Plants - Drugs Mind - Spirit Freedom - Law Arts - Culture Library  
Review Erowid at
Help us be a "Top Rated Nonprofit" again this year and spread
honest info (good or bad) about psychedelics & other psychoactive drugs.
("Share Your Story" link. Needs quick login creation but no verification of contact info)
The following was posted in the 1990s on without citation.
Archived in 1999 by Erowid, we determined in 2013 that it originally appeared in
a February / March 1993 issue of American Heritage, Volume 44, Number 1.

An Anti-Prohibition Article
by Ethan Nadelmann

The better title for this article, let me suggest at the outset, would be 
Drug Prohibition: Con. Most opponents to drug legalization assume 
that it would involve making cocaine and heroin available the way alco-
hol and tobacco are today. But most legalization supporters favor nothing 
of the kind; in fact we disagree widely as to which drugs should be legal-
ized, how they should be controlled, and what the consequences are 
likely to be. Where drug-policy reformers do agree is in our critique of 
the drug-prohibition system that has evolved in the United States--a sys-
tem, we contend, that has proved ineffective, costly, counterproductive, 
and immoral. 

Efforts to reverse drug prohibition face formidable obstacles. Ameri-
cans have grown accustomed to the status quo. Alcohol prohibition was 
overturned before most citizens had forgotten what a legal alcohol policy 
was like, but who today can recall a time before drug prohibition? More-
over, the United States has succeeded in promoting its drug-prohibition 
system throughout the world. Opponents of alcohol prohibition could 
look to successful foreign alcohol-control systems, in Canada and much 
of Europe, but contemporary drug anti-prohibitionists must look further--
to history. 

The principal evidence, not surprisingly, is Prohibition. The dry years 
offer many useful analogies, but their most important lesson is the need 
to distinguish between the harms that stem from drugs and the harms that 
arise from outlawing them. The Americans who voted in 1933 to repeal 
Prohibition differed greatly in their reasons for overturning the system. 
They almost all agreed, however, that the evils of alcohol consumption 
had been surpassed by those of trying to surpress it.

 Some pointed to Al Capone and rising crime, violence, and corrup-
tion; others to the overflowing courts, jails, and prisons, the labeling of 
tens of millions of Americans as criminals and the consequent broaden-
ing disrespect for the law, the dangerous expansions of federal police 
powers and encroachments on individual liberties, the hundreds of thou-
sands of Americans blinded, paralyzed, and killed by poisonous moon-
shine and industrial alcohol, and the increasing government expenditure 
devoted to enforcing the Prohibition laws and the billions in forgone tax 
revenues. Supporters of Prohibition blamed the consumers, and some 
went so far as to argue that those who violated the laws deserved what-
ever ills befell them. But by 1933: most Americans blamed Prohibition.

 If there is a single message that contemporary anti-prohibitionists 
seek to drive home, it is that drug prohibition is responsible for much of 
what Americans identify today as the drug problem. It is not merely a 
matter of the direct costs--twenty billion dollars spent this year on arrest-
ing, prosecuting, and incarcerating drug-law violators. Choked courts 
and prisons, an incarceration rate hi8her than that of any other nation in 
the world, tax dollars diverted from education and health care, law-
enforcement resources diverted from investigating everything from auto 
theft to savings-and-loan scams-all these are just a few of the costs our 
current prohibition imposes.

Consider also Capones successors--the drug kingpins of Asia, Latin 
America, and the United States. Consider as well all the murders and 
assaults perpetrated by young drug dealers not I just against one another 
but against police, witnesses, and bystanders. Consider the tremendous 
economic and social incentives generated by the illegality of the drug 
market-temptations so overwhelming that even good kids cannot resist 
them. Consider the violent drug dealers becoming the heroes of boys and 
young men, from Harlem to Medellin. And consider tens of millions of 
Americans being labeled criminals for doing nothing more than smoking 
a marijuana cigarette. In all these respects the consequences of drug pro-
hibition imitate-and often exceed--those of alcohol prohibition. 

Prohibition reminds us, too, of the health costs of drug prohibition. 
Sixty years ago some fifty thousand Americans were paralyzed after con-
suming an adulterated Jamaica ginger extract known as jake. Today we 
have marijuana made more dangerous by government-sprayed paraquat 
and the chemicals added by drug dealers, heroin adulterated with poison-
ous powders, and assorted pills and capsules containing everything from 
antihistamines to strychnine. Indeed, virtually every illicit drug pur-
chased at the retail level contains adulterants, at least some of which are 
far more dangerous than the drug itself. And restrictions on the sale of 
drug paraphernalia has, by encouraging intravenous drug addicts to share 
their equipment, severely handicapped efforts to stem the transmission of 
AIDS. As during Prohibition, many Americans view these ills as neces-
sary and even desirable, but others, like their forebears sixty years ago, 
reject as perverse a system that degrades and destroys the very people it 
was designed to protect.

 Prohibitions lessons extend in other directions as well. The current 
revisionist twist on that Great Experiment now claims that Prohibition 
worked, by reducing alcohol consumption and alcohol-related ills rang-
ing from cirrhosis to public drunkenness and employee absenteeism. 
There is some truth to this claim. But in fact, the most dramatic decline in 
American alcohol consumption occurred not between 1920 and 1933, 
while the Eighteenth Amendment was in effect, but rather between 1916 
and 1922. During those years the temperance movement was highly 
active and successful in publicizing the dangers of alcohol. The First 
World Wars spirit of self-sacrifice extended to temperance as a means of 
grain conservation, and there arose, as the historian David Kyvig puts it, 
an atmosphere of hostility toward all things German, not the least of 
which was beer. In short, a great variety of factors coalesced in this brief 
time to substantially reduce alcohol consumption and its ills.

 The very evidence on which pro-prohibition historians rely provides 
further proof of the importance of factors other than prohibition laws. 
One of these historians, John Burnham, has noted that the admission rate 
for alcohol psychoses to New York hospitals shrank from 10 percent 
between 1909 and 1912 to 1.9 percent in 1920-a decline that occurred 
largely before national prohibition and in a state I that had not enacted its 
own prohibition law. 

At best one can argue that Prohibition was most effective, in its first 
years, when temperance norms remained strong and illicit sources of pro-
duction had yet to be firmly established. By all accounts, alcohol con-
sumption rose after those first years-despite increased resources devoted 
to enforcement. The pre-Prohibition decline in consumption, like the 
recent decline in cigarette consumption, had less to do with laws than 
with changing norms and the imposition of non-criminal-justice mea-

Perhaps the most telling indictment of Prohibition is provided by the 
British experience with alcohol control during a similar period. In the 
United States the death rate from cirrhosis of the liver dropped from as 
high as 15 per 100,000 population between 1910 and 1914 to 7 during the 
twenties only to climb back to pre-1910 levels by the 1960s, while in 
Britain the death rate from cirrhosis dropped from 10 in 1914 to 5 in 1920 
and then gradually declined to a low of 2 in the 1940s before rising by a 
mere point by 1963. Other indicators of alcohol consumption and misuse 
dropped by similar magnitudes, even though the United Kingdom never 
enacted prohibition. Instead wartime Britain restricted the amount of 
alcohol available, taxed it, and drastically reduced the hours of sale. At 
wars end the government dropped restrictions on quantity but made 
taxes even higher and set hours of sale at only half the pre-war norm.

 Britain thus not only reduced the negative consequences of alcohol 
consumption more effectively than did the United States, but did so in a 
manner that raised substantial government revenues. The British experi-
ence as well as Australias and most of continental Europes --strongly 
suggests not only that our Prohibition was unsuccessful but that more 
effective post-Repeal controls might have prevented the return to high 
consumption levels. 

But no matter how powerful the analogies between alcohol prohibition 
and contemporary drug prohibition, most Americans still balk at drawing 
the parallels. Alcohol, they insist. is fundamentally different from every-
thing else. They are right, of course, insofar as their claims rest not on 
health or scientific grounds but are limited to political and cultural argu-
ments. By most measures, alcohol is more dangerous to human health 
than any of the drugs now prohibited by law. No drug is as associated 
with violence in American culture, and even in illicit-drug-using subcul-
tures as is alcohol. One woul be hard pressed to argue that its role in 
many Native American and other aboriginal communities has been any 
less destructive than that of illicit drugs in Americas ghettos. 

The dangers of all drugs vary greatly, of course, depending not just on 
their pharmacological properties and how they are consumed but also on 
the attitudes and beliefs of their users and the settings in which they use 
them. Alcohol by and large plays a benign role in Jewish and Asian-
American cultures but a devastating one in some Native American societ-
ies, and by the same token the impact of cocaine among Yuppies during 
the early 1980s was relatively benign compared with its impact a few 
years later in impoverished ghettos.

