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The Similarities of the Prohibition and War on Drugs

Ever since man first discovered the intoxicating powers of certain plants and alchemical

combinations, he has indulged and been addicted. Man enjoys the power of mental and bodily altering

substances. Many puritanical, often religious figures have frowned upon the state of mind that these

drugs bring forth, but a majority of society over the course of history has at least accepted their

existence, if not enjoyed them occasionally. In the last century, however, collective beliefs have

changed. Opponents of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs have increased and

had much louder voices, voices loud enough to drown out the acceptance that has permeated humanity

for a few millennium. The alcohol prohibition in the United States of 1919 to 1933 was one of the first

times a large scale, national criminalization of the production, sale, and use of a drug was instituted,

which has been emulated in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act which continues to date. Although

there are some notable differences in the two cases, there is a surprising lack of disparity overall: in

both cases, criminalization has clearly been a failure, and legality for every drug is the only way to

ensure a safe and free America.

Long before 1919, prohibitionists spoke of the “evils of alcohol” and proclaimed themselves the

“dries,” and those that drank, “wets.” Dries were often loud in their opinions, but they were squelched

by the majority that enjoyed the properties of the drink. There were laws and taxes that procured

income from the manufacturers, transporters, and sellers of alcohol enacted way before 1919, but no

such laws that outright prohibited the sale or use. There was, however, a increasing number of moral

attackers against distilled liquors. They felt alcohol was the cause of a great deal of violence, crime, the

decline of religious affiliation in the country, and the ailments of the liver and other vital organs, and

that prohibition would solve these issues. With the advent of World War 1, the stereotypical German

was often perceived as a brewer or drinker of spirits, which added much fuel to the temperance fire.

Reverend Billy Sunday, a huge proponent of the prohibition, said as the prohibition began, “The reign
of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails

into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and children will laugh.

Hell will be forever for rent.”

Although this hypothesis was logical in concept, it did not turn out so effective in reality. Less

than a week after the Volstead Act, the eighteenth amendment*, was ratified and enacted in 1919,

speakeasies began showing up, illegal pubs that operated as distributors of alcohol to the general

public. There was an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 speakeasies in the country by 1930, and there were

almost seven times more speakeasies in Detroit five years after prohibition began than there were legal

distributors of alcohol prior to the prohibition (McGrew.) The legal supply was eliminated, but the

demand was not curbed by much, perhaps even increased, and thus had to be supplemented by illegal


Alcohol was often brewed at home, in bathtubs or other large vats, often unclean, with methods

that were dangerous in several aspects. Often times the level of alcohol in the drinks were inconsistent,

leading to patrons of the bars unknowingly overdosing until it was far too late. Whiskey made from

wood pulp was one of those drugs born of a myth and wrought with misinformation, with exceedingly

dangerous results; there were hundreds of deaths and cases of blindness.

If the alcohol was not home brewed, it was obtained illegally in another way, either stolen from

government warehouses or shipped across borders or the seas. Al Capone epitomized the breakdown of

the law when he received huge profits from this enormous black market in Chicago, able to bribe the

police and afford to finance other criminal endeavors from the bloodstained cash acquired from

smuggling and bootlegging of the illegal substance. The prohibition allowed him to gain a huge amount

of power that he would never have come close to otherwise. He took advantage of the situation, and

ruled with an iron fist. Thomas Edison, the man who lit the world, died the same day Capone was

convicted, but the Chicago Sunday Tribune eclipsed Edison's death with the huge headline that the
crime lord had been caught by the law. Millions feared his name, and with good reason. Capone is but

one piece of evidence that the prohibition caused more harm than it negated.

In order to obtain alcohol, owners of speakeasies often had to partake in other crimes, not only

against the police, but against other crime syndicates to protect their wares and profits, which often

spilled out onto innocent bystanders. In 1930, there were almost 10 homicides per 100,000 people.

Comparatively, in 1900 there was only one homicide per 100,000 people (McVay.) There was a 9%

increase in theft and burglary crimes due to the prohibition, and a startling 81% increase in arrests of

drunken drivers. One would have expected reports of drunk drivers to decline, but that did not occur.

Nor was there enough police power or funds, despite the millions of dollars diverted to the police (who

were often bribed by criminals and speakeasy owners) and prisons to eliminate speakeasies faster than

they popped up.

Often the primary reason cited for both the prohibition and the War on Drugs is to protect the

rebellious teenagers who would like to experiment with strange substances. They feel that making these

substances illegal would make an obstacle for acquisition and use of drugs and alcohol, and conversely,

keeping them legal would “encourage,” younger audiences to experiment. Once again, this theorycraft

does not coincide with reality. First of all, making a drug illegal makes consistent control and

organization of the drug impossible. It actually makes it easier to obtain than substances controlled and

regulated by legal establishments, confirmed by a study by Court Appointed Special Advocates

(CASA) that found 35% teenagers said Marijuana was the easiest drug to acquire, and only 5% said

alcohol was the easiest drug to acquire. Dealers don’t ask for IDs, and in fact, they often prefer to sell

to teenagers than adults, since there's much less of a chance that the potential buyer will be undercover.

