Prohibition Fever

A legacy project for the W. era

By Dave Kopel, Independence Institute, and Dr. Michael S. Brown

1/04/01 1:55 p.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on drug prohibition.

What do guns, drugs, and alcohol have in common? They are all highly portable, highly prized by many people, despised by others, and can be abused. Each has been the object of societal sanctions. As we head into the new millennium, with a new president who promises to reduce the unintended harms caused by government, it is time for America to recognize some lessons about prohibition.

A grand, but foolish experiment with alcohol prohibition was tried from 1920 to 1933. The dreadful results are well documented. Organized crime in its modern form was created. A drinking culture based on beer and wine was replaced by one based on gin and other hard liquor. Homicide soared and so did police corruption. Wiretapping became a new law-enforcement technique, and courts invented ways for the police to evade the Fourth Amendment.

The gang warfare spawned by alcohol prohibition spurred calls for restrictions on Second Amendment rights. Efforts to ban handguns failed, but machine guns were restricted by the National Firearms Act. Until then, Americans had been able to freely buy, sell, and own machine guns for the previous seven decades, with little apparent problem until alcohol was prohibited.

Drug prohibition started with the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1911, continues today, and provides an excellent example of how prohibition works in modern times.

In the name of protecting the public, the war on drugs has led to greater government power in many areas. The once unbreakable line between the police and military has crumbled. Our prisons overflow with people convicted of drug-related crimes, but drugs are more available than ever. New terms like "body cavity search," "no-knock entry," "racial profiling," and "stop and frisk" have entered our vocabulary.

The "drug war" is no mere metaphor, now that SWAT teams that were originally formed to rescue hostages execute deadly nocturnal raids on the homes of innocents. From the eleven-year-old boy killed in Compton, Calif., to the 45-year-old father of nine killed in Denver, to the 70-year-old minister killed in Boston, the number of people gunned down in the name of the "drug war" continues to mount. Of course none of the government employees responsible for the killing receive more than a slap on the wrist. And raids continue day after day, based on the mendacities and addled memories of drug addicts, violent criminals, and other "confidential informants" who get paid for making accusations which are rarely investigated before the SWAT team breaks though the window.

Forfeiture laws, meanwhile, have turned police work into a form of legalized piracy. Laws allowing enforcement agencies to keep confiscated wealth often determine the targets of anti-drug raids. Hardly any jurisdictions require that a person be proven guilty in order for the government to confiscate his wealth. Police corruption is a constant problem.

Criminal gangs have flourished under drug prohibition, much as they did in the 1920s. Smugglers and gangsters literally owe their livelihood to the war on drugs.

It is becoming painfully obvious that the cure is worse than the disease. Yet some people appear to have learned nothing from alcohol prohibition or drug prohibition and insist that we experience the joys of gun prohibition. There are indications that the same counterproductive tactics will be used — starting with forfeitures of automobiles because the driver had a firearm in the car.

Some of the worst abuses of government force in recent years were precipitated by technical and victimless gun-law violations. For example, the BATF claimed that the Branch Davidians possessed machine guns without paying the required federal tax and filling in the proper registration forms. So a tax case worth less than $10,000 led to a 76-man helicopter, machine gun, and grenade assault on a home in which 2/3 of the occupants were women and children.

The media has played an important role by dramatizing the ill effects of drug abuse, while almost completely ignoring the way that crime and violence are worsened by drug prohibition. Media treatment of the gun issue is very much the same. Stories involving misuse of firearms are front-page news, but there is a virtual blackout on positive stories about armed self-defense or the way that repressive gun laws lead to higher levels of crime and violence. Likewise, sporting use of guns — even in the Olympics — is almost completely ignored.

Opponents of both the war on drugs and the war on guns have adopted the same term — unintended consequences — to describe the way in which stronger laws paradoxically cause more crime and violence. These anti-prohibition websites are almost mirror images of each other, except that they complain about the corruption, lack of accountability and violent depredations of different government agencies. These groups are isolated at either end of the political spectrum, but their common interest is obvious.

Those who oppose the disastrous war on drugs and those who oppose the growing war on guns are starting to reach out to each other. Activists are setting aside ideological differences and exploring their common interest, becoming part of what Grover Norquist calls "The Leave Us Alone Coalition." The two largest sources of Libertarian party growth these days are ex-Republicans opposed to the war on guns, and ex-Democrats opposed to the war on drugs. Within the Republican and Democratic parties, more and more voices are speaking out against the terrible harms inflicted by prohibition.

In order to recognize that prohibition doesn't work, a person doesn't have to like the prohibited object. A liberal can wish that guns were never invented, but still realize that gun prohibition will increase gun violence (since only criminals will have guns) and will lead to a huge loss of Fourth Amendment rights and other civil liberties for everyone — not just for gun owners.

Conversely, a conservative can wish that people had never figured out that the cannabis plant can be smoked, and he can wish that the coca plant were extinct. But he can still recognize that drug prohibition can't stop drug abuse, but it can harm everyone's rights-destroying the lives and liberties of people who hate drugs.

Perhaps some enterprising politician will sense this natural alliance and use it to further his or her career — as Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura already has. Republican politicians have paid lip service to the concept of a smaller, less intrusive government, but are unwilling to take on the powerful government employee lobbies whose jobs depend on the drug war.

There is no way to predict how much success a pro-freedom, anti-prohibition political alliance could have, since it will be opposed by many politicians who jealously protect government power. Yet much more so than ten years ago, Americans increasingly recognize that the imperial government has no clothes: That's why George Bush could win an election while calling for Social Security reform, and why people are beginning to question the premises of the government-controlled education monopoly. Perhaps some of the best-known elected officials a few years from now will be those who rise rapidly in the next several years — by having the courage to say in public what many other politicians now admit only in private: Prohibition is a failure.   

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