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Drug War is much like Prohibition

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Comparisons of the current drug war to the Prohibition era of alcohol often surface in the ongoing debate and discussion of criminal-justice system issues.

Don Williams of Pearland, however, supports the drug war and is not convinced that most references to Prohibition are based on accurate information.

"Oftentimes," he wrote in an e-mail, " `common wisdom' is more common than wise."

He said, "More people drink now than before Prohibition. In fact, if you check you will find that alcohol use increased dramatically right after Prohibition."

He went so far as to state his belief that "during Prohibition alcohol consumption was actually quite uncommon. Yes, money was made, and corruption in some cities was a problem. However, the Untouchables stuff we all remember on TV was really mostly a popular stereotype."

I called on Ethan Nadelmann to join in the debate. He is executive director of the New York-based Lindesmith Center -- Drug Policy Foundation, a nonprofit with 24,000 supporters who favor alternatives to current U.S. drug policy. The organization focuses on public education, promoting research and debate on drug-policy issues.

Health woes of illegal booze Nadelmann, formerly an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton, has done considerable research on Prohibition and how it compares with the drug war.

He said that alcohol use in the U.S. declined between 1916 and 1922, for a variety of reasons, including World War I and the boycotting of German breweries. And then, between 1922 and the end of Prohibition in 1933, alcohol use went up.

It was impossible to compile any official figures during Prohibition because there was no way of keeping tabs on alcohol being illegally produced or smuggled and illegally sold and consumed. But Nadelmann said judging from hospital records of people admitted for various reasons related to drinking, alcohol consumption rose steadily from 1922 to 1933.

It's true that people didn't drink as much beer. But that was because beer wasn't as profitable to the dealers. It's also probable that many people who drank only a little bit gave it up rather than break the law. But any impact they may have had on per capita intake would have been misleading since problem drinkers could easily continue buying booze, which flowed freely from illegal speak-easies and bootleggers.

Nadelmann said the violence from crime organizations battling to control the sale of illegal booze was real. He said that illegal markets breed such violence because of the violent criminals they attract and because those participants in the illegal trade have no traditional legal means -- like courts -- to resolve disputes.

Another serious health problem resulting from Prohibition, one that was more widespread and claimed more victims than the gang warfare, was bad hooch. Since there was no way to control the quality or safety of illegal liquor, people too often drank stuff that poisoned them, blinded them or left them crippled.

Popularity comparisons
While Williams and others fear that legalization or decriminalization of drugs would lead to an increase in use, Nadelmann said there is good reason to believe the currently illicit substances would not become as popular as alcohol and tobacco.

He said that some reasons people like alcoholic beverages are because they quench thirst, go well with food, please the palate, promote appetite and sociability. Tobacco is especially addictive but also possesses such subtle psychoactive effects that its use can be integrated with many other activities.

He said that none of the illegal drugs currently popular in the United States shares these attributes, and they are not likely to acquire them if legalized. Also, none of them can compete with the special place in American culture and history that is occupied by alcohol -- a place from which even Prohibition was unable to dislodge it.

Another reason Prohibition failed was that it made criminals of too many people. People who otherwise were law-abiding chose to ignore Prohibition laws and deal with those criminals who sold the illegal refreshments.

Likewise, there is widespread defiance of drug laws, Nadelmann said. Tens of millions of people are using illegal drugs. That is a large portion of the population who are likely to harbor or develop feelings of hostility and suspicion about laws in general and those who enforce them.

So Nadelmann sees many valid reasons to compare Prohibition to the drug war.

Thom Marshall's e-mail address is thom.marshall@chron.com

Hawk: Dean
Pub: Houston Chronicle
Author: Thom Marshall
email: thom.marshall@chron.com
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Dec. 12, 2000, 9:28PM

Drug war is much like Prohibition