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As Long as We Remember...

December 11, 2008

Time for An Adjustment

Tony Soltero

Seventy-five years ago this month, America put an end to the most ill-advised and misguided social-engineering experiment in its history. With the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, the nation rectified the reactionary mistake made by the 18th Amendment and repealed Prohibition.


The 21st Amendment, more than anything else, was a triumph of pragmatism over Puritanism – two deeply embedded, and often conflicting, features of American culture and philosophy. We succumbed to our puritan strains when we tried to ban alcoholic beverages – but when experience taught us that Prohibition caused many more problems than it solved, our pragmatic side took over and we set ourselves straight.


The puritans among us grimly warned that repeal of Prohibition would be a tragic and fatal blunder – but somehow, our nation managed to survive and thrive anyway, even with beer, wine, and whiskey available to everyone again.


Today we look back on that period with a mixture of bemusement and horror, scratching our heads as to how we could be so blind to stick with a policy that was buttressing organized crime and turning ordinary Americans into criminals simply for doing what humans had been doing for millennia. But we did, because too many important and powerful people were benefiting from the alcohol ban. And the wealthy had all the access to booze they wanted anyway.


Well, now it's time to apply that same 21st Amendment pragmatism to the long-standing prohibitions on other drugs. It's beyond time, actually; but with a new, non-puritan presidential administration coming in, there is no better opportunity than now.


There is a wide-ranging consensus among many leaders – whatever their political orientation – that the 40-year War on (Selected) Drugs has been a complete failure. Drug use has not declined all this time. Our prisons are overflowing with productive citizens who simply had the misfortune to puff grass while the government was looking – while rapists and murderers go free to make room for them. The drug trade goes on unabated, with the occasional high-profile interdiction making as much of a dent in the system as a pea shooter might do to a Sherman tank.


We expend gargantuan amounts of resources trying to eradicate the production of a naturally occurring, God-created plant – a plant with benefits that go far beyond recreational use. We even "crack down" on terminally ill people who are simply trying to make their remaining days on this earth as bearable as possible. In these times of tight budgets, is there any more egregious and more inhumane waste of taxpayer money?


Young people who might be developing addiction problems simply let them fester, because asking for help is little more than a plea to get arrested.


And just like during Prohibition, the wealthy and well-connected are shielded from the (governmental) consequences of their illegal drug use – with Rush Limbaugh being Exhibit A. If Mr. Limbaugh, and many other celebrities like him, can avoid prison for their lawbreaking, why shouldn't you or I?


The answer is that none of us should go to jail for drugs. Rush Limbaugh abused drugs, got treatment and continues to do what he does. Why shouldn't the rest of us be given the same leeway?


Leave the jails for murderers, rapists, and corrupt politicians. Besides protecting society better that way, it would mean a massive savings in law-enforcement expenses at a time when budget-tightening is paramount.


And those who believe that legalization would lead to a massive upsurge in drug use need to ask themselves if the legality and availability of tobacco has yielded similar results. Cigarettes have always been legal – and yet most Americans don't smoke. Alcohol is perfectly legal and available, and yet most Americans don't have a drinking problem. And those who do develop addictions will do so independent of the substance's legality.


Drug prohibition endures because there remain many powerful special interests that benefit from it as currently construed. Drug testing and screening is a multi-million-dollar industry. Prison-builders benefit enormously from draconian drug prohibition. And, of course, drug dealers rake it in with prohibition grossly inflating the prices for their products.


Well, America's purpose in this world isn't to indulge the prison industry. We already incarcerate more people per capita than any other country in the world – and a lot of that is nonviolent drug "offenders". Whom are they offending? After 40 years of this zero-tolerance approach, can anyone honestly say that this "war" has succeeded in any way?


It's time to smother the puritan beast within that has led us to the disastrous War On (Selected) Drugs. It's time to call upon our pragmatic selves.


We saw the light in 1933. We can see it again.


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