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Prohibition era began 90 years ago

January 29, 2010 - UNITED STATES

The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution ushered in the 13-year period known as Prohibition. Ratified on 29 Jan 1919, it went into effect on 29 Jan 1920. The National Prohibition Act banned, nationwide, the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol for consumption. The 90th anniversary invites a look at the unintended consequences of prohibition as a tactic, and could prompt new questions about whether the so-called war on drugs should be continued.

Prohibition gave rise to criminal gangs controlling the illegal alcohol market, to headliners like Al 'Scarface '; Capone and John Dillinger, killings on an astronomical scale, bootlegging and speakeasies. Alcohol violations dominated the criminal justice system and doubled the population of federal prisons. A 1923 congressional study found that state attorneys spent some 44 per cent of their time on prohibition cases, and that corruption consumed the legal system. The figures for the scale of the problem vary with the source, but they were impressive enough generally to lead to the repeal of prohibition in 1933: on 5 Dec 1933, the ratification of the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment. Supporters of the decriminalization of marijuana and other drugs argue that prohibition itself spawns increased crime and violence. The Chicago Tribune pointed out on Dec 10 that while US drug consumption has declined significantly as a percentage of the population, there are still 25.7 million users of marijuana, 5.3 million users of cocaine and 453,000 users of heroin. Meanwhile, US law enforcement and prison systems are overwhelmed by prosecutions on drug-consumption charges, according to the Tribune. The article notes that interdiction-focused policies have not changed Latin America's status as the world's largest exporter of cocaine and marijuana, and drug-related violence in the region has -- if anything -- increased. In Mexico alone, 5,661 people died in drug-related violence last year, more than double the previous year's total. A Newsweek article on Dec 8, which examined the US role in Mexico's drug war, looked at the efficacy of the war on drugs in the United States. It pointed out that the country has spend an estimated US $1 trillion -- and rising -- since it began the war 40 years ago. A recent Chicago Tribune article notes that the war on drugs is getting a second look in Washington as a possible area for budget cutting in these troubled economic times. In 2006, according to the Newsweek article, newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderón began a crackdown on the drug-smuggling cartels&mdasha "war on drugs" that really is a war, involving military troops and weapons and more than 10,000 dead so far. Americans buy drugs from the cartels and sell them guns. But the temperance zeal that fuelled Prohibition in 1920 is now such an entrenched part of the American picture that pro-decriminalization lobbies in Washington face well-funded religious and socially conservative lobbies. They also face well-funded business lobbies representing private jails, interdiction-for-profit and enforcement-for-profit interests. Dec/09

US may take new look at war on drugs (Chicago Tribune 10 Dec 2009)

America&rsquos Role in Mexico&rsquos Drug War (Newsweek 8 Dec 2009)

Prohibition details (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Anthony Gregory: Enduring Legacy of Prohibition (Summit Daily News 7 Dec 2009)

Drug traffickers intimidating Mexico journalists (AFP 14 Dec 2009)

Date written/update: 2010-01-29