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June 21, 2007 - New York Sun (NY)

OpEd: Up From Prohibition

By John McWhorter

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

You have to go to the history section of the bookstore to find Michael Lerner's new book recounting New York during Prohibition, "Dry Manhattan." It would be more usefully displayed in Current Affairs. Mr. Lerner has given us not a mere academic exhumation of a bygone New York, but an uncannily accurate description of New York last week and the city's fight against drugs.

Prohibition was, of course, a dismal failure. It didn't stop people from drinking, and, in fact, made many, attracted by the glamour of the illicit, drink more. But worst of all, it created an ongoing war between police forces and humble working people, bringing out the worst in everybody.

Public respect for the law plummeted. Mr. Lerner writes, "officers increasingly accused of using excessive force, planting evidence, and conducting illegal searches and seizures." I could have opened this oped with that sentence and pulled the journalist's rhetorical trick of writing, "Does that sound like something out of today's headlines? Well, in fact, it is a description of 1921 in Michael Lerner's new book ... "

And even honest agents and officers were "chased, bombarded with bowling pins, assaulted by women and children, and knocked unconscious" out of hostility to a frivolous and unfair policy. Nowadays officers attempting drug arrests encounter weapons more menacing than bowling pins, but the principle is the same.

Because the risk involved in trafficking liquor meant tempting money for those doing it, for too many poor people bootlegging became an alternative to legal work. Today, way too many inner city young people seek the easy score available from "working the corners" selling drugs.

It is not that there are no jobs available for them -- check work by the Urban Institute, for example. The problem is the temptation of a trade where high risk spells big bucks -- and even if the underlings don't make much, they aspire to rise in the outfit and make more.

Finally, immigrants and blacks were hounded much more than native whites. They didn't like it. Fast forward to today, with the common resentment that the white middle manager caught with powdered cocaine in the glove compartment gets a slap on the hand while the black kid with some vials of crack goes to jail.

Never mind that this sentencing disparity was at first supported by black lawmakers expecting it to get crack out of inner city neighborhoods. The man on the street is not a historian, and the modern reality of the disparity enables a false sentiment that America is dedicated to getting as many people of color as possible behind bars.

We look back at Prohibition chuckling that people had to endure what they did for the prissy, puerile notion that no one should be able to have a drink. Yes, alcohol can be addictive. In excess, it harms health. It often ruins lives. Nevertheless, today, we assume that the response to those things hardly is to call for a dry America.

But when it comes to the war on drugs, most of America almost is robotically accepting of the idea that even talking about ending it is "politically unfeasible."

In fact, this passive position on the war on drugs represents a catastrophic failure of imagination, compassion, and plain common sense on the part of this great nation. It will look as grievously ridiculous in the history books as Prohibition does now.

We shake our heads that throughout the 1920s drunkenness actually increased. Meanwhile the war on drugs makes no difference in the usage of them, and we let that pass.

We know that gangsters profited from liquor's illegality, such that the repeal of Prohibition was as positive a development as flouridation was of our water supply. But regarding today's "gangstas" selling drugs, eliminating the futile policy that makes selling the drugs lucrative is considered something irrelevant to serious discussion.

It would appear that to a great many, the specter of a coke addict is more horrific than that of an alcoholic, and that therefore, good heavens, my dears, we simply cahn't, cahn't permit such substances to circulate. Imagine that said in the voice of Margaret Dumont from the Marx Brothers movies.

However, for one thing, it would appear that nothing we could do will ever stop those substances from circulating anyway. And more to the point, it is unclear whether the differences between an addiction to drugs and to drink are so stark that the war on drugs is a worthier project than Prohibition was.

Think of Nicholas Cage's alcoholic character in "Leaving Las Vegas" and Jamie Foxx's heroin-addicted role as Ray Charles in "Ray." Why, precisely, does the latter justify a policy that tears at the fabric of American society just as Prohibition did, and shows no more signs of success -- even after having existed for decades longer? What might we learn from other countries' drug policies? Might we stress rehabilitation over interdiction?

Questions like that should be at the center of political discourse in America. That instead they are considered radical musings from the edge is, given current realities, pathetic.

Mr. McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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