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David Brooks on Pot: Let's Return to Good Old-Fashioned Prohibition

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Remember Prohibition? I mean the Prohibition of "Boardwalk Empire." Well, there are not too many people alive now who do remember it, although I was born just three years after it came to the end of its very short life (1920-1933). But it had come to pass, through a Constitutional Amendment no less, due to the diligent work of the Temperance Wing of the Republican Party. Indeed although the center of the original Republican Party was that of the anti-slavery Whigs, both the nativist "No-Nothings" and the Temperance Movement also were there at its beginnings. That accounts at least in part for the long association of the Republican Party with both recreational mood-altering drug ( RMAD ) illegalization and anti-immigrant legislation of various types at various times.

That Prohibition was aimed at alcohol, of course. It happens that before it, around the turn of the 20th century, 15 states had prohibition of one kind or another for tobacco use. The major difference with those Prohibitions and the modern so-called "War on Drugs" --- really a war on certain users of certain drugs --- was that the former criminalized importation and sale of the target RMADs , while the latter also criminalizes possession and use.

From No, they didn't lock up the drinkers, only the importers and purveyors.

And so here comes David Brooks of The New York Times  who makes an excellent argument  for returning to the original, 1920s, Prohibition. He happens to have been writing about  marijuana and its legalization  (small amounts, for personal use) in certain parts of Colorado. But it is fascinating to note that the arguments he uses against marijuana legalization are just like those that have been used for alcohol and tobacco prohibition going back to the 19th Temperance movement. To quote Mr. Brooks:

"[Marijuana use] is addictive in about one in six teenagers --- smoking and driving is a good way to get yourself killed --- young people who smoke go on to suffer I.Q. loss and perform worse on other cognitive tests. . . . . We now have a couple states -- Colorado and Washington -- that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. Colorado and Washington, in other words, are producing more users. . . ."

And there you have it. Just like the arguments in favor of 1920s Prohibition. So why not bring it back for all of the RMADs , not just selected ones? In fact, tobacco and alcohol use are much more harmful than marijuana use. The former kills about 440,000 people per year while the latter kills between 60,000 and 100,000, depending upon how you count. (There have been very few, if any, deaths associated with marijuana use.) Brooks tells us that "Smoking [marijuana] was fun, for a bit, but it was kind of repetitive. . . . We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. . . . We aged out."  However, many childhood users of one or the other or both don't age out. In fact, childhood teenage use of alcohol and tobacco is the "gateway" both to life-long use of those substances, as well as to the use marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. 

Life-long cigarette smoking is found mainly among those who started in their childhood/teenage years. The same can be said for childhood/teen-age alcoholic beverage consumption. That's the age where much alcoholism, a terrible, usual fatal disease, gets its start. Then there is the fact that alcohol use is associated, on the part of the perpetrator or the victim or both, with about  50% of gun deaths in the United States . And then there is  drunk driving and death . And so, and so forth with the negative health data on alcohol and of course tobacco use. So let's hear it for a return to 1920s Prohibition for the Big Killers, Mr. Brooks.

As for Colorado and Washington (the other state to have legalized small-scale marijuana use) "producing more users," if simple availability of an RMAD were the key to its use, do you think that the alcohol industry would spend so much, time, energy, creativity and money promoting its product? (The tobacco industry used to be right up there in advertising --- even a former President, none other than Ronald Reagan, was a pitchman for Chesterfields,  along with those other "wholesome" figures  from the entertainment world, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Arthur Godfrey --- at a time when subsequent legal discovery showed that the tobacco industry already knew just how deadly its product was.) So here we have a society in which the production, distribution, sale, use and advertising of the two most harmful RMADs are legal.  In fact, it is a society that can be said to have a drug culture, starting with the two most commonly used RMADs .

I do not associate myself with those who argue for marijuana legalization because it's "not very harmful" or it's "less harmful than alcohol or tobacco." It seems that the latter is the case (although intensive marijuana use certainly can be health-harmful).  But what I am primarily concerned with as a public health physician is that we do know for sure just how harmful the Big Two are. Nevertheless, both are legal, at least for persons 18-21 and older (depending upon the drug and the jurisdiction). And since they are legal, there is no rational argument for illegalizing marijuana (and most of the other RMADs , most of them small-use, as well). In fact, there are important lessons to be learned from how tobacco and alcohol are handled that could be used in dealing with all of the RMADs . Advertising and price, their use and control, are key.

Since the publication of the  original Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health  in 1964 the adult prevalence of cigarette smoking has dropped by about half. That outcome has been achieved by a combination of severe limitations on cigarette advertising, very strong anti-smoking campaigns, increase in price through taxation, and limitations on where one can smoke. On the other hand, the alcohol industry has demonstrated over the years just how important advertising is to their continued success. They learned the post-1920s-Prohibition lesson for their industry very well. While during 1920s-Prohibition the consumption of hard liquor fell hardly at all (yes, Joe Kennedy and all of the other spirits bootleggers were remarkably successful in importation and sale), the consumption of beer, not readily imported because of its bulk, fell to almost nothing. It took the beer industry 40 years of advertising to get consumption back to where it had been in 1920, before 1920s-Prohibition. And of course Colorado, the state that Mr. Brooks is so very concerned with, especially their morality, is the home to one of the two biggest brewers in the US, Coors. How about their morality, Mr. Brooks?

But that aside, as I said at the outset, Mr. Brooks has made all of the central arguments that the proponents of 1920s-Prohibition made. So, hurrah for him, for once again getting the Return-of-1920s-Prohibition ball rolling.

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Steven Jonas, MD, MPH, MS is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at StonyBrookMedicine (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 35 books. In addition to his position on OpEdNews as a ├ éČ┼"Trusted Author,├ éČ Ł he is a Senior (more...)
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