Prohibition: Not Repeatable, But Not a Failure

10/13/2011 03:46 pm ET | Updated Dec 13, 2011

With HBO's hit series Boardwalk Empire, Ken Burns' new documentary Prohibition and Broadway's Chicago as the longest-running musical revival in history, the 1920s are enjoying a comeback. Last week, Burns' documentary prompted many critics and viewers to make comparisons between alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and the status of illegal drugs today. Those in favor of drug legalization see prohibition's inability to survive as irrevocable proof that today's "drug prohibition" is equally unsustainable. But this is a short-sighted argument, and the issue deserves more thoughtful scrutiny.

As Kevin Sabet explains in his insightful L.A. Times article, prohibition had a number of successes: alcohol use decreased, cirrhosis of the liver was down 66 percent in men and public drunkenness was halved. "Yes," asserts Sabet, "organized crime was emboldened, but the mob was already powerful before prohibition, and it continued to be long after." So I see no strong evidence that prohibition wasn't temporarily useful to America; in fact, evidence shows some profound positive effects. However, I wouldn't be naïve enough to suggest that we return to prohibiting a drug (alcohol) that has been ingrained in the fabric of our society and how we have socialized for centuries.

Comparing alcohol to today's illicit drugs is something of an apples-to-oranges analogy. "It's such a stupid parallel to draw," insists Ken Burns in an interview. "Drugs have always been parts of some very rare subcultures, but every culture drinks alcohol as fermented or distilled spirits." Opium, for example, has a long history of use -- and opiates certainly have a place today as a viable medical treatment -- but it has never been integrated into the daily life of healthy humans in the way that alcohol has. Scientifically, too, alcohol and other intoxicants are just not the same. Unless you're a recovering addict, a glass of wine per day is absolutely not going to hurt you, and we've even seen evidence of minor medical benefits from light drinking. The same cannot be said of illegal drugs -- imagine having a little bit of heroin each night with your dinner.

Another dubious argument some make in favor of drug legalization involves potential income from taxes. With our economy failing, why not legalize drugs and heavily tax them for extra revenue? Because we know from our experience with tobacco and alcohol -- two of the highest taxed items in the country -- that even the amount brought in by these extraordinary taxes doesn't come close to covering the costs of these items to society. Plus, as Sabet points out, when an intoxicant is legal, "powerful business interests have an incentive to encourage use." We have seen this with alcoholic drinks like Four Loko marketed dangerously to teens.

Alcohol's current societal costs and marketing monopolies raise the question: If alcohol were prohibited today, would our government be saving money on social, health care and criminal justice costs? Probably. But between the history, the lobbyists and the medical facts, reinstating alcohol prohibition just isn't feasible and would certainly be a disastrous failure. We learned during the 1920s that alcohol prohibition was unsustainable, and it would certainly never work today. That horse may be out of the barn -- but using it as an excuse for drug legalization would be irresponsible and catastrophic. Let's not go crazy and free the whole farm.