Thursday, December 5 marks the eightieth anniversary of the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which ended the prohibition of alcohol in 1933. The amendment repealed the 18th Amendment, passed in 1920, after more than a decade of increased crime, dangerously unregulated products, and a failure to reduce consumption convinced the American public prohibition was an ineffective and destructive way to attack the problems associated with substance use. Alas, it was a lesson quickly forgotten. Decades later America repeated the mistake with the prohibition of drugs, heir to all of the same problems as alcohol prohibition and then some.
As former prosecutor and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition board member James Gierach says, “Al Capone and other gangsters thrived when government outlawed what people wanted. When booze went legit with the 21st Amendment, mobsters had to wait only 40 years before government did it again with drugs. Same problem, same solution: legalize, license, regulate and tax.”
Two comparisons with the current war on drugs are particularly worthy of note.
First, the prohibition of alcohol was actually closer to what reformists today call “decriminalization” – the removal of criminal penalties for use and possession while sales, distribution and manufacture remain prosecutable offenses.
“The 1920s nicely illustrate why legalization and regulation, not decriminalization alone, are the solutions to the problems engendered by the war on drugs,” said LEAP executive director Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), a police officer for 34 years. “As long as illegal markets guarantee high profits, no amount of law enforcement will be able to loosen the stranglehold organized crime has over the drug trade.”
Second, the end of the prohibition of alcohol came not through the federal government, but through the states, the path that seems most likely for the end of the prohibition of marijuana and, eventually, of all drugs. Already, Colorado and Washington have legalized and regulated marijuana, and the momentum is building in states across the country to follow suit in order to reduce violence, increase oversight and realign the priorities of law enforcement officials who have too long been focused on an unwinnable, destructive war on drugs.
“When we finally came to our senses and repealed the prohibition of alcohol 80 years ago, homicides went down appreciably nationwide. We will realize the same phenomenon when we finally repeal drug prohibition.” – Judge James P. Gray (Ret.)
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is a group of law enforcement officials who, after fighting in the front lines of the war on drugs, now advocate for its end.