The culture helps determine the setting of drug use, but so do the laws. 
Prohibitions enhance the dangers not just of drugs but of the settings in 
which they are used. The relationship L between prohibition and danger-
ous adulterations is clear. So too is its impact on the potency and forms of 
drugs. For instance, Prohibition caused a striking drop in the production 
and sale of beer, while that of hard liquor increased as bootleggers from 
Al Capone on down sought to maximize their profits and minimize the 
risks of detection. Similarly, following the Second World War, the enact-
ment of anti-opium laws in many parts of Asia in which opium use was 
traditional--India, Hong Kong, Thailand, Laos, Iran-effectively sup-
pressed the availability of opium at the cost of stimulating the creation of 
domestic heroin industries and substantial increases in heroin use. The 
same transition had occurred in the United States following Congresss 
ban on opium imports in 1909. And when during the 1980s the U.S. gov-
ernments domestic drug enforcement efforts significantly reduced the 
availability and raised the price of marijuana, they provided decisive 
incentives to producers, distributors, and consumers to switch to cocaine. 
In each case, prohibition forced switches from drugs that were bulky and 
relatively benign to drugs that were more compact, more lucrative, more 
potent, and more dangerous.

 In the 1980s the retail purity of heroin and cocaine increased, and 
highly potent crack became cheaply available in American cities. At the 
same time, the average potency of most legal psychoactive substances 
declined: Americans began switching from hard liquor to beer and wine, 
from high-tar-and nicotine to lower tar-and-nicotine cigarettes, and even 
from caffeinated to decaffeinated coffee and soda. The relationship 
between prohibition and drug potency was, if not indisputable, still 
readily apparent. 

In turn-of-the century America, opium, morphine, heroin, cocaine, and 
marijuana were subject to few restrictions. Popular tonics such as Vin 
Mariani and Coca-Cola and its competitors were laced with cocaine, and 
hundreds of medicines--Mrs. Winslows Soothing Syrup may have been 
the most famous--contained psychoactive drugs. Millions, perhaps tens 
of millions of Americans, took opiates and cocaine. David Courtwright 
estimates that during the 1890s as many as one-third of a million Ameri-
cans were opiate addicts, but most of them were ordinary people who 
would today be described as occasional users. 

Careful analysis of that era-when the very drugs that we most fear 
were widely and cheaply available throughout the country--provides a 
telling antidote to our nightmare legalization scenarios. For one thing, 
despite the virtual absence of any controls on availability, the proportion 
of Americans addicted to opiates was only two or three times greater than 
today. For another, the typical addict was not a young black ghetto resi-
dent but a middle-aged white Southern woman or a West Coast Chinese 
immigrant. The violence, death, disease, and crime that we today associ-
ate with drug use barely existed, and many medical authorities regarded 
opiate addiction as far less destructive than alcoholism (some doctors 
even prescribed the former as treatment for the latter). Many opiate 
addicts, perhaps most, managed to lead relatively normal lives and kept 
their addictions secret even from close friends and relatives. That they 
were able to do so was largely a function of the legal status of their drug 

 But even more reassuring is the fact that the major causes of opiate 
addiction then simply do not exist now. Late nineteenth-century Ameri-
cans became addicts principally at the hands of physicians who lacked 
modern medicines and were unaware of the addictive potential of the 
drugs. they prescribed. Doctors in the 1860s and 1870s saw morphine 
injections as a virtual panacea, and many Americans turned to opiates to 
alleviate their aches and pains without going through doctors at all. But 
as medicine advanced, the levels of both doctor and self-induced addic-
tion declined markedly.

 In 1906 the first Federal Pure Food and Drug Act required over-the-
counter drug producers to disclose whether their products contained any 
opiates, cocaine, cannabis, alcohol, or other psychoactive ingredients. 
Sales of patent medicines containing opiates and cocaine decreased sig-
nificantly thereafter-in good part because fewer Americans were inter-
ested in purchasing products that they now knew to contain those drugs. 

Consider the lesson here. Ethical debates aside, the principal objection 
to all drug legalization proposals is that they invite higher levels of drug 
use and misuse by making drugs not just legal but more available and less 
expensive. Yet the late-nineteenth-century experience suggests the oppo-
site: that in a legal market most consumers will prefer lower-potency 
coca and opiate products to the far more powerful concoctions that have 
virtually monopolized the market under prohibition. This reminds us that 
opiate addiction per se was not necessarily a serious problem so long as 
addicts had ready access to modestly priced opiates of reliable quality--
indeed, that the opiate addicts of late-nineteenth century America dif-
fered in no significant respects from the cigarette-addicted consumers of 
today. And it reassures us that the principal cause of addiction to opiates 
was not the desire to get high but rather ignorance-ignorance of their 
addictive qualities, ignorance of the alternative analgesics, and ignorance 
of what exactly patent medicines contained. The antidote to addiction in 
late-nineteenth century America, the historical record shows, consisted 
primarily of education and regulation--not prohibition, drug wars, and 

