Pubdate: Fri, 5 Dec 2008
Source: Metrowest Daily News (MA)
Copyright: 2008 MetroWest Daily News
Author: Richard M.  Evans
Note: Richard M. Evans is an attorney practicing in Northampton


Many observers have compared the Obama transition to FDR's in 
1932-33, but the important P-word has not come up.

By the summer of 1932, alcohol prohibition had been enshrined in the 
Constitution for 12 years, as the 18th Amendment. Alcohol-related 
crime, violence and poisonings were rampant. Speakeasies flourished 
in large cities. Annual liquor imports from Canada alone soared from 
the pre-Prohibition level of around 30,000 imperial gallons to more 
than a million after 1926, mostly smuggled from offshore mother ships 
frequented by an armada of smaller vessels making regular 
distributions to their customers.

Despite widespread grumbling over prohibition, the subject of repeal 
was barely acknowledged by politicians before 1932, fearing loss of 
rural and religious support. Even Roosevelt took refuge in a 
states-rights argument, dodging both a wet and a dry label. After 
wets managed to insert a solid anti-prohibition plank in the 
Democratic party platform, however, Roosevelt embraced reform. To the 
roar of convention delegates, he declared unambiguously in his 
acceptance speech, "This convention wants repeal. Your candidate 
wants repeal. And I am confident that the United States of America 
wants repeal." During the campaign, Roosevelt made one speech 
denouncing prohibition and the subject didn't need to be brought up 
again. Hoover remained silently faithful to his base.

Following Roosevelt's landslide, for which many credited the party's 
repudiation of the 18th Amendment, a strong wind blew at the back of 
reformers. All Roosevelt had to do was to stay out of the way while a 
new process for changing the Constitution, brilliantly engineered by 
volunteer lawyers to bypass state legislatures and put the question 
directly to voters, steamed ahead at record speed, culminating with 
the ratification by a constitutional convention in Utah exactly 75 
years ago today. The vote was carried on a coast-to-coast radio 
broadcast; it is said that a national cheer could be heard at 3:52 PM 
mountain time on Tuesday, December 5, 1933, when Utah joined 36 other 
states to ratify the 21st Amendment, tipping the 18th into history.

The prohibition facing President Obama is better known as the drug 
war. Since Richard Nixon declared it in 1973, every president, with 
the enthusiastic complicity of Congress, has escalated it to the 
point that America locks up a higher percentage of our citizens than 
any other country on the planet. Spending for incarceration rivals 
that for higher education.

As with alcohol, the drug prohibition laws don't stop people from 
obtaining and using their intoxicant of choice. Twenty million 
American adults use illicit drugs regularly, and only a small 
fraction of them are caught. Why a disproportionate share of 
arrestees are blacks and minorities, when their drug use rate is no 
different from whites, raises troubling questions about enforcement.

While disaffection for the drug war is widely whispered, publicly 
questioning its wisdom and efficacy remains taboo-like challenging 
alcohol prohibition as late as 1930. In 2008, the topic was 
successfully avoided by both candidates and the media, with one 
notable exception, namely, Mr. Obama's pledge to call off DEA raids 
on medical marijuana facilities in California.

With an economy in shambles and two active wars, the last thing 
President Obama needs is an incendiary issue like drug policy reform. 
He can, however, use his bully pulpit to promote a badly-needed 
national discussion, asking some uncomfortable but necessary 
questions, such as whether it is realistic to think that by 
continuing to pour vast resources into detection, enforcement, 
prosecution and punishment, we will ever achieve success in the 
struggle against illegal drugs, and, when we are "successful," how 
many more people will be locked up, and at what cost to taxpayers. 
Last month's landslide victories for medical marijuana in Michigan, 
and decriminalization in Massachusetts, suggest strongly that when 
given a secret ballot, voters are open to reform.

Legitimizing debate, and making good on his promise in California, 
won't solve the nation's drug problem, but might be a good place to start.

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MAP posted-by: Steve Heath