« Long Overdue Change | Main | Marijuana's Delayed Popularity; the Case Against the Drug War »

December 27, 2010

Prohibition and Addiction: 1

In 1918, the United States ratified the 18th Amendment to its Constitution, a step intended to reduce alcohol consumption. Although known ever since then as Prohibition, it did not make consumption of alcohol by an individual citizen illegal; only its commercial production and sale. Even so, the new policy represented a radical social change its supporters justified by claiming it would induce the working-class men then frequenting saloons and spending their wages on alcohol to bring them home for the benefit of their families. Thus the new policy represented a risky experiment in utopianism based on an amalgam of Morality, Public Health, and some novel assumptions about respect for the Law. The tactic of choosing a Constitutional Amendment was equally simplistic: similar laws had been passed at the state level; not once but several times in the mid Nineteenth Century, but had always failed because of a combination of smuggling across state lines and prompt replacement of the legislators who had passed them.

After formation of the Anti-Saloon League in Ohio, the strategy shifted because it was assumed an Amendment would be too difficult to repeal and that smuggling across international borders could be more readily controlled. It was also assumed that having a national law would somehow ensure its observance; thus the cost of arresting and punishing law breakers would shrink after the first few years. When the “bad apples” were weeded out (it was claimed) the cost of enforcement would be drastically reduced. The policy's most enthusiastic advocates really oversold it egregiously as an essential step toward utopia that was guaranteed to succeed.

We know what happened instead; even as Prohibition was going into effect on January 16, 1920, the first illegal stills were running full blast. Alcohol consumption had simply been too important a part of the American experience from the earliest Colonial days to expect it to be “controlled” by voluntary compliance with a simplistic law. That the "Noble Experiment" lasted fourteen years is both amazing and a sad commentary on the intelligence of the American polity; that we have yet to learn- or even admit- that our failing "Drug Control" policy is really one of prohibition that has been failing for the same reasons as the Eighteenth Amendment raises even more serious questions about "human nature;" particularly in terms of intelligence, honesty, and our vaunted cognitive ability.

Finally; that our domestic drug policy failure became global through a UN treaty raises exactly the same doubts about our species, which is the major reason I see global acceptance of marijuana prohibition as both an important litmus test and an urgent problem.

I'm very aware that raising such questions two days after Christmas is unwelcome; however time seems to be running out on us in other cognitive areas as well, so I see no reason to soft pedal the bad news.

We'll either wake up in time to save ourselves or we won't.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at December 27, 2010 07:57 PM