Since there’s no regulated system for determining the potency and purity of Marijuana or other illegal

narcotics, the people selling them can swindle their often dangerously impure and spiked product to ill-

informed customers.
Second, it is part of human nature to desire what is forbidden, just as Adam ate the apple, and

how one finds things most humorous and laughter irresistible when laughter is sacrilegious or

inappropriate. People will want to experiment with strange substances whether or not they are legal, so

providing it to them in a safe and contained manner is the best possible way. In fact, many people may

be less attracted to Marijuana if it was made legal for 18/21+ year olds, because they wouldn’t feel the

rush of breaking the law, and often, these are the exact kind of people that shouldn’t be doing the drugs

in the first place, while the people who do just for the effects are more often than not using it safely and


The War on Drugs was pioneered by Nixon in 1970 with the Controlled Substances Act. The

60s had just passed by, a drug-friendly era of rebellion and defiance that horrified Nixon and other,

more conservative members of the government. He proclaimed the evils of psychedelics, stimulants,

steroids, and Cannabis, ranking them in danger and requiring mandatory prison sentences for

possession, sale, or use. The logic behind it was that if someone was using illegal narcotics, than they

were likely committing other, more serious crimes as well, a fallacious argument that has been time and

time again disproven by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and other organizations for the

illumination of the drug war facts.

Just like the prohibition was conceived from the racist connotations of “German, backstabbing

brewers” during World War 1, the very first pejorative aspects of Marijuana came from the Mexican

immigrants smoking it in the fields during work, and the anti-coke fads of the 1970s supplemented by

the tension from the “Black Power,” movement. Although the reasoning for the continuing

criminalization of drugs never has to do with race, it is an underlying, undeniable aspect of the birth.

Never should something spawned of racism continue period, but especially with such failure, with such


Just as the Prohibition actually caused more crime than it deterred, the War on Drugs has
allowed Mexican Cartels and Columbian crime lords to grow wealthy while simultaneously creating

huge amounts of violence. Since 2004, at least 200 Americans have been killed in Mexico, primarily in

northern, drug heavy border cities, such as Tijuana (Webster.) Roughly 70% of illegal narcotics are

trafficked from Mexico (Creechan.) It may appear that stepping up on border defense mechanisms, and

building a controversial wall would help curb drug intake into the U.S., but that would only escalate the

violence further, while driving up taxes and allocating further, unnecessary expenditures to the War on

Drugs that has overwhelmingly been deemed a failure by qualified politicians and political scientists,

just as the Prohibition has.

If all Schedule I through IV drugs, including but not limited to Marijuana, LSD, Cocaine,

Heroin, Ecstasy, and “Magic Mushrooms,” were legalized and placed under the same laws as alcohol

and Tobacco (21 and older only, same DUI punishments, taxed, etc.) the results may be contrary to

what one would expect. Criminals, street dealers, the Mexican cartels would all immediately start

losing profits as infrastructure for corporate drugs was created. These new companies would provide

satisfactory, pure, unadulterated brands of these drugs in a controlled, highly regulated, and highly

taxed way. Former providers of the drugs would have no way to compete, and would be phased out.

There would likely be a slight spike in use of drugs nationally, but that would quickly die down,

and by no means would people suddenly start madly rushing towards the nearest provider of drugs in

an attempt to try these drugs without fear of legal repercussion or impurity of the drugs. Teenagers

wouldn't be able to acquire it with such ease either, so there would be a clear decline in usage for the

sub-21 demographic. Deaths would decline from every drug, since there would be more education

about them, they would be more pure and consistent, and people wouldn't be afraid to rush to the

hospital after an overdose. Many drugs have been proven to have medical benefits, or have potential, if

only it was legal to study them.

There would be billions of dollars left over, formerly spent on financing the War on Drugs,
ready to be instead spent on educating teenagers on the facts of drugs in an attempt to lower usage, not

to mention the huge amount of taxes made from the sale of the drugs. The court systems would

become unclogged, just as they did in 1933 when the Prohibition ended and no more petty “criminals”

that did nothing more than provide spirits to the public had to be taken to trial, and prisons would

slowly decline in population, improving their quality and increasing the rate of prisoners' rehabilitation

into society.

The Prohibition and War on Drugs are painfully similar in scope and consequences, and thus it

would be logical to end on the utter failure that is the War on Drugs and have it follow the same demise

the Prohibition face. America would be more free of a nation, less contradictory of its own constitution,

a harbinger for other countries to follow.

*Since controlling substances federally was actually against the constitution, and as such a new amendment had to be made.

Creechan, James. "An overview of drug cartels in Mexico" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of

Criminology (ASC), Los Angeles Convention Center, Los Angeles, CA, Nov 01, 2006.
Webster, Michael. “American Death toll in Mexico's drug war surges.” American Chronicle. 15 Dec, 2008. Web. 13 Jan 2010.

McGrew, Jane Lang. “History of Alcohol Prohibition.” Drug Library. n.d. Web. 15 Jan 2010

McVay, Douglas A. Drug War Facts. Canada. ISBN, 2007.