the War on Drugs has achieved.

1) Criminalization of millions of non-sociopaths. Generating massive lawyer fees.

2) Massive costs for police, judiciaries, and prisons, and large numbers of people working for the government or government contractors.

3) Consuming police time away from the FBI Index felonies, which are real crimes.

4) Bringing opprobrium on the legal system that clamps down on marijuana killing hundreds, mostly in car crashes, few from the effects of marijuana, yet stupidly allowing substances that kill 500,000 people the rough way, by slow suffocation from emphysema, lung cancer, and other painful, prolonged deaths. The legal system looks stupid.

A long time ago, on this blog, I proposed a solution that allows adults the freedom to use intoxicating substances for fun, yet remedies all the damages of these substance from addictiveness. The Adult Pleasure License. At 18, (preferably 14), everyone gets one. Then count to 3. The wife complains she got beaten while the person was drunk. The police report a DUI. The boss reports an accident was caused by drunkedness at work. You lose your Adult Pleasure license. Anyone serving an unlicensed person has Draconian conseqeuences. So the government, nor the wife, cannot track your Adult Pleasure pruchases, the verification records are destroyed monthly. Police would need a court order to look them, only after showing probable cause of a crime.

The effect? Close half the prison beds. Cut health costs and jobs by 25% minimum. Lower the murder and suicide rates by 50%, at no additional cost, with no innovation in treatment. Cut half the 40,000 car crashes, you are properly concerned about.

Why not? Because when we say, cut the consequences and the costs, we are talking about laying off millions of people. There is no concerned constituency for ending the problems of substance abuse, not even the business community, which would lose a lot too.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 3, 2011 3:06:22 PM

'The Adult Pleasure License'

I like the sound of that, has an interesting 'ring' to it.

Posted by: comment | Oct 3, 2011 6:27:26 PM

Alex: This an easy place to start. Nice review, and non-partisan.

Musto, David F. (1996), “Alcohol in American History,” Scientific American, April, 78-83.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 3, 2011 6:41:41 PM

Comment: As with any change in law, the Adult Pleasure License should be instituted in a small jurisdiction with valid measures of safety and effectiveness, and tolerability of unintended consequences, most unforeseeable. If it does well, try it again in a larger jurisdiction, then have it go national, if it has the support of the public persuaded by outcome facts. A law that is rammed through, like Prohibition, will fail.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 3, 2011 6:44:54 PM

C.E. ~

You left out the ATF, DEA, judges, and prosecutors... an end to failed drug policy would surely increase the unemployment rate.

Posted by: Huh? | Oct 6, 2011 4:56:42 PM

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