Sessions long has been aggressive on drug crimes, starting in 1975 when he became a federal prosecutor.
America’s war on booze began in earnest 100 years ago this month, when Congress passed the Volstead Act implementing the 18th Amendment. Apparently, though, a century is not long enough for us to learn the key lessons of that epic policy failure.
Prohibition was an unhappy illustration of the Law of Unintended Consequences. As The Sun’s H.L. Mencken observed, “it was based upon a Christian yearning to abate drunkenness, and so abolish crime, poverty and disease. … Not only are crime, poverty and disease undiminished, but drunkenness itself, if the police statistics are to be believed, has greatly increased. The land rocks with the scandal.”
Mencken exaggerated. The ‘20s saw some declines in alcohol-related harms such as cirrhosis death rates and admissions to mental hospitals for alcoholic psychosis. Scandal did, however, erode public support for this “noble experiment.” As competition for market share in this lucrative industry took violent forms, the realization dawned that trying to reduce one kind of harm invited a greater one.
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre provided a gory illustration. In the battle between mobsters Al Capone and Bugs Moran to monopolize Chicago’s booze market, seven men were machine-gunned to death. Americans had seen “bootleg battles” before, but when photos of this carnage made front pages nationwide, the tide of public sentiment turned.
The nation’s violent crime rate, in decline through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had spiked upward. Criminal gangs, flush with cash from an industry that had been unwittingly gifted to them, became more organized and dangerous. Homicides rose 78% above pre-Prohibition levels; the federal prison population soared 561 percent.
So Prohibition would mercifully end in 1933; henceforth, alcohol-related harms were to be managed by taxation, regulation and education. But since 1971, when President Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one” and launched our endless War on Drugs, we have been repeating Prohibition’s errors. Yes, we have modestly reduced illicit drug use, but the collateral damage – homicides and other violent crimes, overdose deaths and police corruption in the U.S. and supplier countries — may well be greater than the gains.
And there is additional damage that often goes unremarked upon: to our culture. The gangsters of the ‘20s and ‘30s were drawn from the poor immigrant groups who had recently flocked to America’s cities seeking economic opportunity; Prohibition ensured that crime was one of the better-paying and fastest-growing sectors. Italian, Irish and Jewish mobs became infamous; stereotyping and bias against these ethnic groups would take years to recede.
That phenomenon, too, has played out over the years of our ill-advised drug war. Blacks and Hispanics, relatively recent migrants to urban areas, were well-situated to take the reins of an industry made more lucrative by its very illegality. This has made members of these groups, like the Capones and Morans of yesteryear, vulnerable to violence from rivals and put them in the cross-hairs of police far too often, with racially disparate impact.
Baltimore might be Exhibit A. Of our 257 homicide victims of known race in 2018, 94% were black, 4% were white, and 2% Hispanic. Per 100,000 population, the black homicide rate was 11 times that for whites; the rate for black males aged 18-34 was about 390 per 100,000 population in 2018, comparable to peak combat death rates for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan over 2001-13. The majority of homicide victims and perpetrators are involved in the drug trade: in 2017, for example, 73 percent of victims had prior drug arrests.
Ending this cycle of tragedy will require us first to stop fantasizing that criminalizing drug markets is the only or best way to manage the harms of drug use. We think that drug prohibition saves lives, but our nation’s shocking rate of overdose deaths – 70,200 in 2017, and trending upward – and all the drug gang-related violence suggests that the opposite is more likely true.
It’s time to say, as we did in 1933, “enough.” Yes, all drugs — even increasingly-available marijuana — are dangerous. So are tobacco, gambling and alcohol. So is prohibiting them. We face a continuum of dangers that we must consider carefully.
Can we really say that legalizing and regulating trade in most drugs — even those more dangerous than marijuana – could not possibly make us safer than this bloody war? That having, say, Philip Morris rather than El Chapo managing production, infirmaries rather than street gangs managing sales, and health and tax officials rather than cops regulating the market could fail this badly?