Prohibition: Same as it ever was
I went to the drugstore to buy allergy medication this morning. As is often the case in this increasingly strange land, the purchase involved retrieving a card from the store shelf, going to the pharmacy counter, surrendering the card and my driver's license, signing an electronic register and then paying for the package. There was no waiting period, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time.
It's all for the public good, we're told. The ephedrine and pseudoephedrine contained in some medications can be used to manufacture methamphetamine, the officially scary street drug of the moment, so it's our civic duty to let government officials know when our noses are dripping so we can drive this dread scourge from our shores.
We've been through this nonsense before. I may have an especially cynical attitude toward regulations intended to prevent people from getting high because of my own family's long and lucrative experience with failed prohibitions of the past.
My father's maternal grandfather owned Marano's Bar and Restaurant in the Bronx, the speakeasy of choice for New York City's police commissioner when a tough day of enforcing the 18th Amendment's ban on alcoholic beverages left the law-and-order honcho's throat a bit parched. My great-grandfather ended up with a pocket full of cash as reward for his illicit efforts.
Of course, Giuseppe Marano had to buy his illegal liquor someplace. I've often wondered if one of his sources might have been Franz Kuntz, a German-speaking New Jersey farmer and maternal grandfather to my mother, who supplemented his income by supplying moonshine to the thirsty denizens of New York City. He never became as wealthy as Marano, but as far as I know, he never regretted his sideline business efforts.
Prohibition provided my forebears and their contemporaries with irresistible business opportunities that guaranteed that the ban on alcohol would fail.
Which brings us back to the very modern ritual of submitting to an identity check to buy allergy tablets. How did this happen?
Prohibition of intoxicants favored by many people created its own reality once again. As Russ Jones, a narcotics detective and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, recently wrote on the organization's blog:
Methamphetamine is a direct by-product of the war on drugs. We would not have meth if pharmaceutical amphetamines continued to be available as they were through prescriptions in the 1960s. With the war on drugs and the crack down on doctors and pharmaceuticals, and since meth is easily created in home laboratories, methamphetamine was created by black marketeers to fill the demand of those who desired stimulants.
Prohibitionist government officials tried to restrict the availability of powder cocaine and amphetamines. Innovative underground chemists responded with stable, concentrated crack cocaine and home-brewed methamphetamine. Government officials then scrambled to tighten access to the chemicals that can be used to make the drugs that were created to evade the earlier bans on legally disfavored intoxicants. Round and around we go, and the next move is in the hands black-market entrepreneurs who have proven themselves creative and adaptable through generations of prohibitions.
Prohibitionists answer evidence about the inevitable failure of their efforts with emotional pleas to "do something" to stop the supposed plague of drug use and its resulting ill-effects.
But even if you believe that government has a legitimate role to play in protecting us from ourselves (I don't), you have to wonder what's worse: real, but limited, self-inflicted harm among some users of illegal intoxicants, or an endless cycle of violence, corruption and tainted, ever-stronger drugs spawned by doomed prohibitions.
Prohibition, after all, gave us Al Capone, poisonous bathtub gin and a hypocritical high-ranking police official sitting at my great-grandfather's bar. The war on drugs has given us murderous cocaine cartels, toxic waste dumps on the sites of underground meth labs and a police narcotics squad in Atlanta, Georgia, so corrupt that it shot down 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston and then planted marijuana in her house to cover its crime.
Would the world really be such a bad place if we let people enjoy their "cocktails" and just offered help to those who misuse or abuse the intoxicants of their choice?
History demonstrates that eliminating drugs simply isn't an option. People have long made it clear that they want to get high, and clever entrepreneurs stand eternally ready to supply them something to take the edge off, no matter what the law says.
As I stand at the drug store counter, signing the register, if I squint just a bit I can see the ghosts of my great-grandfathers rubbing their hands together in anticipation of new opportunities made possible by Prohibition's offspring.