When governments try and ban substances to protect people from themselves, the results are never what they intended.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Connor: Hey, Brittany.
Brittany: Hi, Connor.
Connor: A couple of episodes ago we talked about vices and mentioned that you know, we’d be talking about prohibition in a future episode. Well, here we are. Welcome to the Prohibition episode. Maybe let’s start first, with a refresher. So, advice is some type of action or behavior that many people, most people might consider immoral, or wrong, like, you know, drugs or alcohol or things that can, you know, hurt you but don’t hurt other people. So that’s a vice. a crime on the other hand is when you harm someone else or their property that belongs to them. And so one of these has no victim, right? So a vice, there’s no victim involved. It’s just, you know, me sitting in my basement doing something that you think I shouldn’t. whereas a crime, right? A true type of crime involves, a victim. Now that’s kind of messy because, you know, for example, heroin, horrible drug, illegal, the government will, it is a crime to use and own and sell heroin. And so there’s no victim there. No, there’s no other victims if someone’s just using that in their home. But it is a crime. So when we say it’s not a crime, it’s more maybe on another episode, Brittany, we get into this idea of maam and say, versus Molo prohibit crime.
Brittany: Oh, yes, that one. What does that mean, Connor?
Connor: It’s the idea of like, is this bad in and of itself, like killing someone? Or is this?
Brittany: Or is it bags like the government says?
Connor: Yes, is this bad just because it’s prohibited, which is, you know the vices and things like that? We sometimes today call them victimless crimes. And so we’ve got this difference, right between a vice on the one hand and what we’ll call for now, just a crime on the other hand, or a crime with a victim. And, you know, throughout history, the government has tried to make and has made vices illegal. It typically never ends well. And I think the easiest example to share is alcohol prohibition. So, you know, the word prohibition, the word prohibit means to forbid something from happening. So prohibition is when something is forbidden from happening or not allowed to happen. And in this case, the government outlawed the sale and use of alcohol for the entire country. This was a constitutional amendment that that passed. There was this whole movement in the early 19 hundreds, coming out of what was called a moral panic, where people were up in arms, especially religious people. They were growing, concerned over behavior that they believed was happening because of people drinking alcohol. And so the people involved in this part of this effort, they were called the Temperance Movement, and they put a lot of pressure on elected officials to do something about it. So in 1918, the 18th Amendment was passed, and this made it illegal to sell or drink alcohol. And just after this constitutional amendment was ratified, which means that it was officially adopted into the Constitution, there was a law passed called the Volted Act, and it defined what the government considered alcohol and what the punishment would be. Cuz the constitutional amendment didn’t get into details, right? It just had like some generic wording about it. But then Congress had to come in and add all the detail about what that new constitutional amendment actually meant. But at first, this wasn’t very easy to enforce. Brittany, maybe let me throw it to you. What do you think prohibition actually did? Did the entire country suddenly stop drinking and everyone’s lives got better?
Brittany: Two things I would add. One thing, the Temperance movement, and I may be wrong about this, but from my public school education days, I think it was mostly like housewives too, that like pressured their husbands into like, let’s make this illegal. Which I think is also also funny on its own, but, okay, so you asked what it actually did, and did you know, did everyone in the country stop drinking? Did everything get better? And the answer is no, not at all. There were some initial reports where people were like, oh, you know, alcohol deaths went down. And then later on, as time went by, they couldn’t really prove that. And it was like by such a small amount that it really wasn’t significant. But one thing that we’ve always learned, I think in history is that when something becomes illegal, all that means is that the sale and use of it gets pushed into an underground, what we call a black market. So like a market that is underground so the government doesn’t know it’s happening, which in some cases kinda sounds great, cause no taxes, right? But there’s some other things that happen because of that. And in this case, the black market came from in the form of what was called bootleggers, which I think is a fun word. And I think it actually was called, didn’t they sneak alcohol in Boots? Wasn’t that part of the origin? I may have made that up, but I thought that’s what I remembered. Here’s a that’s a homework assignment for you guys. But Bootleggers was a name for people who found a way to actually kind of turn this into an entrepreneurial moment. They learned how to make their own, you know, alcohol. And they sold it without the government knowing. And they got pretty creative with it actually. But the problem with this is a lot of the alcohol wasn’t necessarily safe to drink cuz they’re making it with all sorts of weird ingredients. So it actually did in a way put people in more danger. It also strengthened what was called organized crime. If you’ve ever heard of something called like the Mob or the mafia in movies, those are words that are used to describe what organized crime is. And that’s basically when a group of people forms their own, I like to call it kind of a shadow government in a way where they force people to pay them for services. So like, if you operate a store that’s like on the block of one of these organized crime bosses, like beat if you will, then you have to pay them for like, security or pay them to operate on their, on their block. Which is really funny cuz you know what this sounds a lot like is government. So, it’s, they’re a little bit more violent. But it’s the same kind of thing. So honestly, it was a crazy time and a lot of these bootleggers were part of the mafia. And so it resulted in a lot of violence and a huge rise in organized crime which would last even after prohibition.
