NEW YORK – U.S. President Barack Obama recently took some heat for saying that marijuana is no worse than alcohol, and perhaps less dangerous “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.” The comparison between pot and alcohol is apt. The growing disenchantment with the war on drugs parallels the nation’s rejection and repeal of Prohibition 80 years ago. Little wonder that proponents of marijuana have used this history to justify legalization.
Unfortunately parallels can be misleading. Yes, history helps us understand what may happen if we legalize recreational marijuana. But the lessons of Prohibition’s rise and fall are a bit more sobering than both sides of the debate may realize. The story of Prohibition is straightforward: Moralizers banned alcohol, but Americans still wanted their booze. Criminals happily supplied it, and before too long Al Capone and company controlled the supply of alcohol. After 13 years of rising criminality and soaring alcohol consumption, Americans repealed Prohibition. Liberty triumphed over an overbearing nanny state.
It’s a nice story. It’s also wrong.
Let’s begin with the popular image of bootleggers and criminals. While a few high-profile figures held sway in a handful of big cities, alcohol production and distribution were overwhelmingly decentralized, with tens of thousands of producers running illegal stills or turning grapes into wine. Distribution was equally democratic, with thousands of enterprising amateur bootleggers smuggling booze from Canada and abroad.
This arrangement is strikingly similar to the current market in illegal marijuana. Drug cartels, college students and others grow and sell pot; an equally eclectic network of wholesalers and retailers funnels the products to consumers. As with alcohol in the 1920s, barriers to entry are low, and quality and potency vary a great deal.
What about crime? Homicides spiked in the 1920s, then declined after the repeal of Prohibition. It has become an article of faith that legalizing alcohol caused the drop in crime (just as it is predicted that legalizing marijuana will lead to less crime). But a recent article by economist Emily Greene Owens challenges this assumption.
Using Census figures and data from state-level prohibitions of alcohol both before and after the passage of the 18th Amendment, Greene found “no evidence that criminalizing the commercial sale of alcohol increased the murder rate.” Instead, Greene points to other shifts — urbanization, changing demographics and even New Deal spending — to account for the rise and fall of homicide levels.
There is a parallel to the illicit market in marijuana. While some experts have posited a connection between marijuana and violent crime, this has yet to be established with certainty.
In fact, a 2003 study by two economists suggested that marijuana might be positively correlated with getting caught committing violent crime, rather than with actual levels of violent crime.
What about the argument that legalization will promote drug use? The evidence from Prohibition is unambiguous. According to one estimate published in the American Economic Review, the national ban on alcohol cut per-capita alcohol consumption by more than 70 percent in the early 1920s, though alcohol consumption rebounded somewhat over the remainder of the decade.
Deaths from cirrhosis of the liver and alcoholism, along with hospital admissions for alcoholic psychosis, all declined substantially. This trend was already detectable in the 1910s, when state-level prohibition laws became more commonplace. But much of it can be traced to the national experiment in prohibition.
Prohibition’s positive effects lasted well beyond the 1920s, as a generation of people habituated to not drinking continued their abstemious ways. A generation later, as U.S. alcohol production ramped up once again, per-capita consumption levels went up, too; but they remained depressed relative to pre-Prohibition levels, according to research compiled by historian W.J. Rorabaugh.
Again the story is complicated. Dig deeper into the statistics on alcohol use during Prohibition, and you’ll find some curious anomalies. Beer consumption dropped, but use of hard liquor increased.
Bootleggers could realize greater profits, and more readily evade detection, by trafficking in more powerful, potent forms of alcohol. With the repeal of Prohibition, consumption of spirits declined, and beer gradually returned to a place of honor, though it took decades to do so.
It’s certainly plausible that as pot becomes legal once again, consumption will drift upward, much as beer consumption did. The analogy is imperfect: Marijuana isn’t a weaker version of heroin. But the counterintuitive results of banning and then legalizing alcohol suggest that surprises are in store as marijuana is legalized. Whatever the effects on public health, the impact of legalization on personal liberty would seem to be clear.
Again, the lessons from Prohibition are paradoxical. On one hand, it was a government intrusion into people’s private lives. Yet it opened the door to a clandestine industry that was, as the sociologists Harry Levine and Craig Reinarman have observed, “probably the freest large industry in America” in the 1920s.
People making and serving alcohol were under no regulations: no liquor licenses, no safety checks, no product inspections and no demands to see identification. Yes, there were police. But they proved ineffectual — and at times, unwilling — to enforce Prohibition. The result was an industry with low barriers to entry, no oversight and no taxes. It was a libertarian paradise.
It was replaced with stringent regulations governing every detail of the production, distribution and sale of alcohol. Some states monopolized sales through government-owned stores that set prices. Others adopted a licensing and permit system that imposed strict rules on the sale of alcohol in stores and in bars.
Government now controlled everything from the hours of operation to the amounts sold. These conditions also tended to benefit big producers, not small-scale entrepreneurs. Barriers of entry went up. Consumer choice went down.
Legalization of marijuana is already proceeding along these lines. In Washington state and Colorado, marijuana is being regulated in much the way liquor has been regulated. It will be taxed and inspected, and only available at certain places and times. And it may fall under the control of large producers. Like alcohol after Prohibition’s repeal, legal marijuana will be a profitable business kept on a tight leash.
And if the story of Prohibition’s rise and fall is any indication, the public health consequences will be mixed, though hardly a disaster. If you believe legalization marks the beginning of a new age of personal freedom, however, you’re probably smoking something.
Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.
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