Today is the 75th anniversary of that blessed day in 1933 when Utah became the 36th and deciding state to ratify the 21st amendment, thereby repealing the 18th amendment. This ended the nation's disastrous experiment with alcohol prohibition.
It's already shaping up as a day of celebration, with parties planned, bars prepping for recession-defying rounds of drinks, and newspapers set to publish cocktail recipes concocted especially for the day.
But let's hope it also serves as a day of reflection. We should consider why our forebears rejoiced at the relegalization of a powerful drug long associated with bountiful pleasure and pain, and consider too the lessons for our time.
The Americans who voted in 1933 to repeal prohibition differed greatly in their reasons for overturning the system. But almost all agreed that the evils of failed suppression far outweighed the evils of alcohol consumption.
The change from just 15 years earlier, when most Americans saw alcohol as the root of the problem and voted to ban it, was dramatic. Prohibition's failure to create an Alcohol Free Society sank in quickly. Booze flowed as readily as before, but now it was illicit, filling criminal coffers at taxpayer expense.
Some opponents of prohibition pointed to Al Capone and increasing crime, violence and corruption. Others were troubled by the labeling of tens of millions of Americans as criminals, overflowing prisons, and the consequent broadening of disrespect for the law. Americans were disquieted by dangerous expansions of federal police powers, encroachments on individual liberties, increasing government expenditure devoted to enforcing the prohibition laws, and the billions in forgone tax revenues. And still others were disturbed by the specter of so many citizens blinded, paralyzed and killed by poisonous moonshine and industrial alcohol.
Supporters of prohibition blamed the consumers, and some went so far as to argue that those who violated the laws deserved whatever ills befell them. But by 1933, most Americans blamed prohibition itself.
When repeal came, it was not just with the support of those with a taste for alcohol, but also those who disliked and even hated it but could no longer ignore the dreadful consequences of a failed prohibition. They saw what most Americans still fail to see today: That a failed drug prohibition can cause greater harm than the drug it was intended to banish.
Consider the consequences of drug prohibition today: 500,000 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails for nonviolent drug-law violations; 1.8 million drug arrests last year; tens of billions of taxpayer dollars expended annually to fund a drug war that 76% of Americans say has failed; millions now marked for life as former drug felons; many thousands dying each year from drug overdoses that have more to do with prohibitionist policies than the drugs themselves, and tens of thousands more needlessly infected with AIDS and Hepatitis C because those same policies undermine and block responsible public-health policies.
And look abroad. At Afghanistan, where a third or more of the national economy is both beneficiary and victim of the failed global drug prohibition regime. At Mexico, which makes Chicago under Al Capone look like a day in the park. And elsewhere in Latin America, where prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption undermine civil authority and public safety, and mindless drug eradication campaigns wreak environmental havoc.
All this, and much more, are the consequences not of drugs per se but of prohibitionist policies that have failed for too long and that can never succeed in an open society, given the lessons of history. Perhaps a totalitarian American could do better, but at what cost to our most fundamental values?
Why did our forebears wise up so quickly while Americans today still struggle with sorting out the consequences of drug misuse from those of drug prohibition?
It's not because alcohol is any less dangerous than the drugs that are banned today. Marijuana, by comparison, is relatively harmless: little association with violent behavior, no chance of dying from an overdose, and not nearly as dangerous as alcohol if one misuses it or becomes addicted. Most of heroin's dangers are more a consequence of its prohibition than the drug's distinctive properties. That's why 70% of Swiss voters approved a referendum this past weekend endorsing the government's provision of pharmaceutical heroin to addicts who could not quit their addictions by other means. It is also why a growing number of other countries, including Canada, are doing likewise.
Yes, the speedy drugs -- cocaine, methamphetamine and other illicit stimulants -- present more of a problem. But not to the extent that their prohibition is justifiable while alcohol's is not. The real difference is that alcohol is the devil we know, while these others are the devils we don't. Most Americans in 1933 could recall a time before prohibition, which tempered their fears. But few Americans now can recall the decades when the illicit drugs of today were sold and consumed legally. If they could, a post-prohibition future might prove less alarming.
But there's nothing like a depression, or maybe even a full-blown recession, to make taxpayers question the price of their prejudices. That's what ultimately hastened prohibition's repeal, and it's why we're sure to see a more vigorous debate than ever before about ending marijuana prohibition, rolling back other drug war excesses, and even contemplating far-reaching alternatives to drug prohibition.
Perhaps the greatest reassurance for those who quake at the prospect of repealing contemporary drug prohibitions can be found in the era of prohibition outside of America. Other nations, including Britain, Australia and the Netherlands, were equally concerned with the problems of drink and eager for solutions. However, most opted against prohibition and for strict controls that kept alcohol legal but restricted its availability, taxed it heavily, and otherwise discouraged its use. The results included ample revenues for government coffers, criminals frustrated by the lack of easy profits, and declines in the consumption and misuse of alcohol that compared favorably with trends in the United States.
Is President-elect Barack Obama going to commemorate Repeal Day today? I'm not holding my breath. Nor do I expect him to do much to reform the nation's drug laws apart from making good on a few of the commitments he made during the campaign: repealing the harshest drug sentences, removing federal bans on funding needle-exchange programs to reduce AIDS, giving medical marijuana a fair chance to prove itself, and supporting treatment alternatives for low-level drug offenders.
But there's one more thing he can do: Promote vigorous and informed debate in this domain as in all others. The worst prohibition, after all, is a prohibition on thinking.