Recently I've been reading Last Call, Daniel Okrent's excellent look at Prohibition, and the one thing that has struck me is how similar the alcohol prohibition movement is to the marijuana (and other drug) prohibition movement today. For example, both used official fake pseudoscience to make their case - the modern DARE program can be compared easily with Scientific Temperance Instruction, a pack of bullshit fed to pre-Prohibition schools that told of alcohol's many horrors in the same way the DARE program teaches kids a lot of half-truths about drug usage today. (Also, racism against blacks and Germans played a large part in Prohibition's passage, just as racism against Hispanics played a healthy role in the illegality of marijuana and racism against blacks produced the sentencing disparity between cocaine and crack.)
What's most salient throughout the book, though, is the sheer impossibility of prohibiting the use of alcohol. In order to get Prohibition passed in the first place, Congress had to make exceptions for homemade hard ciders and wines. People were allowed to keep and consume liquor bought before January 17, 1920. Many members of Congress who voted for Prohibition were drinkers themselves. And, of course, criminal syndicates (the analogs of today's drug cartels) distributed liquor within the US rather easily. (For example, the Bronfman family of Canada, owners of the Seagram's empire, had a very profitable arrangement with mobster Meyer Lansky.) The result? If you wanted to drink, you could - in the same way that almost half of Americans have used illegal drugs.
And if you think about it, prohibition of private behavior, especially a popular one, is a hell of a task. Government puts tons of money and effort into preventing something, only to see half of America engage in it anyway. Prohibition was beset by corrupt enforcement agencies and a general lack of concern with enforcement at the highest levels. But even with the huge enforcement apparatus set up today to combat illegal drugs - even with the erosion of civil liberties and legalized theft and activity approaching state-sponsored murder, half of Americans have used drugs.
Laws, it is said, are a reflection of our morality. If this is so, our prohibition laws are a reflection of a very mixed morality that, in some ways, is uniquely American.
We aspire to live lives free of vice. We idealize the rejection of intoxicants like marijuana, cocaine, even alcohol. We talk about how horrible drug use is. And so when the opportunity comes to pass laws against it, we register our disapproval with that private behavior by voting for prohibition. Yet we also understand that we live our lives in a liberal democracy, and we cherish our liberties handed down to us in the form of the Constitution and its myriad protections against government intrusion. We like our government distant, not ubiquitous - but ubiquity is necessary to truly enforce prohibition.
So we pass these laws knowing full well that they are, for the most part, unenforceable. We give up some of our civil liberties, but never so much that the laws become viable. We look the other way as those with power and resources manipulate the system so that they get out of paying the full price for violating prohibition, allowing our laws to turn into a system of oppression against the underclasses. We have taken comfort in having our morality affirmed by laws only enforceable by oppression. Prohibition is a blanket, if you will, for our aspirational morality, protecting our vision of what a good society should look like from the harsh, cold reality of a world that never lives up to its lofty ideals.
Eventually, we will understand that a blanket composed of SWAT teams and drug cartels and thievery and racism provides no true comfort, and we will have the courage to shed it. Medical marijuana laws were the first attempts, Prop 19 is the latest but it will not be the last. And when we do, we will realize that the harsh, cold reality isn't really as harsh and cold as it seems. The truth is that our aspirational morality will survive whether or not it is protected by the force of law. And when we come to that realization, we can give the American ideal of personal liberty the full embrace that it so richly deserves.
Update: Jacob Sullum deals well with a similar argument.