Vital Signs

Is It Time to End Prohibition?

The lessons of history are never quite definitive. History repeats itself, but not exactly, and the trick is to know where the differences come in. Nevertheless, in the case of drug abuse and its control we have as good a lesson and as close an analogy as history ever provides—Prohibition. Unfortunately, our politicians have no historical memory, or perhaps the trouble is that memory serves reason and not appetite and hence is of no use to politicians. In any case, we have now reached the point where Prohibition was about 1930. What had begun as a misguided moral crusade in which many Americans had vast emotional investment had devolved into a scandal of hypocrisy, violence, and corruption. Sensible people knew all along that this was inevitable and that the problem should have been left where it could have been rationally dealt with. It should have been left to the states.

There are, of course, weightier arguments for the prohibition of most drugs than there ever were for alcohol. Alcohol was traditional and ineradicable, whereas drugs are relatively new or foreign and could have been stopped if vigorous and effective action had been taken early enough. It is too late for that now. A considerable portion of our population is beyond the pale, and it is useless to pretend that they will adhere to standards of behavior that have no meaning for them.

If we were to tackle the problem of drugs as a law enforcement problem,...

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