Pubdate: Sun, 09 Oct 2011
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2011 The Baltimore Sun Company
Author: Kevin A. Sabet

Prohibition - America's notoriously "failed social experiment" to rid
the country of alcohol - took center stage this past week as PBS
broadcast Ken Burns' highly acclaimed series on the subject. And
already, it has been seized on by drug-legalization advocates who say
it proves that drug prohibition should be abandoned.

But a closer look at what resulted from alcohol prohibition and its
relevance to today's anti-drug effort reveals a far more nuanced
picture than the legalization lobby might like to admit.

As argued by Harvard's Mark Moore and other astute policy observers,
alcohol prohibition had beneficial effects along with the negative
ones. Alcohol use plummeted among the general population. Cirrhosis of
the liver fell by 66 percent among men. Arrests for public drunkenness
declined by half.

Yes, organized crime was emboldened, but the mob was already powerful
before Prohibition, and it continued to be long after.

No one is suggesting that alcohol prohibition should be reinstated.
Americans have concluded that the right to drink outweighs public
health and safety consequences. But it is important to remember that
the policy was not the complete failure that most think it was, and so
we should be wary of misapplying its lessons.

If our experience with Prohibition was a nuanced one, then it is
surely a stretch to apply the so-called conventional wisdom associated
with it to help us shape policies on other intoxicants today. Still, a
favorite argument of drug-legalization supporters is that because "we
all know" alcohol prohibition failed, drug prohibition is destined to
fail too. Given modern America's thirst for liquor, it is a clever
political maneuver to link the two policies in this way. But
notwithstanding one's position on the success or failure of alcohol
prohibition, there are key differences between that policy and modern-
day drug enforcement that render a comparison almost useless for
serious policy analysis.

First, it should be remembered that unlike illegal drugs today,
alcohol was never prohibited altogether. Laws forbade the sale and
distribution of liquor, but personal use was not against the law.
Second, alcohol prohibition was not enforced in the way today's drug
laws are. Congress and the executive branch were uninterested in
enforcing the law. Even many prohibitionists felt that the law was so
effective, it did not need enforcement. Police, prosecutors, judges
and juries frequently refused to use the powers the law gave them. In
1927, only 18 of the 48 states even budgeted money for the enforcement
of Prohibition, and some states openly defied the law.

The key difference between alcohol and drug prohibition, however, lies
in the substance itself. Alcohol, unlike illegal drugs, has a long
history of widespread, accepted use in our society, dating back to
before biblical times. Illegal drugs cannot claim such pervasive use
by a large part of the planet's population over such a long period of

What lessons should we be taking from America's experiment with
Prohibition to inform our drug policy? One is that when a substance is
legal, powerful business interests have an incentive to encourage use
by keeping prices low. Heavier use, in turn, means heavier social
costs. For example, alcohol is the cause of 1 million more arrests
annually than are all illegal drugs combined. Indeed, alcohol use
leads to $180 billion in costs associated with health care, the
criminal justice system and lost productivity; alcohol taxes, on the
other hand - kept outrageously low by a powerful lobby - generate
revenue amounting to less than a tenth of these costs.

Even so, drug-legalization advocates try to capitalize on our
country's current budget woes and use the potential for new tax
revenue as a key argument in favor of repealing drug laws. But as
author Daniel Okrent, whose research into Prohibition inspired Mr.
Burns' series, wrote last year, "The history of the intimate
relationship between drinking and taxing suggests . that . [people]
indulging a fantasy of income tax relief emerging from a cloud of
legalized marijuana smoke should realize that it is likely only a pipe

If our experience with legal alcohol provides us with any lesson for
drug policy, it is this: We have little reason to believe that the
benefits of drug legalization would outweigh its costs.

But that doesn't mean that we need to be severe and punitive in our
drug enforcement either. People in recovery from alcohol and other
drug addictions should be entitled to social benefits, including
access to education, housing and employment opportunities, despite
their past drug use. We should think seriously about the rationale and
effectiveness of imposing harsh mandatory minimum sentences for simple
drug possession. And no one can credibly argue that we have enough
treatment slots for everyone who needs them, or that we have an
adequate supply of evidence-based drug prevention for every school kid
regardless of economic background. Indeed, our current drug policy
leaves something to be desired, and like most policies, it needs
constant refinement.

Still, it is wrongheaded to think that the only choices we have in
drug policy are a punitive approach centered exclusively on
enforcement, or one based on careless legalization. Neither has ever
worked particularly well.

Kevin A. Sabet, former senior policy advisor to President Barack
Obama's drug czar, is a consultant and a fellow at the Center for
Substance Abuse Solutions at the University of Pennsylvania. This
article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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