The Other Side of Prohibition

INCREASING support for the legalization of drugs rests on an assumption that is being swallowed without challenge: The assertion that prohibition of liquor in this country was a failure. The truth is that liquor consumption was down when the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the US was illegal - from l9l9 to l933 - and up again after the l8th Amendment was repealed.

The end of Prohibition came almost like a proclamation from Washington. Drinking was perfectly okay, it seemed to say. This implication had a devastating effect on parental counsel to the contrary. Almost overnight, drinking became socially acceptable. Peer pressure on the young became hard to resist.

Federal drug czar William Bennett, at a recent breakfast, kindled my memory of what happened to liquor consumption during Prohibition. I can clearly recollect the liquor scene during the l920s and early l930s, and what it was like afterward.

With Chicago and Al Capone nearby, I was quite aware of the growth of organized crime - financed by immense bootlegging profits. Drinking on the sly was common, and many Americans considered the 18th amendment, enforced by the Volstead Act, an invasion of their rights.

Conventional wisdom is that Prohibition was a failure and the free-to-drink America is a better one.

I spent a summer back in the mid-l950s taking an in-depth look at the impact of drinking on our society. I found that Americans were each year paying an increasing price for their drinking. On the highways alone, where fatalities were often alcohol-related, the burden on society grew as more cars came on the road. Last year at least 24,000 were killed and 534,000 injured in drinking-related accidents.

No, I didn't find a free-of-Prohibition America a happier one. Instead, it seemed to be reeling from this freedom. And it still is reeling.

I was particularly struck, and distressed, by my findings about liquor and industry. I had had no idea how many working hours were lost because of drinking.

I learned that industry and business had strongly supported Prohibition. Doubtless the Women's Christian Temperance Union had been the main force in rallying individuals and groups behind Prohibition. But business leaders - perhaps for money-making reasons alone, based on the need to keep workers on the job - gave Prohibition the push that put it over.

This column isn't arguing that Prohibition ``worked.'' It's merely meant to rebut those who seek to reinforce their position in favor of legalizing drugs by asserting that Prohibition was a total failure.

I'm convinced the worst aspect of legalization is that use of any drug - including crack - would become socially acceptable. As with liquor, dispensers will advise that users confine drug-taking to certain places (not on the highways). We will be told to be temperate. Perhaps youngsters will be told to smoke marijuana instead of stronger substances like crack.

I saw so many friends, brought up in liquor-free homes, become drinkers after it became okay to drink. Were they merely fleeing Calvinistic restrictions? Or was legalization a hidden persuader, even a tempter, prompting millions to become users of alcohol who otherwise might never have touched the stuff?

Our society would take a tremendous risk by saying that drug use is okay. Drug enforcement is terribly difficult, but let's stick with it.

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