Up in Smoke?

In the mid-1920s, New York City threw in the towel on Prohibition. The city’s message to the federal government was simple: you want to ban alcohol? Fine. Send in federal inspectors and do the job yourself. Municipal policemen and politicians would no longer cooperate in what was increasingly becoming the scam of Prohibition. By 1927, New York played host to an estimated 30,000 “speakeasies”—places drab or glitzy that served illegal alcohol. It was interesting to note that this was actually double the number of bars, restaurants and saloons that sold liquor before Prohibition came into effect.

What New York City did on principle, Chicago did for profit. Under Republican mayor Big Bill Thompson, Chicago was a wide-open city for bootleggers (i.e. gangsters who slaked the insatiable thirst of Americans with illegal alcohol). Mayor Thompson openly boasted that he was “wetter than the middle of the Atlantic Ocean” and refused to put any effort into arresting the rising class of gangsters in the Windy City. This was likely because he was on the take from Al Capone, a two-bit gangster who became fantastically wealthy peddling bootleg booze.

As chagrined prohibitionists came to realize, millions of Americans were more than happy to continue buying alcohol, despite the fact it was against the law.

People can endlessly argue whether Prohibition was a success or failure. The death rate from alcoholism did fall in the years immediately after Prohibition came into effect (only to rocket up again in the mid-1920s). What is inarguable is that Prohibition spawned a vicious underworld which infected cities with horrific levels of violence and corrupted a generation of judges, politicians and police.

In the end, the Great Depression put the final stake into Prohibition. With millions of people out of work, Americans decided the federal government had better things to do than track down bootleggers. President Franklin Roosevelt rescinded Prohibition shortly after taking office in 1933.

Roosevelt did not do away with the concept of “local option” however. Municipalities, even whole states that didn’t want to sell alcohol could remain “dry” if they so choose. Mississippi, for example, retained Prohibition decades after FDR’s reign.

Now it seems history is repeating itself. Not only is the economy again in deep trouble, but cities and states are starting to drop out of the so-called War on Drugs.

Three municipalities in Colorado (Denver, Breckenridge and Nederland) recently voted to remove all criminal penalties on marijuana possession for adults. Several other cities, including Seattle and San Francisco have passed regulations designed to make pot possession the lowest priority for local police.

California—which in 1975 decriminalized simple marijuana possession then legalized the medical use of marijuana two decades later—is set to vote on a state-wide referendum this fall. If it passes, all state laws concerning the possession, cultivation and transportation of small amounts of pot would go up in smoke. Similar referendums are in the works for Oregon, Nevada and Alaska.

Drug law reformers say the public is waking up to the fact that a) marijuana isn’t nearly as bad for you as say, alcohol and b) it’s nearly impossible to enforce laws against pot given how wildly popular it is.

Drug war supporters warn that municipal “de-penalization” and state decrim laws are meaningless, given that pot remains illegal under federal law. They neglect to mention that federal authorities don’t generally get involved in drug cases involving less than 100 pounds or so of dope.

With this in mind, I strongly suspect citizens in California and Colorado will soon echo New York City’s defiant stance during Prohibition: you want to bust pot smokers? Fine. Send the DEA, FBI and U.S. Marshals to do the job. We’re going to sit back and watch as you try to make a federal case out of every confiscated baggie of weed.

If interested in a more detailed look at prohibition, check out my new book, American Gangsters at http://www.abc-clio.com/products/overview.aspx?productid=111009

Photograph courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons — http://www.flickr.com/photos/torbenh/5987026343/

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