Pubdate: Sun, 22 Mar 2009
Source: Press-Register (Mobile, AL)
Copyright: 2009 Mobile Register
Author: Michael Thomason
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


People who are familiar with Mobile's history know that the Port City 
has seen seamier times, in particular when it comes to the early part 
of the 20th century, when local residents worked hard at ignoring Prohibition.

In fact, they actively flouted the law by importing illegal booze 
from South America.

Sometimes we talk about Mobile's rum-runners almost fondly, like they 
were pirates or outlaws. But at the time, the scandals of our past 
were often anything but funny.

Indeed, they remind me very much of today's "war on drugs," which I 
believe is destined to fail just as Prohibition failed.

Lately we've all read frighten ing accounts of wars between drug 
cartels and the government of Mexico. The carnage is threatening all 
of North America -- and it's all because people in the United States 
are buying billions of dollars worth of illegal drugs, and the 
suppliers want to expand their share of this lucrative business.

After 40 or so years of the U.S. government's war on drugs, no one 
claims we are winning -- because we are not. Lives, treasure and the 
respect for law are being lost.

There are lessons to be learned from the failure of Prohibition -- 
across the country in general, and in Mobile in particular.

We know that people have used drugs here, as they have everywhere, 
throughout history. The only questions were, did you want them and 
could you afford them?

But after World War I, liquor suddenly became illegal, too. The 
movement to prohibit the manufacture, sale and possession of alcohol 
resulted in nationwide Prohibition, which lasted 13 years.

Alabamians supported Prohibition, and the state had had a statewide 
version of it off and on since 1907. But Mobilians did not support it.

Indeed, Mobile in the early 1920s was like Phenix City was in the 
1950s with its open gambling and prostitution. With our access to the 
Gulf of Mexico, we smuggled liquor from Central America.

The Gulf was a smugglers' paradise; and with all its estuaries, bays 
and bayous, the Mobile Bay area was a perfect home for smuggling. 
Once ashore, liquor could be shipped by train north to St. Louis and Chicago.

There were fortunes to be made, and many were. However, it is one 
thing to ignore Montgomery and another to do the same to Washington.

By 1923, Mobile was under investigation. In November of that year, 
the feds arrested dozens of local people, many holding powerful 
elected and economic positions.

The sheriff, his predecessor, the chief of police, others in office 
and the Boykin brothers (Charles and Frank) were all taken to the 
federal building on Royal Street and charged.

U.S. Attorney Aubrey Boyles was behind the round-up. He had the 
support of F.I. Thompson, the powerful editor of the Mobile Register, 
and others in the town and state.

However, he did not have the support of the majority of Mobilians and 
their leaders, or the members of the Mobile Bar Association.

Eventually, the cases came to trial and several important folks were 
convicted of various offenses involving illegal booze. As time 
passed, though, most won their cases on appeal and went back to doing 
what they had been doing, although more quietly.

As for the U.S. attorney, Boyles was later disbarred. Even though he 
eventually was reinstated, his life in Mobile was ruined. He left his 
hometown in 1933 and died in New York in 1954.

His place as prosecutor in the trials was taken in 1924 by Hugo 
Black, an ambitious Birmingham district attorney who was a mem ber of 
the Ku Klux Klan, as most Alabama politicians were in the Roaring 
Twenties. The Klan supported Prohibition, largely to deny alcohol to blacks.

Hugo Black's work in Mobile so impressed the state's voters that they 
elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1928. He went on to serve on the 
U.S. Supreme Court from 1937 until his death in 1971.

The sheriff resigned. Frank Boykin was elected to Congress in 1934 
and served until 1962.

Prohibition lingered until 1933. Each year, the Coast Guard increased 
its enforcement efforts all over the Gulf; and each year, despite 
rising violence, the illegal booze got through to thirsty Americans.

Finally, after Franklin Roosevelt's election to the presidency, the 
constitutional amendment was rescinded and liquor laws were once 
again left to the states.

Perhaps it took the hardships of the Great Depression to bring us to 
our senses about Prohibition's failure nearly 80 years ago.

Which brings us back to today. If Prohibition was a failure, what 
does that say about the current drug war?

Demand for drugs is high, and people who want them will pay whatever 
it costs to buy them.

The profits spawn violence, just as Prohibition spawned violence in 
its day. In fact, Prohibition and the war on drugs both are known for 
the distinctive weapons used by criminals.

In the 1920s, we saw gangsters using Thompson submachine guns, while 
today the weapon of choice is an assault rifle. Both are automatic 
weapons, neither requires much skill or training to operate, and both 
are ruthlessly lethal.

Each will always be an icon of its era.

As was the case with rum-running, the amount of money involved in the 
drug trade, and the power it buys, are astronomical.

The problem with the war on drugs is the same problem the United 
States had during Prohibition: Neither conflict can be won. Just as 
alcohol was legalized, so at least some drugs must now be.

The most common illegal drug today is marijuana. Why not legalize it 
and even let the federal government sell it?

We might have a chance to reduce our national debt with the profits 
and taxes collected.

The alternative approach has failed disastrously, as similar efforts 
have in the past. So let's be creative, and perhaps we can find a way 
to reduce the hold that illegal drugs have on us.

In the end, it's the drug trade -- more than the drugs themselves -- 
that is tearing North America apart.

Let's abolish the Second Prohibition and see if we can work out this 
problem. We sure aren't solving it now.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom