Prohibition Failed Then and It Fails Now

by Don Boudreaux on June 6, 2011

in Crime, History, Reality Is Not Optional

Seventy-nine years ago today, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. sent this letter to Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler. In it, Rockefeller – despite being a life-long teetotler and early proponent of alcohol prohibition (and, hence, an early proponent of the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution) – called for an end to alcohol prohibition.

I learned of this letter from Mary O’Grady’s superb column in today’s Wall Street Journal, in which she argues that the same sort of Rockefellerian honesty and integrity from today’s drug warriors might help put an end to the atrocious and failed ‘war on drugs.’  (I thank Mary for sending me a pdf of Rockefeller’s letter.)

Indeed, the very publication of this column of Mary’s today in the Wall Street Journal – a publication long known for its hawkishness on the drug-war front – is itself a hopeful sign that at least the more sensible elements of American society might soon find their way to the only reasonable conclusion on this matter: the drug war is a catastrophe in countless different dimensions and, thus, should be ended.

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{ 48 comments }

Chris June 6, 2011 at 12:36 pm

According to Daniel Okrent’s book Last Call, alcohol consumption fell by about 1/3rd over the period of Prohibition and (If I recall correctly) only returned to its pre-prohibition levels in the 1970s. That sounds like a partial success to me.

What effect would legalizing drugs have? Doing so would lower the price of drug use. Unless you’re going to claim that drugs are a Geffin Good, the end result is that drug use would increase. And I suggest that increasing drug use would be a bad thing.

Frank33328 June 6, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Chris, I have never understood why this would be so. Can you explain why you believe that an increase in drug use would be a bad thing?

Chris June 6, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Because there is a human cost to drug use. I don’t want to live in a world where it’s possible for anybody to get their hands on PCPs, for example. Psychotic behavior is associated with Meth addiction.

Even if you take the view that people should be able to do whatever they want to with their own bodies, people using these compounds will harm others.

I don’t want an increase in the number of such people, and I don’t see how that’s avoidable if they’re legalized. There is a case to be made of using the $$$ to treat addicts, but that’s pie in the sky — it will never happen. And, if it does, the money will eventually be drained to pay for bridges in Alaska and teapot museums.

Chris June 6, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Bad form to follow-up on my own post. I just realized that the post made it sound like I thought PCP and Meth were the same thing; I don’t. They’re just two examples where drugs have very bad effects.

Methinks1776 June 6, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Alcohol can make people crazy too. And I have bad news for you – people are already using lots of drugs. You’re not getting what you pay for when it comes to controlling the drug trade and you’re getting lots of violence and coercion that you wouldn’t like to have.

When you consider an issue, you must look at both sides. The benefit you think you’re getting is far from free and likely costs way more than its worth.

Chris June 6, 2011 at 1:53 pm

It’s possible that the benefits may cost more than it’s worth. But, that’s a values question, not an empirical question.

I agree that there are people using lots of drugs. I’m just pointing out that legalization would increase the number of such people.

Methinks1776 June 6, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Neither Mr. Methinks nor I have ever so much as held a joint and that is not because drugs are illegal. So, I find your claim that people will suddenly start going coco for cocopuffs if drugs were decriminalized to be dubious at best. I have no plans to start shooting up heroin if it were legal. Drugs were not always illegal. Were we a country of drug addicted layabouts before drugs were criminalized? No. We were not.

It’s not entirely a value question either. You can calculate the costs of the ineffective criminalization of the drug trade and calculate the costs of whatever might happen if drugs were decriminalized. If you mean the cost to somebody who decides to do drugs, then I will tell you that this is a cost only he can assess and it’s none of my business – just as it isn’t my business if he wants to get into bad relationships and take up alcoholism.

kyle8 June 6, 2011 at 4:55 pm

The evidence is mixed, We don’t have to go into this blind we can look at other experiments in legalization.

Here is the best evidence. Marijuana use goes up a lot after decriminalization. But not overall cases of public intoxication. This seems to indicate that alcohol is a substitute for cannabis.

Hard drugs also show a small increase, however this is temporary. (as in the case with Portugal) and does not seem to correlate so far with significant increases in overall addiction rates.

I think that you are willing to put up with a very bad, very failed policy on a false fear of the alternative. If things did get bad we could always reimpose sanctions..

My belief is that it is now an extraordinary statement to say that prohibition works, therefore it is up to you to come up with some extraordinary reasons why we shouldn’t try something else.

yet another Dave June 6, 2011 at 2:02 pm

There is also a (much greater, IMO) human cost to prohibition. I don’t want to live in a world where young boys are recruited to sell drugs and innocent children are killed by stray bullets in the battle over drug turf. I don’t want to live in a world where the most violent criminals get price supports from the government even as the same government increases its imposition into the lives of innocent people.

people using these compounds will harm others.

Then those people should be held accountable as individuals and make restitution to those they harm.

Frank33328 June 6, 2011 at 2:39 pm

“Even if you take the view that people should be able to do whatever they want to with their own bodies, people using these compounds will harm others.” How? I assume you agree that their (drug users) bodies belong to them, but I am not sure how they export harm. If it is simply that it makes them less productive then I don’t think you’d want a “war on idleness” regardless of cause. If you think it increases theft in order to feed habits, then I propose it would be no worse than alcohol, coffee, cigarettes, gambling or any of the other vices that have been or are banned. In any case, there is already a law against theft and to outlaw any activity that could lead to theft is a slippery slope. If you suppose that it increases the burdens on government supported medical care their I would agree but the problem is that the government is giving away medical care, not that there is too much freedom. I am not sure how you can get around the theme that: because some will abuse a freedom, it should be denied to all. An awful lot of bad policy is justified by that sentiment.

Chris June 6, 2011 at 4:19 pm

I gave two examples — PCP and Meth are two drugs whose side effects can lead to violent behavior. A bunch of prescription drugs have similar problems when abused.

As to the medical care, that is a problem. Whether or not it’s a problem, the government is indeed giving away medical care — you can’t just wish that situation away. There’s a similar problem with other forms of welfare. If we could get rid of politicians who want to tax me so some meth-head doesn’t starve to death, then maybe the hyper-libertarian solution would work. Until then, though, that’s not the world we live in.

Frank33328 June 6, 2011 at 4:53 pm

True that we don’t live in the ideal world where government doesn’t give away free healthcare at your expense. But this is not unique to recreational drugs. The policy of deciding to outlaw a victimless activity for everyone because it can be abused by some can be used to justify almost anything. Should guns be severely limited or illegal because some might abuse them? Should the government outlaw transfat, salt, etc. because government healthcare will be strained? I don’t see where you draw this line.

MWG June 6, 2011 at 4:57 pm

@Chris

“As to the medical care, that is a problem. Whether or not it’s a problem, the government is indeed giving away medical care — you can’t just wish that situation away. There’s a similar problem with other forms of welfare. If we could get rid of politicians who want to tax me so some meth-head doesn’t starve to death, then maybe the hyper-libertarian solution would work. Until then, though, that’s not the world we live in.”

Do you pull these ideas directly from your ass? How much do you think the US spends directly (w/o even getting into the unseen costs) fighting drug use? Even a libertarian could make the argument that it’s cheaper to offer welfare to drug addicts than it is to fight the WOD.

Ken June 6, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Chris,

“Even if you take the view that people should be able to do whatever they want to with their own bodies, people using these compounds will harm others. ”

Ever heard of Jose Guerena? How about the millions of people in prison and the tens of millions of people with a criminal record for simply having a commodity labeled an illegal drug. Are you really so stupid as to suggest these people aren’t harmed by the illegality of drugs?

Regards,
Ken

Chris June 6, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Where did I suggest that?

But, in any case, your claim is unconvincing. Yes, the cops screwed up a drug bust and shot an apparently innocent man. But, the cops also screw up busts for, say, stolen auto parts, kidnapping and murder, and have shot other apparently innocent men. If Jose Guerena’s situation implies that drug use should be made legal, then those others imply that stealing car parts, kidnapping and murder should likewise be illegal.

MWG June 6, 2011 at 4:05 pm

@Chris

If you don’t think the militarization of our police forces is a direct result of the misguided WOD, then no one here can help you.

Ken June 6, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Chris,

“Where did I suggest that?”

You are arguing in favor of drug prohibition because “people using these compounds will harm others.” All the while your entire argument ignores the enormous harm done by prohibition, particularly the rights of the everyday man, as well as families destroyed not by drugs, but by an out of control government afraid of others “using these compounds will harm others. ”

Regards,
Ken

Ken June 6, 2011 at 5:00 pm

“If Jose Guerena’s situation implies that drug use should be made legal, then those others imply that stealing car parts, kidnapping and murder should likewise be illegal.”

This is retarded argument marking you as a possible troll. The idea that using drugs is equivalent to, you know, TAKING OTHER PEOPLE’S SHIT, then you are a clown.

The Jose Guerena situation is that some cop somewhere was told by some crack addict that Jose knew someone who’s brother’s cousin was a crack dealer. Or some shit like that. So naturally, the proper response is to have a bunch of weekend warrior cops storm a house guns blazing, resulting in the death, shot 71 times, whereas Jose never fired a shot. Go watch the video of the cops murdering him. This is what it looks like to get “tough” on drug use.

The whole message is: Don’t do drugs. They’re bad for you. In fact they’re so bad, we’ll storm your house and kill you on the weakest premise possible. All for your own benefit.

Taking drugs is equivalent to drinking alcohol. Are you unaware the the “compound” most associated with criminal activity is alcohol? And not just by a little, but by orders of magnitude.

Regards,
Ken

MWG June 6, 2011 at 1:12 pm

“And I suggest that increasing drug use would be a bad thing.”

And there’s nothing better than the violent coercive power of government to keep it in check, right?

35,000 dead in Mexico, a war in Afghanistan fueled by the drug trade, thousands in prison, a militarized police force roaming the streets conducting no-knock raids on the tax payers behalf… hey, at least we’ve been able to keep those nasty drugs off the streets… oh wait.

yet another Dave June 6, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Hell, they can’t even keep drugs out of prisons – what does that tell you about the level of police state required to “win” the war on drugs?

Chris June 6, 2011 at 1:56 pm

It’s not a question of winning. “War” is a bad metaphor — Crime is a more apt description. We haven’t decided to legalize murder simply because the war on murder hasn’t been successful.

yet another Dave June 6, 2011 at 2:08 pm

I agree “war” is a bad moniker, but “crime” is just ridiculous to describe a group of friends getting high on a weekend get-together. Where’s the “crime” victim?

Chris June 6, 2011 at 3:25 pm

yet another Dave: You’re constructed your scenario so there’s no externality. Fine, you can the very libertarian position “no victim -> no crime,” but I’ll point out that this can lead to perverse results also.

But, all you’ve shown is that drug use isn’t always harmful to third parties — that’s a far cry from showing that drug use is never harmful to third parties. (Or, more precisely, legalizing drug use would not create harm to third parties that they would not have experience absent the legalization.)

yet another Dave June 6, 2011 at 4:15 pm

You think I need to show that drug use is “never harmful to third parties?” What a completely absurd standard to use. Thousands of things people do wiil fail such a ridiculous standard and so, by your “thinking” should be illegal – what would you not prohibit?

Are you serious?????

yet another Dave June 6, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Just a few activities that should be illegal according to Chris’ “never harmful to third parties” standard:

driving
cooking
baseball
football
hockey
boxing
really, just about all sports
manufacturing
construction
home repair
serving coffee
boiling water

I’m sure I could come up with hundreds more if I cared enough to spend the time.

Sheesh!

Gil June 7, 2011 at 12:44 am

I’m sure many Libertarians believe that the private market would provide a better solution to murder than the government. At least a private solution would stop the families of murder victims sticking unaffected parties with what should only be the familes’ bill for enforcement and imprisonment of offenders.

Chris June 7, 2011 at 10:43 am

@Yet Another Dave: Your statement, was basically: “If it is illegal, then there must be harm to third parties.” And then you said “There is no harm to third parties”, concluding “Therefore, it should not be illegal.”

I pointed out that there are other cases where third parties are harmed, so your contrapositive doesn’t work. Instead, you took my statement as “If there’s harm to third parties, then it should be illegal.” And that’s not what I said at all. Nevertheless, you took that incorrect statement and used it to assert that I think cooking and football should be illegal.

yet another Dave June 7, 2011 at 11:37 am

Chris,
If you can’t follow your own logic to its natural conclusion there’s probably no point discussing anything with you, but just in case I’m wrong:

Your statement, was basically: “If it is illegal, then there must be harm to third parties.” And then you said “There is no harm to third parties”, concluding “Therefore, it should not be illegal.”

Not even close to what I said – total reading comp fail. You said “Crime is a more apt description.” I used an example to show drug use in itself has no victim, and therefore “crime” is not an apt description at all. You seem to have missed the fact that my statement was a refutation of your statement, and came up with the bizarre and convoluted nonsense interpretation I copied in this response.

Then you said “But, all you’ve shown is that drug use isn’t always harmful to third parties — that’s a far cry from showing that drug use is never harmful to third parties.” Since this came right after my refutation of your “crime” description, my conclusion was you thought this was reason enough to use the “crime” description. Based on that conclusion, I showed how completely ridiculous such thinking is.

Chris June 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm

@yet another Dave: Attacking the arguer, instead of the argument, is pretty weak. You’d be much more convincing if you stayed away from the gratuitous insults.

Perhaps I slightly got your implication wrong; maybe it should be: “If it is validly considered a crime, then there must be harm to third parties.” After all, you used the example of a few friends sitting around smoking a joint to assert that there’s no victim and, thus, not a legitimate crime. But, I think the end result is the same.

You said “I used the example to show that drug use in itself has no victim.” Again, in the one specific situation that you concocted, there is no victim. But, there are plenty of other cases where there are victims. Drug use has external effects on people other than the drug user.

Now, you can make a decent argument that those negative external effects are outweighed by the bad consequences of criminalizing drug use. But, you can’t believably argue that there are no negative external effects.

Another favorite argument is to try to de-link the negative effects from the drug use itself — “So, if somebody gets strung out on PCP and then kills somebody, go after them for murder, not for the PCP.” But, that’s not a general principle that we use in society — reckless driving is illegal even when nobody is hurt; you can’t fire a gun randomly in the air, even when the bullet doesn’t hurt somebody on the way down; shining lasers at airplanes is illegal, even when pilots aren’t blinded.

yet another Dave June 7, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Chris, FWIW I was attacking the argument, such as it is, that you presented. I didn’t find a single gratuitous insult when I re-read my post. Hint: ridiculing an argument is not attacking the arguer.

Perhaps I slightly got your implication wrong; maybe it should be: “If it is validly considered a crime, then there must be harm to third parties.”

More than slightly, but your quotated statement is close to how I use the word crime. IMO, to be properly considered a crime, the act in question must produce direct and causal harm to persons or property not voluntarily participating in the act. By this definition, many illegal activities are not crimes – drug use is clearly one of these. A person or group of people voluntarily using drugs is obviously not committing a crime by using the drugs.

But, you can’t believably argue that there are no negative external effects.

There are negative external effects from all manner of things (my list upthread itemizes a few). The existence of such effects is a ridiculous reason to make them illegal. Extending this line of thinking to its logical conclusion would render almost all activity illegal, so it is a patently stupid justification for prohibition.

Add to that the fact that, as with alcohol, the vast majority of drug use events are non-violent and do not result in any harm to third parties. Also, the vast majority of the violence associated with illegal drugs is purely and exclusively a result of prohibition – not the drug use or users. So your negative external effects argument to support prohibition is exceptionally weak (to put it kindly) and deserving of ridicule. If you were to apply the negative effects argument to prohibition you’d be on much firmer ground.

Emil June 6, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Chris,

You must also count those people who are hurt by the current status quo, including those killed directly in wars on drugs, those family members who see their loved ones locked up for selling harmless drugs, those hurt by badly processed or manufactured drugs.

Chris June 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Never said otherwise (although lots of people seem to think that I did).

But, it’s important to realize that we’re talking about different sets of people. For example: most of the deaths from the “war on drugs” are happening in Mexico.. If, as a result of legalization, a suburban teenager goes down to his local mini-mart, picks up a $2 rock (from the same clerk who currently sells cigarettes to underage kids), takes it home, ODs and then dies, the fact that there are a lot fewer dead Mexicans will be small consolation to his parents. (And, you can’t say for certain “He would have bought it from some thug on the street anyway.” Maybe he wouldn’t have.)

vikingvista June 6, 2011 at 10:58 pm

“Doing so would lower the price of drug use. ”

For the same reason (competition), it would reduce the profits that are funding drug suppliers’ armies, and encouraging extremes of ruthlessness.

George Peacock June 6, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Presuming there was a drop in alcohol consumption that took till 1970 to “recover,” how is that a success?

