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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 5/28/15

"Let's Hear it for Prohibition: an Interim Way out of the 'Drug War' Mess"

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A feature of the immediate post-Baltimore police riot that resulted in the death of Freddie Gray was a call for the "reform of the criminal justice system." There were even some Repubs. who chimed in on that one, although one has doubts as to just how long Repub. devotion to the cause will last. After all, for years they have been running on being "tough on crime" and as a major element of that "toughness," on the "Drug War."

The latter is of course the feature of our society that fills our prisons with so many black young men for the "drug crimes" of "possession and use." As is well-known to readers of OpEdNews, it happens that that number is way out of proportion to the number of whites, percentage-wise, imprisoned for the same offenses. But supposing that the criminality elements of the "Drug War" were the same as they were for the earlier national prohibition aimed at the use of certain of the "Recreational Mood-Alerting Drugs," the RMADs. Yes, just suppose.

.Drugs are bad but the drug war is worse..  Note that this was posted by law enforcement personnel, who just happen to refer to .Prohibition..
.Drugs are bad but the drug war is worse.. Note that this was posted by law enforcement personnel, who just happen to refer to .Prohibition..
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A review of a 2013 exhibition at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, PA on what is formally known in the United States as "Prohibition" began this way:

"It has been a long time since anybody said: 'You know, the 18th Amendment was a pretty good idea. Too bad it was overturned by the 21st.' and perhaps only the most prescriptively devout among us is likely to advocate banning the sale of alcohol again in the United States [to which list Mr. Rothstein could have added the highly profitable alcohol industry and their political allies]. . . .

"[It was a] movement [that] altered the Constitution in a radical fashion, extending its reach to matters once considered personal and restricting freedoms rather than expanding them. In effect from 1920 to 1933, Prohibition drastically altered the legal system of every state, and overturned ordinary citizens' behaviors and expectations. . . .

"We [now] tend to think of Prohibition as some kind of crazed moral paroxysm, reflecting the worst in the American character."

Ethyl alcohol, the intoxicating agent found in alcoholic beverages, is just one of the group of RMADs. (It is one that just happens to cause about 60,000 -- 100,000 deaths per year in the U.S., depending upon how one counts, in comparison to virtually zero deaths for, let us say, marijuana. But that is a matter for another time.) Prohibition criminalized the importation, distribution, and sale, but not the use, of the criminalized substances. Another commonly used RMAD is nicotine, a mild central nervous system depressant, found in tobacco products. There are certain restrictions on its sale, by age, and by place of use for all persons. It happens that the manufacture, distribution, and sale but not the use of cigarettes were prohibited, in one form or another, in 15 U.S. states and the Dominion of Canada, between 1903 and 1927. Notice the term "but not the use" just above. That was a common feature of both cigarette and alcoholic beverage illegalization. The prohibition of both aimed at the trade for each.

But when it comes to the current "Drug War," aimed primarily at marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, and to some extent methamphetamine, commonly known as the "illicits," the law is rather different. For it not only illegalizes the trade, but also possession and use of the substances. In terms of the criminal justice system, its targets, and the outcomes of that targeting, this is the critical, nay crucial, difference between Prohibition for alcoholic beverages and prohibition for cigarettes and the "Drug War." The former criminalized commerce in the target substances. Simple drinkers caught in raided speakeasies were simply sent home. They were not sent to jail or, eventually, prison. The latter targets commerce and possession/use of the target substances. It is the latter that has led to such high incarceration rates for "non-violent drug offences," especially among the non-white population, and particularly in the United States. They do go to jail and prison.

Funnily enough, while Prohibition was repealed in 1933, nowhere in Mr. Rothstein's review of the Philadelphia exhibition was the fact that for certain of the RMADs its contemporary form, the "Drug War," has been with us in a very forceful way for over 40 years. The "Drug War" was launched by President Nixon in 1969. It had predecessors going back to 1914, when the Harrison Act criminalized the use of opiates by "addicts". But it was Nixon who made the "war" on the users of opiates and cocaine and marijuana into a national campaign. (It is interesting to note that presently on the street, low-potency heroin is known as "Nixon." One can take that for what it is worth.) By criminalizing the use of, as well as the commerce in, the so-called "illicits," this "war" came to be one on certain people who use certain drugs, rather than on the substances they might use (which is why "Drug War" is put in quotes).

Interestingly enough, many of the phrases that Mr. Rothstein applied to Prohibition certainly could be applied to the "Drug War." Consider that it has: "altered the Constitution in a radical fashion," and continues to alter it with every illicit drug detection case that reaches the Supreme Court. The "Drug War" has: "extended its reach to matters once considered personal and [has] restrict[ed] freedoms rather than expanding them." The "Drug War" has: "drastically altered the legal system of every state, and overturned ordinary citizens' behaviors and expectations. While claiming high virtue and utopian prospects, it [has] inspired spectacular violations and grotesque criminal violence."

But another major difference between Prohibition and the "Drug War" is that to a major extent over the 13 years of its existence the former worked in reducing the use of the substances at which is what aimed, while over its 45 year life the latter has not (see also "SAMSHA: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results for the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings, NSDUH Series H-44, HHS Pub. No. (SMA) 12-4713, Rockville, MD, SAMSHA, 2012").

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Steven Jonas, MD, MPH, MS is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at StonyBrookMedicine (NY). As well as having been a regular political columnist on several national websites for over 20 years, he is the author/co-author/editor/co-editor of 37 books Currently, on the columns side, in addition to his position on OpEdNews as a Trusted Author, he is a regular contributor to From The G-Man.  In the past he has been a contributor to, among other publications, The Greanville PostThe Planetary Movement, and Buzzflash.com.  He was also a triathlete for 37 seasons, doing over 250 multi-sport races.  Among his 37 books (from the late 1970s, mainly in the health, sports, and health care organization fields) are, on politics: The 15% Solution: How the Republican Religious Right Took Control of the U.S., 1981-2022; A Futuristic Novel (originally published 1996; the 3rd version was published by Trepper & Katz Impact Books, Punto Press Publishing, 2013, Brewster, NY, sadly beginning to come true, advertised on OpEdNews and available on  (more...)

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