Connor: It also created more criminals. When you make things illegal, you make more people into criminals. In this case, a lot of people were criminals, underground parties, and even there were illegal underground bars called Speakeasies that started popping up a kind of cool name. Sometimes the police would find out and they would raid these facilities, which, you know, meant that they would kind of invade them and arrest a bunch of people. And a lot of people would get into trouble. But I think here’s where things get really interesting. When the people were caught and had to go to court, juries across the country often refuse to convict them. And some people think that this happened about 60% of the time this is, known as jury nullification. Or just when a jury says, you know what, sure, technically this is against the law, but we don’t think what they did was wrong or it didn’t hurt anyone. So.
Brittany: The law is silly, right? You could just say like, okay, it’s against the law, but this law doesn’t really do, it’s a silly law.
Connor: Yeah. And so the jury, in this case, is saying, we don’t think it is just, or right to punish this person. So we are going to say that they’re not guilty. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t do it. They may have actually done that thing in this case, you know, drink alcohol, but it just means that the jury is not willing to put them in prison or make them pay a fine. Cuz the jury feels that that would be an injustice. So this was happening a lot during prohibition. Yes, it was a law, but tons of people still drank and they were breaking the law. And even when they were arrested, they were often not ultimately convicted. And so this had a big impact on the prohibition movement because it showed how unpopular it was with juries being so unwilling to convict people. It made it kind of demoralizing for the police and the prosecutors to do their work. And what I mean by that is, you know, if you’re a prosecutor, your job is to go to court and punish these criminals. But if you keep losing because of juries that are not willing to convict the defendant, the person who drank the alcohol, then do you want to keep doing that again and again and again and going to court when you know that there’s a likelihood that all of that time and effort you put into it is going to be wasted? Maybe not. I mean, it would not feel great to know that you had to do that. So it was widely unpopular and there were all these problems during prohibition in terms of enforcing the law. And so several years later, about a decade and a half, this is 1933, Congress passed.
Brittany: I guess it was that long. I don’t ever think of it as being that long, but it was really.
Connor: Yeah, it was a bit of time. And so Congress passed and the states ratified, meaning they also agreed to what became the 21st Amendment. And so the 21st Amendment to the Constitution repealed or got rid of the 18th Amendment. So the 18th Amendment says, Hey, we’re gonna have prohibition. And then the 21st Amendment said, Nope, just kidding. , that didn’t work. No more prohibition. And it was jury nullification, which helped make this happen. In other words that it was so unpopular that, you know, people just not, were not willing to convict people. So I guess sharing that example, Brittany, I think it would be nice to think of the idea that like, Hey, as a country, we learned from this, we learned our lesson, we know that prohibition led to all kinds of underground crime and mafia and Al Capone and others. And so let’s not do that again. Let’s not make those mistakes. Let’s not ban vice vices and things that are just going to create these underground criminals. Do you think that we’ve as a country learned that lesson?
Brittany: You know, there is a saying that, the definition of insanity, of being crazy is doing the same thing over again, but expecting different results each time. So let’s say like, you know you touch a stove and your hand gets burned, but you keep touching the stove cause you’re like, no, it’ll be different this time. That is how we think of government and prohibition because it’s, it doesn’t work and they keep doing it cuz it’s like, well, maybe this time we’re gonna have different results. So after all that, after all that we learned during prohibition, the government then took things further when the war on drugs really started heating up and they made drugs illegal. And that hasn’t really helped. In fact, the opioid crisis has gotten really bad. And those are drugs that technically are legal, right? That they, that were given out by doctors. So it’s funny, so it, on one hand, they’re not doing what they say by, you know, that. And the other hand, they banned it and things went wrong in that way too. So the government just doesn’t know how to do anything. But drug prohibition has been really terrible because so many people, I don’t even know if we have a number for how many people are in jail just on nonviolent drugs. I don’t have that number, off the top of my head, but it’s a lot. So it’s crazy to me that we still do these things. I think it’s getting better. I would like to believe that drug prohibition is starting to very slowly come to an end. One thing that we’re not sure though, is we have all these people in jail because of, drug prohibition. And I don’t know how they’re gonna remedy that. I don’t know if they’re gonna let them out or what’s gonna happen there, which is a very sad situation. But, so no, it doesn’t work. All it does is push things underground. It actually makes drugs less safe because then you know, it’s not that I believe things should be regulated, but it’s easier to get things that are dangerous. And that’s happening all over the country right now where people are dying because somebody sold a drug on the underground market that wasn’t what they thought it was going to be. And they take too much of it, and it’s very, very sad. But that would not happen if there was no drug prohibition because they’d be able to get them tested or, you know, go to places to make sure that they had something that they knew they were taking. So, you know, to make a long story short, no, we haven’t learned any lessons from this, or the government rather hasn’t learned any lessons from it. And that’s very sad because things are continuing, you know, down a bad path. But, like I said earlier, I do think we’re coming to the end of prohibition. What do you think, Connor?
Connor: I like to think so, but as I think about why we have more prohibition today, I think one of the hard things is for politicians to diff make a difference between something that is bad versus something that’s illegal. In other words, if you are a politician and people are looking to you to keep their children safe and keep our community safe, it’s very difficult to resist the temptation to just ban bad things. Right? You as an elected official, you wanna look like, you know, you’re tough on crime and you’re keeping our community safe. And it’s very easy to say that you’re doing that by voting to ban all these bad things. It’s hard to say, well, hey, people like, I agree with you that these things are bad, but, you know, I don’t think we should, you know, ban them because X, y, z. So maybe into your question, Brittany, about whether things are changing or prohibition is going away, maybe in some small cases, certainly we’ve seen across the country, the marijuana laws loosening up quite a bit. liquor laws in some cases, even still, even after prohibition, that just meant that the federal government could not ban this stuff anymore. But many states still did. And many states still heavily control, you know, the sale of alcohol. And so I don’t know, I think we’re slightly loosening up. But I don’t know that we have a philosophical understanding from people even if they support this narrow exception for something like, let’s say medical cannabis. I don’t think that most of those people would then agree, oh yeah, we should just, you know, legalize all drugs, for example, because, you know, even though they’re bad and people shouldn’t use them, we just don’t want all the underground black market crime and cartels and stuff like that. That’s very hard for people to like, quote-unquote support and say that they’re okay with it. And so I don’t know that we’re, as a society yet to the point where a lot of people are going to have the understanding that allows them to make that kind of awkward or tough decision where they have to then go tell people like, no. I think drugs are bad. I don’t use them myself. I don’t think others should use them. I just don’t think that the police should go lock people up for them and ruin their lives and, you know, take their cars and their money and all these things. So, I don’t know, it’s kind of an interesting question to see in what direction we’re going. Certainly, we’ve made a lot of changes and there’s been some improvements, but I think we definitely need more this is a, you know, tricky subject, especially with kids listening, right? kids, this is not to say that, you know, drugs are good or we should use any of these things or anything. It’s just to say should things that are bad be made illegal, and if we do that, if we make bad things illegal, does that stop the bad things from happening? And now we’ve got, you know, about a century of information and evidence, since prohibition, of alcohol to show that it doesn’t really work. It’s not very effective. And if we talk today about what’s called the war on drugs, which is this prohibition on drugs, I think the drugs have won. If it’s a war on drugs that they haven’t gone away, they’re more potent than ever. They’re everywhere. They’re in schools and people can get ’em. And like it is all over the place. But now we have cartels and all these drug criminals and all these problems, that wouldn’t exist if you had an economy where people could more openly do some of this stuff. So it’s interesting to kind of think about what that world would look like. The topic for another day, perhaps. Until next time, Brittany, thank you and we’ll talk to you later.
Brittany: Talk to you later.