Salvation was in the air. Repeal, also, was in the air. Two weeks before, the lame-duck Congress had turned a somersault and voted the amendment to the Constitution ending Prohibition. The wets were making merry with applejack, bathtub gin and prohibition hooch. “Beer by Easter,” they cried. Forty-one legislatures were in session for the chance to approve the wet amendment and to slap taxes on beer and liquor to save their empty treasuries… The country, the states, the towns needed money – something to tax. And liquor was the richest target. “Revenue,” said one commentator, “unlocked the gates for Gambrinus [beer’s patron saint] and his foaming steed.”
John T. Flynn, writing about the eve of Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration in March 1933 in The Roosevelt Myth.
America’s First Prohibition, on alcohol, ended in 1933, not because it failed – although it most certainly had. Not because the murder rate in America’s cities doubled during 13 years of the “noble experiment.” Not because the enforcement of a law that attempted to prevent people from doing what they went on doing anyway had corrupted the police, courts, legislatures and businesses of the nation. Not because Prohibition handed a share of the economy to a criminal underworld that grew richer than U.S. Steel without paying a penny in tax. Nor because the federal prison population swelled by more than five hundred per cent to accommodate all those who were caught (a small percentage of the offending total) producing, importing, selling and drinking the devil’s liquid.
No, it ended because the Great Crash of 1929, the banking crisis that followed, the loss of tax revenues from business that had gone bust and millions of workers without jobs made it too expensive. The Great Depression killed Prohibition, because the United States just couldn’t afford it.
When Barack Hussein Obama assumes office on January 20th, he should remember the precedent his party set in 1933 and end the Second Prohibition, on drugs. This will create an immediate tax windfall to give the Treasury back more than it lost on Iraq, the bank bailouts and the annual subsidy to Israel. It would also relieve the American taxpayer of the burden of enforcing laws that Pew Center on the States’ Public Performance Project estimated [pdf] cost federal and state governments $20 billion a year. Not a bad savings, when times are tough, especially when the so-called “war on drugs” is failing as surely as the crusade against alcohol did 80 years ago.
The architects of both Prohibitions made sweeping claims for the good they would bring to the American public – an end to the addiction and penury associated with alcohol and narcotics. Both promised to reduce crime on the premise that, once the country had rid itself of chemical self-harm, no more drunks or junkies would commit crimes while in a state of inebriation. That isn’t quite how it worked, however. Crime went up, as criminal killed one another and innocent civilians to control the illegal market. Corruption increased as criminals used their vast wealth to buy judges, prosecutors, cops, city councilmen and the occasional senator. Most American politicians now admit having smoked marijuana in their youth, but that has not stopped them from passing more laws to put the next generation of children into prison. This was no different during the first Prohibition. H. L. Mencken wrote that every city hosting a Republican or Democratic national convention during the 1920s saw its alcohol consumption rise by several hundred per cent for that week. The lawmakers didn’t respect the law, and the usually law-abiding public followed their example.
The great Chicago columnist Mike Royko wrote in 1973 about Swastek’s Tavern, which stayed open throughout Prohibition. Stanley Swastek told Royko how his father, John, stayed in business with the help of Captain Daniel (Tubbo) Gilbert, “a political badge who became known as the world’s richest cop”: “In those days, he was in charge of the district station. He’d come in here and if we took in $10, he figured his share was $20. No wonder he was the world’s richest cop. He could have retired on what he took from us.” Tubbo was not the only one shaking down the saloon keepers, and there are many cops today who take money to look the other way when the goods arrive from Bolivia, Columbia, Mexico, and the hash fields of northern California. Why should that money go to crooked cops rather than to the Treasury, which could spend some of it on drug rehabilitation, education and medical care? Why should narcotics be sold from the backseats of Cadillacs rather than under license from pharmacies?
Legalizing marijuana, heroin, cocaine and other modern equivalents of 1920s gin would not only bring in revenue, it would save billions. The United States has the largest prison population on earth with 2.3 million souls behind bars. Admittedly, things could be worse. If everyone who took a drug illegally were caught and put away, there would be thirty-five million of us doing hard time. Prisons already cost $50 billion a year, but 100% enforcement would raise that to something like $750 billion. And the taxpayer, even in good times, cannot afford that. Instead enforcement has been as selective as the choice of lynchee at a Ku Klux Klan jamboree: white Americans may represent 72% of the drug-taking public, but black Americans comprise 37% of those arrested – and a staggering 42% of federal penitentiary population there for drug crimes.
Repealing the Second Prohibition would save a lot of time and money for the prison service. It might even leave them time for the usually unpracticed remit to rehabilitate. (The US has the highest rate of prison re-admissions in the world.) But other government agencies would benefit as well: U.S. Customs, the Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Agency (which could be dissolved), the U.S. Army in South America, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (which might do something about kidnapping, extortion and bribery instead), every local police force in the 50 states and the Treasury’s own police would no longer waste time and resources hunting for bags of weed and powder.
How much longer will the American taxpayer, who is already paying for Goldman Sachs, the chicanery of Bernie Madoff and the ineptitude of Detroit, afford to subsidize a crusade against his fellow citizens who don’t care whether taking drugs is approved by Washington’s elite or not? Joe Taxpayer would be a lot richer if his government gave the Fabulous Freak Brothers the same break it gives Joe Sixpack.
This time, stupid, it is the economy.