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Prohibition Ended 75 Years Ago, But What Have We Learned?

It's time to bring marijuana under responsible controls and end the monopoly we've handed to gangsters.
 
 
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As we approach the 75th anniversary of the end of alcohol Prohibition on December 5, it's worth noting how little regret there is among Americans for ending this well-intentioned but ill-conceived experiment. Indeed, in September, even Congress passed a resolution praising the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which ended Prohibition.

After Prohibition's "dramatic increase in illegal activity, including unsafe black market alcohol production, organized crime, and noncompliance with alcohol laws," Congress noted, the repeal of Prohibition allowed the creation of "a transparent and accountable system of distribution and sales" that generated "billions of dollars in Federal and Sales tax revenues and additional billions to the economy annually."

And yet our marijuana laws demonstrate we really don't understand why Prohibition failed.

While most Americans are familiar with what went wrong during that 1920-1933 period of alcohol Prohibition, some have forgotten. So forgive me if you've heard this one before:

What started as an attempt to improve the nation's health and productivity, reduce the societal costs of alcohol abuse, and cut crime rates had the exact opposite effect. After a dramatic drop in alcohol use in the first year of Prohibition, use rates soon rocketed back up.

The entire alcohol industry was controlled not by licensed, regulated businesses, but by violent criminals willing to assume the risks of trafficking an illegal product in exchange for obscenely high profits -- profits inflated by alcohol's very illegality.

This new underground environment also transformed alcohol as a product. Bootleggers discovered there was more money to be made with more potent forms of liquor that could more easily be smuggled and hidden. Stealth and transportability, rather than safety, became essential.

And rather than reducing crime, alcohol Prohibition made pretty much everybody criminals, creating an unheard-of level of gang violence and police corruption.

By 1933, these factors, plus the Great Depression and the urgent need for tax revenues that could once again be generated by legal alcohol sales, had caused public enthusiasm for Prohibition to wane. Repeal came quickly and was relatively uncontroversial.

But 75 years later, we still think we can prohibit a popular, socially accepted drug -- marijuana (which, by the way, is undeniably safer and less addictive than alcohol) -- despite all the evidence that marijuana prohibition isn't working.

There are, of course, some differences. The argument for prohibiting alcohol contained its share of condescending bigotry, notably toward recent Irish immigrants thought to be most in need of laws forbidding alcohol use. But marijuana prohibitionists relied far more heavily on racist fear-mongering -- particularly against African-Americans and Latinos, who still bear a wildly disproportionate share of marijuana arrests.

And unlike alcohol, which was already popular and widely accepted at the time it was banned, only about two percent of the population had used marijuana when it was effectively made illegal in 1937. Many people had never even heard of it.

But the terrible results of prohibition remain uncannily consistent. For one thing, marijuana use rates have increased 4,000 percent since it was first made illegal. More than 100 million Americans, all technically criminals, have tried marijuana - that's about 40 percent of people aged 12 and older.

According to a 2006 report by George Mason University public policy expert Jon Gettman, marijuana is now by far the largest cash crop in America. At $36 billion a year, it exceeds wheat and corn combined.

Because we refuse to establish sensible regulations and controls on the manufacture and sale of marijuana, every cent goes to criminals and violent gangs. They pay no taxes and answer to nobody for selling to children or operating in an unsafe or irresponsible manner, just like the bootleggers of old.

And yet, according to the most recent FBI Uniform Crime Reports, we arrest more than 872,000 Americans a year for marijuana offenses, and that number has climbed every year for the past five years. That's one marijuana arrest every 36 seconds. And nearly 90 percent of those arrests are for simple possession - not dealing or manufacturing.

We now wisely recognize that there's a difference between alcohol use and abuse. We focus on the real, tangible problems associated with alcohol, such as alcoholism, underage drinking, and driving under the influence. But we leave responsible, adult drinkers alone.

It's time to learn from our mistakes and treat responsible, adult marijuana users the same way. That way, we can bring marijuana under responsible controls and end the monopoly we've handed to gangsters.

 
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