 Why, then, was drug prohibition instituted? And why did it quickly 
evolve into a fierce and highly punitive set of policies rather than follow 
the more modest and humane path pursued by the British? In part, the 
passage of the federal Harrison Narcotic Act, in 1914, and of state and 
local bans before and after that, reflected a belated response to the recog-
nition that people could easily become addicted to opiates and cocaine. 
But it also was closely intertwined with the increasingly vigorous efforts 
of doctors and pharmacists to professionalize their disciplines and to 
monopolize the publics access to medicinal drugs. Most of all, though, 
the institution of drug prohibition reflected the changing nature of the 
opiate and cocaine-using population. By 1914 the number of middle-
class Americans blithely consuming narcotics had fallen sharply. At the 
same time, however, opiate and cocaine use had become increasingly 
popular among the lower classes and racial minorities. The total number 
of consumers did not approach that of earlier decades, but where popular 
opinion had once shied from the notion of criminalizing the habits of eld-
erly white women, few such inhibitions impeded it where urban gam-
blers, prostitutes, and delinquents were concerned. 

The first anti-opium laws were passed in California in the 1870s and 
directed at the Chinese immigrants and their opium dens, in which, it was 
feared, young white women were being seduced. A generation later 
reports of rising cocaine use among young black men in the South--who 
were said to rape white women while under the influence prompted simi-
lar legislation. During the 1930s marijuana prohibitions were directed in 
good part at Mexican and Chicano workers who had lost their jobs in the 
Depression. And fifty years later draconian penalties were imposed for 
the possession of tiny amounts of crack cocaine-a drug associated princi-
pally with young Latino and African Americans. 

But more than racist fears was at work during the early years of drug 
prohibition. In the aftermath of World War 1, many Americans, stunned 
by the triumph of Bolshevism in Russia and fearful of domestic subver-
sion, turned their backs on the liberalizing reforms of the preceding era. 
In such an atmosphere the very notion of tolerating drug use or maintain-
ing addicts in the clinics that had arisen after 1914 struck most citizens as 
both immoral and unpatriotic. In 1919 the mayor of New York created 
the Committee on Public Safety to investigate two ostensibly related 
pYoblems: revolutionary bombings and heroin use among youth. And in 
Washington that same year, the Supreme Court effectively foreclosed any 
possibility of a more humane policy toward drug addicts when it held, in 
Webb et al. v. US., that doctors could not legally prescribe maintenance 
supplies of narcotics to addicts.

But perhaps most important, the imposition of drug prohibition cannot 
be understood without recalling that it occurred almost simultaneously 
with the advent of alcohol prohibition. Contemporary Americans tend to 
regard Prohibition as a strange quirk in American history-and drug prohi-
bition as entirely natural and beneficial. Yet the prohibition against alco-
hol, like that against other drugs, was motivated in no small part by its 
association with feared and despised ethnic minorities, especially the 
masses of Eastern and Southern European immigrants.

 Why was Prohibition repealed after just thirteen years while drug pro-
hibition has lasted for more than seventy five years? Alcohol prohibition 
struck directly at tens of millions of Americans of all ages, including 
many of societys most powerful members. Drug prohibition threatened 
far fewer Americans, and they had relatively little influence in the halls 
of power. Only the prohibition of marijuana, which some sixty million 
Americans have violated since 1965, has come close to approximating 
the Prohibition experience, but marijuana smokers consist mostly of 
young and relatively powerless Americans In the final analysis alcohol 
Prohibition was repealed, and opiate, cocaine, and marijuana prohibition 
retained, not because scientists had concluded that alcohol was the least 
dangerous of the various psychoactive drugs but because of the preju-
dices and preferences of most Americans. 

There was, of course, one other important reason why Prohibition was 
repealed when it was. With the country four years into the Depression, 
prohibition increasingly appeared not just foolish but costly. Fewer and 
fewer Americans were keen on paying the rising costs of enforcing its 
laws, and more and more recalled the substantial tax revenues that the 
legal alcohol business had generated. The potential analogy to the current 
recession is unfortunate but apt. During the late 1980s the cast of build-
ing and maintaining prisons emerged as the fastest-growing item in many 
state budgets, while other costs of the war on drugs also rose dramati-
cally. One cannot help wondering how much longer Americans will be 
eager to foot the bills for all this. 

