Friday, December 05, 2008

75th anniversary of the 21st amendment-- and a time to talk about marijuana

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the 21st amendment, or in other words it's been three quarters of a century since we repealed the only amendment to the United States Constitution which was clearly a mistake.

The eighteenth amendment, Prohibition, expressly forbad the sale, trafficking and production of alcoholic beverages in the United States.

During the 1920's, the illegal alcohol industry fueled the rise of Capone and other alcohol kingpins, which eventually coalesced around a violent gang imported from Sicily, a.k.a. the Mafia. Of course not every two bit bathtub gin operator had ties to gangs or organized crime to be sure. There were plenty of bootleggers outrunning the 'revenooers' or shooting them down in places like the hills and hollows of Appalachia or small border towns along the Canadian border (liquor was legal and Canada and that country was a major source of it). Are you a NASCAR fan? Great. But the origin of modern stock car racing came straight out of prohibition. Win, and you got a paycheck. Lose and you'd see the inside of a cell for a good long time. In fact some of the early stock car racing champions were former bootleggers.

And what fueled the whole industry was a simple fact. If there are both suppliers (i.e. bootleggers) and consumers (millions of Americans who still wanted a drink) then there was a market, and markets are like a river-- it may be possible to manage them or channel them, but you won't be able to end them simply by passing a law mandating that they take themselves out of existence.

After spending tens of millions of dollars tracking down, arresting and putting bootleggers in prison during the 1920's, the country discovered this themselves. There were always more bootleggers, more speakeasies, more stills out in the woods, and more hooch. And there were always more customers to buy the hooch.

Further, that deadly Sicilian virus that had taken root in America probably decades earlier, but which was nourished and fed by Prohibition had by then used the power it gained to branch out and infect many, many other fields-- gambling, trash collection, labor, shipping, politics and even organizing street crime to name a few. It took decades of dedicated and very dangerous police work to finally neuter the Mafia.

And then the Great Depression hit. Tax collections went way down, and the demand for Government services went way up. In many states a significant proportion of the prison population was there for crimes related to the production, transport or sale of alcohol and the states were being bled dry by the need to house all of them. So something had to give.

And it did. America finally decided that the experiment of Prohibition was not only a failure, but a very expensive failure which we could no longer afford. So, the Congress of the day quickly, at the behest of the Roosevelt administration, passed another amendment (the only way to revoke a Constitutional amendment is with another amendment) and it was soon ratified by the states.

OK. So now let me pitch something to you.

Other than the fact that it is a different drug, and that the Constitution does not discuss it at all, why couldn't you make all these points about alcohol, at least as clearly for marijuana?

I will concede that yes, there are drugs that are so dangerous to individuals as well as to society that it is worth the cost of keeping them illegal (methamphetamine springs immedately to mind.) But as one of my college professors used to like to say, "an overdose of marijuana is a 200 lb bale dropped from 10 feet over your head." That isn't to say that marijuana isn't dangerous. It is dangerous. So what? It's no more dangerous than alcohol, which kills many more people every year from everthing from cirrhosis of the liver to autombile accidents. And while you can't overdose on marijuana, dozens of people die every year from alcohol poisoning after drinking too much, too fast.

OK, so why else should it stay illegal? Because it's a gateway to other drugs? That seems to me to be a self-fulfilling argument. Precisely because it's illegal, pushers sell marijuana to people and then have their clientele ready for and waiting when they decide it's time to make the move up to meth.

Why else? Morality? I agree that any drug use is not 'moral.' Again, does that justify making something illegal in the absence of any other reason? There was for example a time when adulterers were stoned to death, and more recently when they could be sent to prison or otherwise punished by the law. But today, they are tried in civil, not criminal courts. And that's appropriate. Adultery is just as immoral as it always has been, but it's not a crime. We've come to recognize that. So morality in and of itself is not a reason to criminalize a behavior.

But there are at least two reasons to consider legalization of marijuana, and they are both reasons that ultimately contributed (in a somehwat different but still recognizably similar form) to reaching the conclusion that prohibition was a failure:

1. Violent criminal organizations do indeed fight for control of marijuana distribution. And yes, that includes in the United States as well as other countries. And certainly if marijuana is legalized, it wouldn't put those gangs out of business-- they'd still have meth, cocaine and all kinds of other drugs. But at the same time marijuana is still their basic drug 'currency.' If it were legalized there is no doubt that it would put a serious crimp in their business. And in the meantime, during hard economic times legitimate businesses, everyone from convenience stores to shipping companies, would get a boost to their business.

2. The expense of trying so many drug cases which clog up our court system and then housing all those prisoners (up to half of all defendants are there on drug related charges, and almost half of them on marijuana) is crippling. True that a lot of police departments partially finance themselves based on what they seize in drug cases, but that is hardly a reason in and of itself to keep something illegal.

No comments: