Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper reflects on the violent U.S. experiment with Prohibition, as depicted in Ken Burns' new PBS documentary. He argues there is a compelling parallel between the damage done by the 18th Amendment and the current U.S. war on drugs.
KEN Burns’ new documentary on alcohol prohibition, premiering on PBS Sunday, reportedly begins with a Mark Twain quote: “It is the prohibition that makes anything precious.”
As a retired police officer who worked to enforce today’s prohibition — the “war on drugs” — I think it’s a lesson we would do well to remember.
It was the prohibition of alcohol that made it so valuable to criminals, providing the tax-free dollars that turned neighborhood street gangs into national crime syndicates headed by the likes of Al Capone and Charles (“Lucky”) Luciano.
Prohibition did little to curb liquor consumption, particularly among young people. Moreover, as otherwise law-abiding citizens were suddenly deemed criminals, the resulting hypocrisy significantly undermined respect for authority.
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Today, drug use, especially by adolescents, is shockingly widespread, and law enforcement’s job has been made that much harder. In cities across the country, young people, poor people and people of color have come to view us as the enemy.
Our drug laws have given rise to a new generation of gangsters with names like Sinaloa, Los Zetas and La Familia. These evil and greedy cartels are raking in profits that Capone and his ilk could only have dreamed of.
Like the bootleggers of old, today’s international cartels reap untold billions of dollars from the drug war, and they aren’t afraid to kill to protect profits or expand markets. After alcohol prohibition took effect, the homicide rate skyrocketed by 78 percent. Nearly a century later, 4,323 U.S. homicides between 2005 and 2009 have been directly traced to the illegal drug trade — more than the number of Americans killed on 9/11 or in combat in Iraq. Even this figure pales in comparison to the 40,000 murders in Mexico since 2006 that are directly related to the illegal drug market.
It would be difficult for anyone who lived under alcohol prohibition to imagine today’s drug war-related violence. Whereas the St. Valentine’s Day massacre of seven alcohol-trafficking gangsters in Chicago made international headlines in 1929, today’s drug cartels regularly kidnap and murder police and other government officials, roll severed heads into nightclubs and hang mutilated bodies from bridges — complete with threatening messages carved into the flesh. The violence is so frequent that each grisly incident is but a blip on the radar.
Just as in the 1920s, this violence stems from disputes over territory. Instead of bringing whiskey from Canada, organized criminals deliver illegal drugs from Mexico via a sophisticated network whose tentacles extend from our southwestern border to more than 1,000 American cities.
Previews show that Burns’ documentary vividly depicts the lavish lifestyles of Prohibition-era gangsters, the more successful of whom banked staggering profits for their time.
Yet today’s drug cartels are even more profitable. It costs about $75 to produce a pound of marijuana, which then sells for about $6,000, depending on quality. Mexico alone produces more than 5,000 metric tons yearly, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
As with every historical documentary, we all know the ending to this one: At long last, Americans of all political stripes realized that the Prohibition experiment was a complete failure. Support for it collapsed, and repeal finally came with the 21st Amendment in 1933.
The repeal allowed the creation of thousands of new jobs in a reinvigorated alcohol industry, with millions of dollars earned in tax revenues.
Legalizing alcohol shut off a major source of funding for organized crime and took the violence out of the market. It’s not surprising that you haven’t seen any newspaper headlines recently about Budweiser and Coors distributors shooting one another over who gets to stock liquor stores.
It took just 13 years for the country to come to its senses. But our drug laws have been on the books for decades. Nevertheless, I believe we are closer than ever to undoing some of the damage through current initiatives to legalize marijuana.
With so many parallels to the past in evidence, Burns’ latest work should touch off a long-overdue discussion about ending our current experiment with the war on drugs.
Norm Stamper, a 34-year police veteran who retired as Seattle’s chief of police, is a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (www.CopsSayLegalizeDrugs.com).