Throughout history the legal and moral status of psychoactive drugs 
has kept changing. During the seventeenth century the sale and consump-
tion of tobacco were punished by as much as death in much of Europe, 
Russia, China, and Japan. For centuries many of the same Muslim 
domains that forbade the sale and consumption of alcohol simultaneously 
tolerated and even regulated the sale of opium and cannabis.

 Drug-related moralities have always been malleable, and their evolu-
tion can in no way be described as moral progress. Just as our moral per-
ceptions of particular drug have changed in the past, so will they in the 
future, and people will continue to circumvent the legal and moral barri-
ers that remain. My confidence in this prediction stems from one other 
lesson of civilized human history. From the dawn of time humans have 
nearly universally shown a desire alter their states of consciousness with 
psychoactive substances, and it is this fact that gives the lie to the 
declared objective of creating a drug-free society in the United States.

 Another thing common to all societies, as the social theorist Thomas 
Szasz argued some years ago, is that they require scapegoats to embody 
their fears and take blame for whatever ails them. Today the role of 
bogeyman is applied to drug producers, dealers, and users. Just as anti-
Communist propagandists once feared Moscow far beyond its actual 
influence and appeal, so today antidrug proselytizers indict marijuana, 
cocaine, heroin, and assorted hallucinogens far beyond their actual psy-
choactive effects and psychological appeal. Never mind that the vast 
majority of Americans have expressed-in one public-opinion poll after 
another-little interest in trying these substances, even if they were legal, 
and never mind that most of those who have tried them have suffered 
few, if any, ill effects. The evidence of history and of science is drowned 
out by todays bogeymen. No rhetoric is too harsh, no penalty too severe.

 Lest I be accused of exaggerating, consider the following. On June 
27, 1991, the Supreme Court upheld, by a vote of five to four, a Michigan 
statute that imposed a mandatory sentence of life without possibility of 
parole for anyone convicted of possession of more than 650 grams (about 
1.5 pounds) of cocaine. In other words, an activity that was entirely legal 
at the turn of the century, and that poses a danger to society roughly com-
parable to that posed by the sale of alcohol and tobacco, is today treated 
the same as first-degree murder.

 The cumulative result of our prohibitionist war is that roughly 20 to 
25 percent of the more than one million Americans now incarcerated in 
federal and state prisons and local jails, and almost half of those in fed-
eral penitentiaries, are serving time for having engaged in an activity that 
their great-grandparents could have pursued entirely legally. 

Examples of less striking, but sometimes more deadly, penalties also 
abound. In many states anyone convicted of possession of a single mari-
juana joint can have his or her drivers license revoked for six months 
and be required. to participate in a drug-treatment program. In many 
states anyone caught cultivating a marijuana plant may find all his or her 
property forfeited to the local police department. And in all but a few cit-
ies needle-exchange programs to reduce the transmission of AIDS among 
drug addicts have been rejected because they would send the wrong 
message--as if the more moral message is that such addicts are better off 
contracting the deadly virus and spreading it.

Precedents for each of these penalties scarcely exist in American his-
tory. The restoration of criminal forfeiture of property--rejected by the 
Founding Fathers because of its association with the evils of English 
rule--could not have found its way back into American law but for the 
popular desire to give substance to the rhetorical war on drugs. 

Of course, changes in current policy that make legally available to 
adult Americans many of the now prohibited psychoactive substances are 
bound to entail a litany of administrative problems and certain other 

 During the last years of the Volstead Act, the Rockefeller Foundation 
commissioned a study by the leading police scholar in the United States, 
Raymond Fosdick, to evaluate the various alternatives to Prohibition. Its 
analyses and recommendations ultimately played an important role in 
constructing post-Prohibition regulatory policies. A comparable study is 
currently under way at Princeton University, where the Smart Family 
Foundation has funded a working group of scholars from diverse disci-
plines to evaluate and recommend alternative drug-control policies. Its 
report will be completed late in 1993. 

History holds one final lesson for those who cannot imagine any future 
beyond drug prohibition. Until well into the 1920s most Americans 
regarded Prohibition as a permanent fact of life. As late as 1930 Sen. 
Morris Shegard of Texas, who had coauthored the Prohibition Amend-
ment, confidently asserted: There is as much chance of repealing the 
Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a humming-bird to fly to the planet 
Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail. History reminds us 
that things can and do change, that what seems inconceivable today can 
seem entirely normal, and even inevitable, a few years hence. So it was 
with Prohibition, and so it is--and will be--both with drug prohibition and 
the ever-changing nature of drug use in America. 

Ethan A. Nadelmann is assistant professor of politics and public affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the Department of Politics at Princeton University. He chairs the Princeton Working Group on the Future of Drug Use and Alternatives to Drug Prohibition.