Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Prohibition's Hangover

Prohibition's hangover
Although its government repealed prohibition 75 years ago today, drug and alcohol laws in the US are still too puritanical

o Ian Williams
o, Friday December 5 2008 19.00 GMT

It is politics in a bottle of rum. Today is the 75th anniversary of the 21st amendment that ended prohibition, one of the most disastrous social experiments in history, way up there with Thatcherism and Bolshevism. To be fair, it was the Canadians who started it. Several Canadian provinces introduced prohibition much earlier, with Quebec - French, catholic and drinking - holding the line to stop it from becoming a federal law. But the Canadians learned their lesson much quicker, and most provinces repealed it during the 1920s.

In the US, the Volstead Act passed in 1919 under the cover of Germanophobia, when the large and previously influential beer and wine toping German-American community kept its head down for fear of lynching. Once again, Americans did not pioneer this movement either. It was the British royal family that changed from being Saxe-Coburg-Gothas to Mountbattens and Windsors for fear of being associated with their close relative, the Kaiser.

Apart from the total failure of prohibition – some estimates suggest that there was more and harder liquor drunk when it was more illegal than before – one of the reasons for repeal was the earnest hope of the new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that thirsty Americans would buy, pour and drink themselves out of the great depression.

Even so, there is still a hangover. Americans who shiver at the thought of "socialised medicine," cling atavistically to socialised booze. Many state governments control, indeed own, a monopoly of liquor distribution, which makes it very difficult for anyone but the most well-heeled distillers to enter their markets, therefore letting bland rums and even blander beers dominate. Prohibition pretty much killed, for example, the centuries-old tradition of New England rum, which never re-established itself in the face of Bacardi becoming a domestic brand through Puerto Rico to take advantage of repeal.

Indeed the hangover is exacerbated by the fact that the US is the only country where citizens who can be (metaphorically) hanged cannot legally be hung-over. Eighteen-year-olds who can be conscripted and vote cannot buy or drink alcohol. Prohibition's long Grundyish shadow also hangs over other "consensual" crimes, the victimisation of prostitutes, the draconian drug laws and other attempts to make the citizenry more moral whether they want to be or not.

So, 75 years later, with an official recession and a looming depression, Obama can change the law like FDR did years ago. Like most recent presidents, Obama indulged in prohibited substances in his youth which, if he were caught, could have finished his political career on the spot since he did not have the ultra-wasp Bush family to cover up for him.

A change would not only be moral, but economically effective. Give 18-year-olds their full constitutional rights, decriminalise marijuana use – and tax it heavily. Medicalise harder drugs by making them available only under medical supervision, and tax them, too.

This change would boost government revenue, cut expenditure on the drug enforcement agency, police and prisons and provide a huge Keynesian boost to the entertainment industry and retrospectively vindicate all of Obama's peers who were caught, and whose lives were blighted by the drug laws. FDR showed the way back in 1933.

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