Eighty years ago today, the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was ratified and alcohol Prohibition was officially repealed. If you only know one thing about Prohibition, it's probably the fact that it was a tremendous failure. Making alcohol illegal led to huge increases in organized crime, corruption, and violence. For many of the reasons that led to its repeal, the same arguments can be made for why we need to end the war on drugs.
Not to oversimplify things, but the Eighteenth Amendment (which established national prohibition) made a sizeable portion of the population criminals overnight. Even though the sale and manufacturing of alcohol was criminalized, the majority of the people who drank responsibly wanted to continue to do so. I'm not an economist but I learned that where there is a demand for something, a supply will be filled, whether it is legal or not. So Prohibition didn’t make alcohol disappear, it just allowed famous mobsters like Al Capone to step in and provide an elaborate, yet dangerous, underground market. See Boardwalk Empire more details.
Like I said, not to oversimplify it, but the mob thrived, crime soared, and gangsters killed anyone and everyone who got in their way. Tens of thousands of people died because of prohibition-related violence and drinking unregulated booze. The big experiment came to an end in 1933 when the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified by 36 of the 48 states. The Twenty-first Amendment was deemed so necessary (and the Eighteenth so ineffective), it is the only Constitutional amendment ever passed to overturn a previous amendment. Hence, Prohibition was a terrible mistake.
Fast forward to today – our society is swimming in drugs. We all have family members who use drugs, whether it’s Prozac or Ritalin or Viagra or painkillers or marijuana or cocaine, etc., and every other commercial on TV is trying to sell us a drug. Yet we still have a failed prohibitionist policy that is responsible for 1.5 million people getting arrested every year for drugs and tens of thousands of people dying because of a drug overdose – more than the number of people who die in car accidents. It's estimated that more than 100,000 people in Mexico have been killed or have gone missing since they militarized their war on drugs in 2006. And despite it all, millions of people around the world continue to use drugs every day.
It’s costing us way too much money trying to enforce prohibition. One of the main reasons Prohibition was repealed was because it was an unenforceable policy. Today, half of what we spend on law enforcement and the criminal justice system is for drug law enforcement. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. And despite all these efforts, drugs are cheaper and purer than ever before. Instead of wasting money on incarceration and a bloated prison industrial complex, we should invest in treatment and rehabilitation, which costs far less than imprisonment and actually attempts to help people. We need to find the best policy that reduces the harms of drug use.
Dr. Carl Hart, a neuroscientist from Columbia University and Board Member of the Drug Policy Alliance, studies drugs and addiction and he says that eighty to ninety percent of people who use drugs don’t have a problem with them. So why are we locking up responsible citizens who happen to use a certain drug? If a person struggles with drug misuse and wants to go to treatment they should have on-demand access. But if somebody occasionally uses drugs and leads a functioning lifestyle and contributes to society and their community, they don't belong locked in a cage. Even Bill Clinton gets it. In the film, Breaking the Taboo, he said, "If the expected result was that we would eliminate serious drug use in America and eliminate the narco-trafficking networks, it hasn't worked."
I look forward to the days when nobody gets arrested simply for using or possessing a drug. It's the future of drug policy. Some countries are already experimenting with different policies and conversations are happening at the global level calling for alternatives to prohibition. Portugal has a 12-year head start and shows us another world is possible.
Derek Rosenfeld is the Internet Communications Coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Photo by justin mccarthy.