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Perils of Prohibition | The Nation

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Perils of Prohibition

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Over the years Michael Massing has done a highly effective job of reporting on America's various drug war failures, but he now seems unable to face his own facts. While admitting that the drug war is a disaster on almost every front, he seems to be trying to tell us that we can still pull it out by giving it a kinder face--that if, somehow, we can make the penalties less draconian and get everybody into treatment, we can save the present system.

Follow these links for the other articles in this forum: the original article by Michael Massing, and reponses by Peter Kornbluh and Elliott Currie--and Massing's concluding thoughts.

About the Author

Mike Gray
Mike Gray is the author of Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out (Random House).

Unfortunately, the system Massing supports was doomed at its inception, and the fix he proposes is a Band-Aid. He leaves the cancer of prohibition intact, a policy that created the drug problem in the first place and has made it steadily worse. Today, even a casual glance at the prison stats reveals that, by accident or design, the drug war has turned into a race war.

Massing himself itemizes the advantages of ending drug prohibition--the violent global criminal networks would dry up, we could go back to building colleges instead of prisons, the Bill of Rights would actually mean something again--but these remarkable benefits are countered in his mind by the specter of addiction sweeping the land. He warns that if we call off the police dogs there could be an explosion of addicts. And while that might sound logical, our own history and the European experience suggests otherwise.

When alcohol prohibition in the United States crashed and burned in 1933, drug prohibition should have ended with it for the same reasons--the corruption, the gunplay, the judicial paralysis--but there simply were not and never have been enough drug users to form a political constituency. This is an essential fact the prohibitionists can't seem to grasp: Hard drugs don't have that much appeal and never did. Before 1914, both drugs and alcohol were legal, and almost nobody did drugs (three-tenths of 1 percent of the population). After 1919, both drugs and alcohol were illegal, and almost nobody did drugs.

In fact, drugs and alcohol had come to be considered déclassé by the wealthy, and their use across the board was in rapid decline--a testament to the success of the temperance movement. Then the moral leaders decided to make their victory absolute and call in the cops. What had been unfashionable suddenly became exotic: If you didn't have a hip flask in 1920 you were a nobody. And even though there were probably fewer than 300,000 narcotics addicts in the whole country, we decided to root them out. Today, after an eighty-year, trillion-dollar jihad, the total number of addicts is up around 4 million. Instead of decreasing the rate of addiction, we gave it a fivefold boost.

While our repressive policies have been creating addicts, other countries have been abandoning our approach in favor of tolerance, and the results have been dramatic. Twenty years ago--about the time the United States started getting really serious about marijuana prohibition--the Dutch decided to go the other way. They made marijuana freely available to anyone over 16 (later it was raised to 18). Horrified American experts predicted that pot use in the Netherlands would skyrocket, but they were confounded. It is the American students who are now smoking significantly more pot than the Dutch. What's more, our teenagers say marijuana is easier to get than beer. Why? Because beer distribution is controlled by the state--you have to be 18 and prove it. Marijuana distribution is controlled by some guy in a house across town who sells to your neighbor's kid, no ID required.

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