America, land of the free and home of the defiant, has been waging a war on intemperance for over a hundred years. But where has this really gotten us? During the late 1800s, the consumption of alcohol was so ingrained in American society that it became customary for a bell to sound twice a day to indicate “grog time”; a time in which everyone would stop to what they were doing and have a drink (Lerner). Similarly, American stoners and marijuana users around the globe have also come to establish their own version of “grog time” widely known as “4:20” (Urbandictionary.com). Unfortunately, regardless of the fact that the use of alcohol and marijuana have long been imbedded within American culture, the idea that intemperance is at the root of all our social problems still pervades. It is this ideology of a sober nation that has led to the prohibition of alcohol and marijuana alike. Ironically, however, in both cases, prohibition has not resulted in a less inebriated or a less violent culture; instead, prohibition has led to a topsy-turvy society in which good citizens are made into criminals, and the people are plagued by the perverse and violent subculture of black markets that follow.
The prohibition of alcohol, which started in 1920 with the ratification of the 18th amendment, led to the criminalization of millions of citizens who were otherwise considered good and law abiding. According to the University at Albany, during this time, the number of federal convicts increased by an estimated 561%, and the federal prison population grew by around 366% (“organized crime”). Similarly, the prohibition of marijuana has also led to the persecution of otherwise good citizens. According to the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Statistics, in 2005, 1 out of every 8 federal prisoners incarcerated was being held on marijuana related charges, making up 42% of all drug arrests (Armentano). With only 10 percent of those being charged with manufacturing or intent to sell, the other 90% were charged for possession of small quantities intended for personal use (Armentano). To keep these offenders imprisoned it cost Americans over $1 billion (Armentano), a fee that could have easily been justified if harsher punishments and fines did in fact dissuade our populations from using. Unfortunately, that has never been the case. If there is one thing that history has taught us, it’s that intolerance will not eradicate the culture of consumption; it will only give rise to deregulation and drive the market underground.
When America’s intolerance of alcohol manifested itself, the new amendment of prohibition had the exact opposite effect on society than what was intended. Instead of decreasing the amount of alcohol consumption and incidents of alcohol related violence, prohibition resulted in an increase of both. Without government regulation placing stipulations on where, when, and to whom alcohol could be sold, there became a dramatic increase in its availability. In a letter written by John D Rockafeller Jr., which was published in the New York Times, he illustrates the degree of degradation society experienced as a result of prohibition:
“… drinking has generally increased; that the speakeasy has replaced the saloon, not only unit for unit, but probably two-fold if not three-fold; that a vast array of lawbreakers has been recruited and financed on a colossal scale; that many of our best citizens, piqued at what they regarded as an infringement of their private rights, have openly and unabashedly disregarded the Eighteenth Amendment; that as an inevitable result respect for all law has been greatly lessened; that crime has increased to an unprecedented degree… “ (Hanson)
As a consequence of alcohol becoming illegal, its price quickly inflated, making the bootlegging business increasingly profitable. The price of beer skyrocketed to over 700 percent of the pre-prohibition market value; likewise the price of brandies also saw increase of over 400 percent (Thortan). Due to the high demand and marked inflation of prices, the large margin for profit lured in a variety of entrepreneurs who might otherwise not have been interested. As a result, illegal ‘ma and pa’ shop-like distilleries opened up across the nation. Consequently this led to a procession of crime waves with varying degrees; from small scale disregard for the prohibition law, to the large scale violence enacted by groups of organized crime. The mafia and Al Capone are the embodiments of how grand of a failure the prohibition of alcohol truly was. Capone is a perfect example of the type of brutality that surrounded this era. He is remembered for his excessive use of violence and bloodshed as a means of expanding his empire and doing business. The violence surrounding Capone and his involvement in the black market industry of bootlegging is not unlike the violence we see today surrounding the Mexican drug cartels and the black market of marijuana.
Much like the crime syndicates that came before them, the Mexican drug cartels have a diversified portfolio of illegal activities from which revenue is generated. However, U.S. officials estimate that over 60% of their profits come from the illegal trade of marijuana (qtd. In Ramsey), an industry estimated to be worth over $15 billion, according to Jeffery Miron, an economics professor at Harvard and expert on the economics behind the drug market (Miron). When the payoff for involvement in the black market becomes this big, financial incentive to break the law and commit acts of violence to ensure a share of the profit increase proportionately. Take away the profits by flooding the market with a legal supply, and you take away the financials that are fueling these violent organizations, inevitably, decreasing violence and crime as a whole. This is precisely what happened once the ban on alcohol was lifted.
In 1933 when the 21st amendment was passed, putting an end to prohibition of alcohol, American society as a whole began to improve. The inflated prices of alcohol rapidly returned to their pre-prohibition costs and homicide rates, which had previously been on the rise, began to drastically decline (Thortan). Although it is too early to tell, since marijuana has become legal in Colorado and Washington, it is likely that the end of its prohibition will also have a positive impact on the community in a similar way that the end of prohibition of alcohol had. Tony Ryan, a former law enforcement agent of Denver, Colorado speaks on the subject stating:
“Coloradans have the opportunity to take millions of dollars away from the gangs and cartels that currently control the illegal marijuana trade and put that money into our tax coffers, where it will be used to improve schools, pay police officers and protect our environment. “ (Gwyenne)
However, due to the excessive taxation imposed on legally sold marijuana under Colorado’s current bill, some have argued that the black market might remain afloat as a result of its competitive pricing (Khazan). Regardless, the decriminalization of millions of Coloradans, and the government taking steps in the direction of involvement as opposed to the direction of forbiddance and punishment, is still an improvement on the overall culture of consumption.
It is time Americans start looking into the past and learning from the mistakes our country has already made. Although it is convenient to blame alcohol and marijuana for all our nation’s social problems, the fact is that greed and defiance are far more likely to be the culprits of our downfall. Prohibition as we have observed during the “Noble Experiment” will not only fail to lead to a more sober nation; it will lead to a more violent one, where the black market takes the place of government oversight and regulation. As a country we have to decide, are we going to impose our ideals upon each other regardless of the outcome, or are we going to acknowledge we differ in our stance on temperance, and base our decisions of how to govern a substance on the outcome that leads to a less violent, less criminal, and more prosperous America.
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