By Kevin A. Sabet
Prohibition — America’s notoriously “failed social experiment” to rid the country of alcohol — took center stage this week as PBS broadcast Ken Burns’ highly acclaimed series on the subject. And already, it has been seized on by drug legalization advocates, who say it proves that drug prohibition should be abandoned.
But a closer look at what resulted from alcohol prohibition and its relevance to today’s anti-drug effort reveals a far more nuanced picture than the legalization lobby might like to admit.
As argued by Harvard’s Mark Moore and other astute policy observers, alcohol prohibition had beneficial effects along with the negative ones. Alcohol use plummeted among the general population. Cirrhosis of the liver fell by 66% among men. Arrests for public drunkenness declined by half.
Yes, organized crime was emboldened, but the mob was already powerful before Prohibition, and it continued to be long after.
No one is suggesting that alcohol prohibition should be reinstated. Americans have concluded that the right to drink outweighs public health and safety consequences. But it is important to remember that the policy was not the complete failure that most think it was, and so we should be wary of misapplying its lessons.
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