I’m glad you asked. The answer is no.
It’s commonly accepted that “Prohibition did not work.” That’s certainly not an unreasonable view, depending upon one’s view about what Prohibition was intended to accomplish. But the commonly held dogma causes many intelligent people to assume that there was just as much drinking, if not more, during Prohibition. They use this incorrect “fact” to argue that marijuana prohibition actually increases consumption. Their conclusion: when we repeal all the marijuana laws, not only will all sorts of wonderful benefits occur, but in addition (they say) usage will actually go down!
This is not so.
In 1989, Mark H. Moore, a professor of criminal justice at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, published an op-ed in the New York Times that took on the myths:
What everyone ”knows” about Prohibition is that it was a failure. It did not eliminate drinking; it did create a black market. That in turn spawned criminal syndicates and random violence. Corruption and widespread disrespect for law were incubated and, most tellingly, Prohibition was repealed only 14 years after it was enshrined in the Constitution.
The lesson drawn by commentators is that it is fruitless to allow moralists to use criminal law to control intoxicating substances. Many now say it is equally unwise to rely on the law to solve the nation’s drug problem.
But the conventional view of Prohibition is not supported by the facts.
First, the regime created in 1919 by the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, which charged the Treasury Department with enforcement of the new restrictions, was far from all-embracing. The amendment prohibited the commercial manufacture and distribution of alcoholic beverages; it did not prohibit use, nor production for one’s own consumption. Moreover, the provisions did not take effect until a year after passage -plenty of time for people to stockpile supplies.
Second, alcohol consumption declined dramatically during Prohibition. Cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929. Admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholic psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1928.
Arrests for public drunkennness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922. For the population as a whole, the best estimates are that consumption of alcohol declined by 30 percent to 50 percent.
Third, violent crime did not increase dramatically during Prohibition. Homicide rates rose dramatically from 1900 to 1910 but remained roughly constant during Prohibition’s 14 year rule. Organized crime may have become more visible and lurid during Prohibition, but it existed before and after.
Fourth, following the repeal of Prohibition, alcohol consumption increased. Today, alcohol is estimated to be the cause of more than 23,000 motor vehicle deaths and is implicated in more than half of the nation’s 20,000 homicides. In contrast, drugs have not yet been persuasively linked to highway fatalities and are believed to account for 10 percent to 20 percent of homicides.
Moore does not conclude that Prohibition was a good idea (although he clearly does believe in banning substances like cocaine or heroin). Moore says: “A democratic society may decide that recreational drinking is worth the price in traffic fatalities and other consequences.” The point is: we should make these decisions with our eyes wide open, and not pretend that there won’t be more usage and adverse consequences from that usage.
But it won’t do to stop with one source. What is the counterargument? I searched around for pieces that made the opposite case, but found nothing convincing. At Cato, Mark Thornton has a piece titled Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure. Thornton does not dispute the fact that alcohol consumption decreased:
According to its proponents, all the proposed benefits of Prohibition depended on, or were a function of, reducing the quantity of alcohol consumed. At first glance, the evidence seems to suggest that the quantity consumed did indeed decrease. That would be no surprise to an economist: making a product more difficult to supply will increase its price, and the quantity consumed will be less than it would have been otherwise.
Thornton does not argue that alcohol consumption did not decrease; he concedes that it did. Instead, Thornton says that the decrease was not that valuable due to several “qualifications” concerning that decrease. He says the decrease “was not very significant” and that consumption “rose steadily after an initial drop.” Maybe, but it never reached or surpassed the original level until after Prohibition was repealed. The sources cited by Thornton include “Alcohol Consumption During Prohibition” by Jeffrey A. Miron and Jeffrey Zweibel, which states (.pdf):
We find that alcohol consumption fell sharply at the beginning of Prohibition, to approximately 30 percent of its pre-Prohibition level. During the next several years, however, alcohol consumption increased sharply, to about 60-70 percent of its pre-prohibition level. The level of consumption was virtually the same immediately after Prohibition as during the latter part of Prohibition, although consumption increased to approximately its pre-Prohibition level during the subsequent decade.
Thornton also argues that “[h]eightened enforcement did not curtail consumption” as consumption increased in the latter years of Prohibition. Finally, he concludes:
The fourth qualification may actually be the most important: a decrease in the quantity of alcohol consumed did not make Prohibition a success. Even if we agree that society would be better off if less alcohol were consumed, it does not follow that lessening consumption through Prohibition made society better off.
That may be, and the point of this post is not to argue the point. The point of the post is to show that, if you measure Prohibition’s success in terms of alcohol usage, it “worked.”
So: if you want to argue for decriminalization of marijuana, be my guest — but please: be honest about what it will mean. Decriminalizing marijuana will lead to more marijuana usage, and all the negative consequences that follow.
It might be worth it, and it might not. Let’s just be clear about the negatives, rather than wishing them away with a wave of the hand and a declaration that “Prohibition did not work.”