The evil wasn’t alcohol, it was the unnecessary restriction of liberty. Okrent’s book also makes it clear that there was at the very least political chicanery and that the amendment passed even after population shift occurred that would likely have defeated the 18th Amendment. Further, post census apportionment appears to have been unconstitutionally delayed by the anti-alcohol factions.

Finally, the xenophobic fervor (using WWI anti-German sentiment against the brewers), the class paternalism against immigrant groups (such as the Irish), and, worst, the imposition of overtly religious intolerance should alert us all about the dangers of such confluences and make us even more vigilant against being trod on.

Don’t think the worst can happen, talk to the interned Japanese.

Scott G June 6, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Hi Don,

As you know Studio Hayek is attempting to increase its readership in the face of intense competition from Cafe Hayek. A future project to add value to the Studio Hayek site (which I hope will also cause Cafe Hayek to innovate) is to create a short video that discusses whether it is against the law or against legislation to use marijuana in college dormitories which reek of marijuana smoke. I believe it is not against the law to smoke marijuana on certain U.C. Santa Cruz dorms and I believe I can prove this through a short mini-documentary.

Anyway, I thought I’d share this idea with you so you have enough time to prepare for the creative destruction which is in Cafe Hayek’s future.

John V June 6, 2011 at 1:18 pm

First complete paragraph (4th line down) of the last column says it all quite well. Sounds very familiar.

Seth June 6, 2011 at 2:32 pm

I’ll give Prohibitionist credit for amending the Constitution rather than just using a broad interpretation of the General Welfare goal.

I’ll give the anti-Prohibitionists equal credit for amending the Constitution as well.

Economiser June 6, 2011 at 4:46 pm

I concur.

Kent Gatewood June 6, 2011 at 4:34 pm

How does legalization get around product liability law? Insurance? A purported provider of a drug that killed is facing two counts of first degree murder here in Oklahoma. Would it be libertarian to support the death penalty of pushers who kill?

Seth June 6, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Ask the cigarette and alcohol companies.

Craig S June 6, 2011 at 5:47 pm

“Ask the cigarette and alcohol companies.”

Putting aside for a moment the numerous lawsuits cigarette companies have faced, cigarettes only kill after prolonged used. Are you suggesting that people should not be held responisble for their own actions? Do people die from recreational drug use or over dosing?

Ken June 6, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Kent,

“How does legalization get around product liability law?”

Are people not responsible for their own actions? What about people who get drunk, then drive?

“A purported provider of a drug that killed is facing two counts of first degree murder here in Oklahoma. Would it be libertarian to support the death penalty of pushers who kill?”

No. For the same reason Jim Beam shouldn’t be responsible for someone who drinks so much they die of alcohol poisoning or foolishly starts driving while drunk.

Get a grip, man.

Regards,
Ken

Dan June 6, 2011 at 7:34 pm

In a black market, space is at a premium. So when alcohol prohibition went into effect, the most potent potables soon dominated black market. Same thing happened to marijuana THC content with War on Drugs. The product variety changes in a legal vs. black market.

indianajim June 6, 2011 at 8:18 pm

And we haven’t heard much if anything about “Mellow Yellow” in decades.

Gil June 7, 2011 at 12:49 am

And no one sells hard liquor nowadays because everyone drinks ligiht beer.

crabguy June 7, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Talk about bed effects! I’d say the “drug war” has produced at least as many bad effects as the drugs themselves. Let’s at least do away with many bad effects brought to us by the “war.” What are they? To name a few: The largest percentage of any nation’s population in prisons. Think of the training in crime produced there. Think of the drain on government’s resources. Simply eliminating those two would be a real benefit. For goodness sake, does anyone really think that the “war” has decreased drug use? You can get drugs right inside prisons! As usual, the do-gooders create more evil than they ever subdue. So much for our “free” society.

Moggio June 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm
Molon Lobe June 9, 2011 at 6:32 pm

If drugs were legalized what would happen. Just look at China where the government sanctioned its sale to the population. Did the crime rate go down? Did prosperity increase? Did the nation prosper?

No it became the prey of foreigners. A land of the walking dead. Just look at our inner cities where drugs reign supreme. Is this what we want?

As usual the free thinkers ask us to ignore the costs of drug use. AIDS, ruined lifes, increased crime, destroyed families. Have we taken leave of our senses wjhen someone can advocate the legalization of drugs. If alcohol is an evil how do we benefit from the legalization of another evil?

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