HBO's Boardwalk Empire Helps Us Understand Drug Prohibition


I have worked at the Drug Policy Alliance for almost 11 years. We believe the war on drugs is a failure. We believe substance misuse should be a health issue, not a criminal issue -- and that when people struggle with drug misuse, compassion and treatment are typically more effective than punishment and prison. Fundamentally, we also believe drug prohibition doesn’t work, and that it causes much more harm than good.


If I were to sum up one of our biggest challenges over the years, it is helping people distinguish between the harms of (legal and illegal) drug misuse and the harms of drug prohibition. For many years I felt frustrated that people didn’t see the difference.


There is justifiable fear and terror around the drug trade. Everyday we read and hear about the bloody drug war in Mexico that has taken the lives of at least 28,000 people in a little over three years. We look out our windows or watch the local news and see shootings, murders and violence in our cities because of the drug trade. For too long, people associated the violence with the drugs themselves, rather than the policy of prohibition.


It is not marijuana or coca that cause heads to roll in Mexico – it is the inevitable black market that prohibition creates. It is only because of PROHIBITION that these plants are worth more than gold. When a pound of weed is worth thousands of dollars, people will inevitably kill each other over the right to sell and profit off it.


Finally, after years and years of pounding away at the point that “drug-related” violence -- whether in Mexico or in our communities in the U.S. – is the result of prohibition, it is starting to sink in. The heartbreaking violence in Mexico is being covered week in and week out. The initiative in California to control and tax cannabis has generated thousands of articles and most stories have voices pointing out that prohibition leads to violence. And now we have HBO’s new hit series bringing the failures of prohibition into our living rooms every week.


In the first two episodes of Boardwalk Empire Congress declared alcohol illegal, alcohol moved into the black market, and people killed each other over the vast amounts of money to be made in the trade. It is there for all of us to see -- alcohol didn’t go away under prohibition, but we did have shootouts and killings over the trade. Today, no one dies in turf battles over the right to distribute Budweiser.


In Boardwalk Empire and in our lives today, there are clearly health issues and problems stemming from alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse leads to nearly 100,000 premature deaths every year. We see in Boardwalk Empire and from our own experiences that some people do stupid and harmful things because of alcohol, from getting into fights (with strangers or loved ones), to hurting others or themselves by drinking and driving, to chronic alcohol misuse that can lead to loss of jobs and homes.


These health issues with alcohol are real but they are different than the problems that we see under alcohol prohibition. Alcohol prohibition didn’t get rid of alcohol or drinking. Prohibition does lead to Al Capone, shoot outs, incarceration, corruption and many other unintended consequences.


The tide is turning. It is the pro-drug criminalization folks’ greatest fear that people start to understand the failures and harms of drug prohibition. The California initiative, the growing drug policy reform movement, and shows like Boardwalk Empire are helping us reach a tipping point.


Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol – that’s why it was repealed after just 13 years. Today, after several decades of drug prohibition, it should be clear that it’s never going to work. It’s time for an exit strategy from this unwinnable war.

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