Last week, North Carolina former state Supreme Court chief justice, Burley Mitchell, said the war on drugs in the Tar Heel State and the nation has been a "total failure." According to an MSNBC report, Mitchell spoke at a luncheon organized by North Carolina Policy Watch and Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Mitchell said: "What if we decriminalized drugs? Then you'd knock out all the profits of every dealer and, more to the point, the big producers." He further argued that the way to reduce law enforcement costs and the prison population, and to open up funds for drug treatment was to legalize drugs.
Mitchell is not alone in his beliefs that America should legalize drugs. Robert L. Maginnis -- in Legalization of Drugs: The Myths and the Facts -- notes that heavyweights like Reagan administration Secretary of State George Shultz, Nobel laureate in economics Milton Friedman, and former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders also believe this way. Maginnis writes, "U.S. Federal District Judge Robert Sweet says the nation should learn the lesson of Prohibition and the crime that ensued when alcohol was illegal."
I've always thought it somewhat ironic that proponents of drug legalization often use the repeal of Prohibition (1920-1933) against alcohol sales to bolster their argument. For those who really know the facts, however, fewer examples better refute their position.
Contrary to popular opinion, Prohibition was quite successful. It didn't eradicate drinking, but it did significantly reduce consumption rates and thereby improve the public health. In his book The Devaluing of America, William Bennett, former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush, said: "One of the clear lessons of Prohibition is that when we had laws against alcohol there was less consumption, less alcohol-related disease, fewer drunken brawls, and a lot less drunkenness. Contrary to myth, there is no evidence that Prohibition caused any big increases in crime. The real facts are these: As a result of Prohibition, 180,000 saloons were shut down, and 1,800 breweries went out of business. In ten years of Prohibition, the death rate due to alcohol decreased 42 percent, the death rate due to cirrhosis of the liver decreased by 70 percent, crime decreased by 54 percent, and insanity decreased by 66 percent."
Norman H. Clark in Deliver Us From Evil argues that alcohol's trail of trouble was nearly absent during Prohibition. Clark contends: "There are today few reasons to believe that these legends, even those so recently embellished, are more than an easy and sentimental hyperbole, crafted by men whose assumptions about a democratic society had been deeply offended .... To suppose, further, that the Volstead Act (Prohibition) caused Americans to drink more rather than less is to defy an impressive body of statistics as well as common sense. The common sense is that a substantial number of people wanted to stop both their own and other people's drinking, and that the saloons where most people had done their drinking were closed. There is no reason to suppose that the speakeasy, given its illicit connotations, more lurid even than those of the saloon, ever, in any quantifiable way replaced the saloon. In fact, there is every reason to suppose that most Americans outside the larger cities never knew a bootlegger, never saw a speakeasy, and would not have known where to look for one."
Ross J. McLennan writes in Booze, Bucks, Bamboozle and You that one of the most convincing proofs of Prohibition's success is the government reports that compare the use of alcohol before and after Prohibition. According to McLennan, in 1914 the per-capita use of alcoholic beverages was 22.80 gallons. In 1934, the first year after repeal, the amount was 8.96 gallons. In other words, the nation had been weaned away from drinking during the nearly 14 years alcohol sales were illegal. And it took years of promotion by the alcohol industry to get consumption levels back up to their pre-Prohibition levels.
To advocate the legalization of drugs on the basis Prohibition was a failure is to perpetuate a myth that could intensify America's problem with dangerous substances. The legalization of alcohol sales didn't improve the nation's alcohol-related problems; instead it terribly exacerbated them. Alcohol-related crime didn't go down after the repeal of Prohibition; it exceeded far more than the nation could have ever imagined. The public health was so deeply affected that today the Marin Institute says 25 to 40 percent of all patients in America's general hospital beds (not in maternity or intensive care) are being treated for complications of alcohol-related problems. This is to say nothing of the astronomical social costs of $184.6 billion annually for alcohol abuse that the nation endures. Moreover, MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) reports an alcohol-related traffic accident kills one person every half hour in this country. One can hardly imagine compounding these problems with the legalization of drugs and the exceedingly negative environment it would create!
I agree with Theodore Dalrymple, who says, in Don't Legalize Drugs, "If the war against drugs is lost, then so are the wars against theft, speeding, incest, fraud, rape, murder, arson, and illegal parking. Few, if any, such wars are winnable .... The extreme intellectual elegance of the proposal to legalize the distribution and consumption of drugs, touted as the solution to so many problems at once (AIDS, crime, overcrowding in the prisons, and even the attractiveness of drugs to foolish young people), should give rise to skepticism. Social problems are not usually like that. Analogies with the Prohibition era, often drawn by those who would legalize drugs, are false and inexact ...."
Don't misunderstand me; I'm not advocating a return to Prohibition. Putting that genie back in the bottle would be impossible now. The best our nation can hope for in that arena is the enactment and enforcement of strong alcohol-control policies that curb consumption levels and consequently reduce alcohol-related troubles. But what I am saying, without the slightest apology, is that Prohibition doesn't support the argument for the legalization of drugs -- in fact, it disproves it!
Rev. Mark H. Creech (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc.