a closer look at what resulted from alcohol prohibition and its relevance to today’s anti-drug effort reveals a far more nuanced picture than the legalization lobby might like to admit.
As argued by Harvard’s Mark Moore and other astute policy observers, alcohol prohibition had beneficial effects along with the negative ones. Alcohol use plummeted among the general population. Cirrhosis of the liver fell by 66% among men. Arrests for public drunkenness declined by half.
Yes, organized crime was emboldened, but the mob was already powerful before Prohibition, and it continued to be long after.
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it is important to remember that the policy was not the complete failure that most think it was, and so we should be wary of misapplying its lessons
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First, it should be remembered that unlike illegal drugs today, alcohol was never prohibited altogether. Laws forbade the sale and distribution of liquor, but personal use was not against the law. Second, alcohol prohibition was not enforced in the way today’s drug laws are.
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What lessons should we be taking from America’s experiment with Prohibition to inform our drug policy? One is that when a substance is legal, powerful business interests have an incentive to encourage use by keeping prices low. Heavier use, in turn, means heavier social costs. For example, alcohol is the cause of 1 million more arrests annually than are all illegal drugs combined. Indeed, alcohol use leads to $180 billion in costs associated with healthcare, the criminal justice system and lost productivity; alcohol taxes, on the other hand — kept outrageously low by a powerful lobby — generate revenue amounting to less than a tenth of these costs.
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But that doesn’t mean that we need to be severe and punitive in our drug enforcement either. People in recovery from alcohol and other drug addictions should be entitled to social benefits, including access to education, housing and employment opportunities, despite their past drug use. We should think seriously about the rationale and effectiveness of imposing harsh mandatory minimum sentences for simple drug possession. And no one can credibly argue that we have enough treatment slots for everyone who needs them, or that we have an adequate supply of evidence-based drug prevention for every school kid regardless of economic background. Indeed, our current drug policy leaves something to be desired, and like most policies, it needs constant refinement.