In an amazing act of self-restraint, Ken Burns avoids all mention of the War On Drugs during his excellent three-part PBS series Prohibition. The parallels are, however, so exact, so numerous, and so painful that pointing them out feels like belaboring the obvious.
Here, for example, is a sentence from the series website, with my bracketed substitution of the words drug use for illicit drinking included:
Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking [drug use] to seem glamorous and fun, encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country.
The series' three parts parallel our drug-related mess:
Episode 1: A Nation of Drunkards
Episode 2: A Nation of Scofflaws
Episode 3: A Nation of Hypocrites
For a current parallel to the first episode's title, one might substitute drug abusers for drunkards--except that levels of use and abuse of all psychoactive substances combined have never approached the levels for alcohol alone. All substances, that is, except for tobacco--the other legal product that is responsible for the deaths of more than 400,000 Americans a year, while our exports kill millions.
The key problem with Prohibition and the War On Drugs is that, although they do little to change the behavior of substance abusers, they create a gigantic black market that in turn causes crime, corruption and disease on a massive scale. Here, once again is a quotation from the series' website:
By criminalizing one of the nation's largest industries, the law has given savvy gangsters a way to make huge profits, and as they grew in power, rival outfits wreak havoc in cities across the country. The burgeoning tabloid newspaper industry fans the frenzy with sensational headlines and front-page photographs of murder scenes
As we muddle through the Great Recession, with about a half-million people incarcerated for drug-related crimes, we might want to reexamine our priorities. Here, once again, is what the Prohibition website has to say:
When the Great Depression sets in, Americans begin to reexamine their priorities. More begin asking how they can justify spending money on the enforcement of an unpopular law while millions are without work, food, or shelter. Sabin and others argue that Repeal will bring in tax revenue and provide desperately needed jobs. After the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, Congress easily passes the 21st Amendment, which repeals the 18th, and the states quickly ratify it. In December of 1933, Americans can legally buy a drink for the first time in thirteen years.
Will Americans have the wisdom to follow the path their ancestors took four score years ago?
Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol
Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago Historical Society
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