New light on old liquor laws. The debate on legalizing drugs echoes arguments about Prohibition; now three historians find a different lesson in that era.

`LOOK at Prohibition, it didn't work.'' That's a refrain in recently heightened arguments for the legalization of narcotics in the United States.

But is it true?

A national TV forum and congressional hearing recently spotlighted proposals to legalize drugs and thus supposedly remove high profits and crime from the drug trade.

Behind such arguments are images of Prohibition - an era when the US banned liquor sales and Americans disobeyed the law with sometimes violent results that make foreigners think 1920s gangsters still roam Chicago streets.

That national experience hangs over prohibitive social issues today ranging from drug enforcement to cigarettes. But historians say such memories of Prohibition are flawed.

``Our historical evidence would seem to indicate that prohibitory laws do have an impact on behavior,'' says K. Austin Kerr, a historian at Ohio State University.

``The people who are suggesting we should legalize other drugs and use the `failure of Prohibition' as a justification need to get their history right, because that's not a proper argument to make,'' he says.

Dr. Kerr is one of three leading historians of Prohibition, all of whom by coincidence live in Ohio, center of the Anti-Saloon League and a battlefield of the old ``dry'' and ``wet'' political forces.

They come to the topic from different disciplines: Kerr is a specialist in business history. John Burnham, also at Ohio State, is a specialist in medical history. And David Kyvig of Akron University specializes in constitutional history.

All three found a ``secret'' so surprising that it changed their perceptions of the period from 1906, when state prohibitions on liquor sales began to spread, to 1933, when national Prohibition ended. For example, they found that in the 1920s, per capita alcohol consumption dipped to about one-third of its previous level. For decades after Prohibition was repealed, the drinking level in the US remained below the pre-Prohibition level.

Paul Gavaghan, vice-president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the US, thinks such revisionist views of Prohibition are all wet. History shows that the only way to change a nation's habits is by moral suasion, he says, but he would not comment on the issue of legalizing drugs.

``In New York City alone the count during Prohibition was that the city had 32,000 speakeasies,'' he says, adding that drinking statistics from the period are unreliable. Revisionists say these figures are complex extrapolations from law enforcement statistics and long-term trends.

Other findings by revisionist historians include these:

There was no national violent-crime wave in the 1920s attributable to Prohibition; organized crime had appeared before and continued to flourish after Prohibition.

The popular link between bloody crimes and Prohibition was largely created by the news media and repeal forces, while murder statistics were inflated by the practice of counting deaths in car accidents as homicides.

Wage earners put an estimated $1 billion extra into consumer spending instead of into drinking during the period.

Prohibition did well at the polls through 1928, when both the largest number of ``dry'' congressmen ever and the ``driest'' president yet were elected by the American public.

``Public support for Prohibition remained very strong until the depression,'' says Kerr, who has combed the papers of the Anti-Saloon League.

Many of Prohibition's opponents were actually wealthy, conservative businessmen who foresaw economic benefits from repeal.

Dr. Burnham became fascinated by the topic and became a teetotaler as a result. ``The first thing I found was that in the medical literature, people at that time were commenting on the disappearance or virtual disappearance of alcoholic psychoses after the onset of Prohibition,'' the medical historian says.

As a graduate student in the 1960s, Dr. Kyvig, a historian, thought Prohibition was a good conservative target for a liberal like him to tackle. Instead, he found that the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919 was the last in a series of early 20th-century amendments that marked the pinnacle of a national reform movement.

``People all across the political spectrum [are] looking at the history of the temperance movement and saying this government intervention into social behavior was not only probably a good idea but was a more successful idea than it was given credit for,'' he says.

Prohibition finally crumbled partly because its supporters could not agree on whether to emphasize education or law enforcement on its behalf, and partly because of larger social changes throughout the 1920s and the upheaval of the depression.

Among its lessons for today, these historians see:

The importance of building social consensus. As the 1920s wore on, officials in areas such as Chicago and New York did not enforce the law.

The need for adequate enforcement resources. Federal and state governments overall did not provide these during Prohibition.

The effectiveness of policies that raise the price on socially undesirable goods, such as taxes on cigarettes.

In recent years, a growing public consensus on the health problems related to drinking has produced a dip in per capita drinking, which remains at a relatively high level historically.

Drawing parallels between Prohibition and the effect of laws today, Kyvig says, ``I expect it was like the effect that we've seen in contemporary conditions when liquor restrictions are applied to drivers.

``If there were a handgun prohibition,'' he adds, ``the prohibition of alcohol experience suggests it might not be totally effective, but I would suspect that the whole category of handgun fatalities would be significantly reduced, because frankly most people will obey the law.''

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