Prohibition: Pot v. Liquor

two-new-books-explore-wine-bootlegging-during-prohibition_3566450_40I’ve found Prohibition to be the most fascinating aspect of the utterly fascinating Roaring Twenties. In the course of my research over the past several years, I’ve learned a lot, most of which does not fit into my mystery series (hence this blog). What shocked me most was not the hypocrisy of the era, not the violence, not the wholesale corruption, but the parallel between the prohibition of alcohol and the prohibition of marijuana. All I had to do was substitute the word “pot” for the word “liquor” and the story reads the same.

During Prohibition, there were exceptions for medical liquor, just as there are exceptions in many states for medical marijuana. And those exceptions were flagrantly abused. During Prohibition, some people (farmers, for instance) could legally make hard cider or wine at home for home use. Similar exceptions exist in some states for small amounts of homegrown marijuana plants. During Prohibition, the medical community switched from saying that alcohol had no medicinal value to saying that it had significant medical value. Most doctors now say that pot has medicinal value.

Prohibition led directly to the rise of an international crime syndicate that smuggled liquor into the United States from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Canada. The prohibition of pot has led to the creation of an international crime syndicate that smuggles pot into the U.S. from Mexico and the Caribbean (not so much from Canada). The gangsters during the 1920s were gruesomely violent, the murder rate almost doubled, many innocent bystanders were killed. The drug cartels of today are gruesomely violent, turning entire countries or parts of countries into narco-states, and many innocent people are being killed.

During Prohibition, the vast amounts of money corrupted the legal system, bribing policemen, judges, lawyers, juries, and politicians, and buying murders. Today in many countries and parts of the U.S., drug money is corrupting the legal system, bribing or  terrorizing policemen, judges, lawyers, juries, and politicians, murdering many. During Prohbition, imprisoned gangsters could operate from inside prison; today, many of the imprisoned drug dealers operate from inside their prisons. Prohibition of alcohol cost the country millions and millions of dollars over 13 years to enforce–and was unenforceable. Prohibition of pot costs our country billions of dollars to enforce and is not enforceable. In the 1920s, courts and prisons overflowed with people who had broken the Prohibition laws but who were otherwise not criminal or violent. Today our courts and prisons are overflowing with nonviolent people who have broken our drug laws. 

I used to be one of the majority of Americans who believed that marijuana should be illegal. My immersion in the 1920s has convinced me I was wrong.

In hindsight, Prohibition looks so stupid to all of us, so doomed to failure, so utterly wrong that most of us wonder how on earth such a law came about. (Read LAST CALL of you want the shocking details.) So now I’ve come to believe the prohibition of marijuana is equally stupid. 

Do you know what surprised me? It was actually HARDER to get a drink after Prohibition ended in 1933 than it was during Prohibition (1920-1933). Why? Because of regulation. When government regulation came back into effect in 1933, there were once again rules–laws limiting the number of bars in a particular area, the days of the week they could operate (not on Sunday), the hours they could operate (not 24 hours a day), the sort of people they served (not children), and where they could go (not near schools or churches). Legal booze, unlike illegal rotgut, was made by legal breweries, distilleries, and wineries where quality could be monitored; illegal booze killed people because it was often made with poison. Alcohol-related deaths declined once alcohol was legal. And people started drinking more beer and wine and less hard liquor. The crime world was removed from the liquor supply system and violence declined. (Unfortunately, the gangster organizations didn’t disappear because there were still plenty of illegal moneymaking opportunities in drugs, prostitution, gambling, and extortion.) 

So oddly enough, my research into the Prohibition era has had the unexpected effect of changing my opinion about legalized pot. What about you? 

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Published in: on May 31, 2014 at 8:33 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. Mary, I agree 100%. I think this is something that strikes any student of the 1920s, & I firmly believe that tax, regulation and education are a better approach to managing potentially dangerous substances (among which alcohol has to be ranked pretty highly) than criminalization and urban warfare.


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