Lessons of the '30s still valid today

This opinion column appears in the March 25, 2009 Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. Give your opinion below.

If President Obama is serious about curtailing the recent violence that has erupted along the U.S. and Mexican border maybe he should consider planting some marijuana in that garden the First Lady recently dug up on the White House lawn.

For the first time in decades, many lawmakers are talking about ending the prohibition on some drugs that are currently illegal, like pot. The feds recently announced they plan to back off of states like California where medical marijuana is legal under state law and there’s a growing movement to either decriminalize or outright legalize growing one’s own weed.

The reason? History.

It doesn’t take much of a stretch to draw an analogy between what is happening today along the Mexican border and the gangsters of the 1920s and ’30s in this country. Both rose to power because of prohibition, a failed attempt to legislate morality both then and now. Making a fruit forbidden only increases the desire to obtain it. Just ask Adam and Eve.

Consider what happened during Prohibition, when alcohol became illegal under the 18th Amendment. Before the law even went into effect on Jan. 16, 1920, more than 100 people died in this country over the Christmas holiday from drinking whiskey made from wood alcohol because commercial whiskey and liquor stocks had already been depleted in anticipation of the coming Prohibition.

In 1919, before Prohibition kicked in, there were 23,740 arrests in the city of Philadelphia for public drunkenness. In 1925, at the height of Prohibition, there were 58,517 such arrests.

In 1930 there were 8,000 cases of “jakefoot” in Mississippi alone. Jakefoot is a paralysis of the toes and feet from drinking flavoring extracts, such as vanilla extract, with high alcohol contents.

But perhaps the best correlation between what happened in the 20s and 30s and what’s happening now along the border is the violence associated with prohibition.

Gangsters began to take over both the alcohol and drug trade and began killing anyone who got in the way of their profits. Take Al Capone, for instance. During Prohibition Capone is said to have made about $20 million off his Chicago speakeasies. And more than 500 gang murders occurred in the city during the 1920s.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, those kinds of problems went away, until today. Now we have turf wars along the border by gangsters trying to protect their illegal drug trade.

You can never enforce a strict prohibition on anything.

Legalizing marijuana won’t make all the problems disappear just as repealing Prohibition didn’t stop people from becoming drunks and killing people behind the wheel of a car. But at least we don’t have the Capones, just the corner liquor store and maybe a small garden plot.

After all, those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.

Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached by e-mail at marusse1@olemiss.edu, or at at 222 Farley Hall, University MS 38677.


Marty Russell

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