Why Prohibition Fails in a Democracy


The Noble Experiment


After observing decades of alcohol fuelled violence, degeneracy, and death, Congress amended the Constitution in 1920 to include the Volstead Act. The new law made it a Federal crime to manufacture and transport intoxicating liquors; however it did not authorize the arrest of those who drank it.

 The prohibition of alcohol at the Federal level was a gradual event that had its beginnings at the state level more than eighty years earlier. In 1840, a difference of opinion arose between the pietistic Protestants who condemned saloons as places of political corruption and sin, and their opponents, liturgical Protestants and Catholics who believed the government should not define morality.

The first successful attempt to get rid of alcohol began when the state of Maine banned the manufacture and sale of liquor in 1851. After that first success, the movement slowed until 1880 when the Women's Christian Temperance Union and The Prohibition Party stirred up righteous anger against saloons. The feeling spread nationwide and by 1916, it led to prohibition in 26 of the 48 states. In the final stages of the movement, the Anti-Saloon League pushed Congress to pass the Volstead Act.

As Prohibitionists praised the new Federal law, they failed to notice that the urge to drink did not go away. Before long, bathtub and basement stills, supply networks, and speakeasy bars sprang up to satisfy the nation's continuing thirst. The small, private stills soon gave way to larger operations run by gangsters and thugs who battled one another for a bigger share of the market. Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of the late president, smuggled alcohol from Canada into the United States and built a sizable fortune both during and after Prohibition. Bootlegging violence became commonplace because manufacturers and distributors had no legal recourse to lawyers, courts, or insurance companies to help them to settle their differences.

Civil disobedience became common among otherwise law-abiding citizens and soon the courts became clogged with prohibition offenders. Most of the defendants demanded a jury trial because a jury of their peers would feel more sympathy for their plight than would a judge who was sworn to uphold the law.

Throughout Prohibition, distilleries in Mexico and Canada remained open for business and provided visiting Americans with alcohol to consume or smuggle back to the United States.




In 1927, in response to the growing crisis, a group of attorneys formed the VCL (The Voluntary Committee of Lawyers) to study the damage caused by the new zero tolerance policy. They discovered that economic depression, crime, corruption, and violence had exhausted Americans and their favorite stress reliever was alcohol.

In 1932, the stage was set for the VCL to overturn the new law. FDR was running for president against Herbert Hoover who defended his party's position to enforce prohibition. Early on in the campaign, FDR realized his support lay with the people, and not with the government. He made a single speech in which he endorsed repeal. Thanks largely in part to this decision, he captured the election.

After the election, the VCL had a tough job ahead of them because traditionally, state legislatures ratified constitutional amendments and the legislators were rural, religious fundamentalists who defended prohibition as part of their biblical responsibility to God. VCL solved the problem by going around the state legislators and creating state conventions directly responsible to voters. Candidates for the new conventions had to declare themselves for or against prohibition and the voters could choose the candidates. The newly elected delegates became the tools to draft the bills to present to Congress.

The VCL lined up expert witnesses to testify in legislative hearings in all 48 states against Prohibition and answer all legal questions pertaining to the Constitution.

When Congress reconvened, it responded to the mandate for repeal and passed it on February 20, 1933. It is said that a national cheer could be heard at the moment of passage.

 After 1933, organized crime lost nearly all of its profits to liquor stores. In 1966, Mississippi was the last state to repeal Prohibition.


The VCL succeeded in repealing the Volstead Act because:

·        Federal Prohibition encroaches upon the powers properly reserved to the states and the people.

·        It created disrespect for law and law enforcement officers.

·        It corrupted police and public officials.

·        It led to injustice in the legal process and overcrowded jails and courts.

·        It encouraged improper and illegal acts by police to obtain evidence.

·        It infringed on constitutional guarantees against illegal search and seizure.

·        It wasted taxpayer dollars and destroyed lives.

Alcohol consumption actually increased during this period, although the depression itself may have been a factor.


The Next Prohibition


Soon after American voters forced fundamentalist lawmakers to rethink zero tolerance, Congress again passed prohibition against another intoxicating substance - cannabis. Cannabis is a unique plant with a history of medicinal and recreational use that has served humanity for thousands of years. Within a few years, the same pattern of civil disobedience, violence, and corruption created by alcohol prohibition began to re-appear with cannabis.

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 is difficult to understand because its promoter, Narcotics Bureau Chief, Henry Anslinger had no plan to license or collect a tax on cannabis; instead, he used the authority of Congress and tax dollars to arrest and imprison millions of Mexican immigrants, African Americans, and jazz musicians, whom he despised.

When marijuana first crossed our southern border in the pockets of Mexican and South American farm workers, medicinal extracts of cannabis had been in common use across America for half a century. Thanks to Anslinger and his agency, this popular patent medicine soon became front-page news as a source of crime, violence, and human degeneracy. More than any other government bureaucrat, Anslinger successfully transformed cannabis into the "devil's weed" – the forbidden fruit from which one puff could lead to addiction and death.

Anslinger's twenty-five year crusade of hysterical propaganda was so successful, it created a huge bureaucracy of self-serving lawmakers who took turns railing against cannabis and easily passed tough new laws, one after another. The new laws authorized increasing numbers of police and narcotics agents to wield unprecedented power over an ignorant and frightened population of Americans. This time, the hard-line fundamentalists made sure this new Prohibition remained in place.

The curious thing about Anslinger was his initial lack of interest in marijuana. He knew virtually nothing about it and when he discovered its widespread use in medicine and industry, he felt the impossibility of the task before him. Discouraged, but not defeated, Harry overcome his doubts and launched the extremely effective "Reefer Madness" campaign. He cut out and collected violent crime stories from the Hearst newspapers - crimes that often involved the presence of narcotics (sleep inducing drugs). Those cases that mentioned marijuana caught his attention right away as a possible link between the drug and violent crime. As he collected more and more of these articles, he became convinced that marijuana caused violent crime. In order to make his theory work, Harry decided to ignore the fact that the vast majority of pot smokers lived ordinary, peaceful, lives.

Anslinger eventually wrote and published his own crime articles and used them in his testimony before Congress. Congress, in turn, responded to Anslinger's dire warnings with more treasury money to expand his bureau. With increased funding, Harry stepped up the pace of his propaganda campaign. In response to this kind of encouragement, a church group financed a short drug film called, Tell Your Children, which notorious filmmaker, Dwain Esper, re-worked into the sensational classic, Reefer Madness.

Anslinger's sensational scare campaign thrust marijuana into the limelight as a "forbidden fruit" worthy of examination by millions of curious and rebellious teenagers - teenagers who would, one day, face arrest and imprisonment.


Timetable of Zero Tolerance


A steady stream of punitive legislation designed to stamp out cannabis passed through Congress over the next seventy years escalating in1951, with the Boggs Act which dramatically increases penalties for trafficking and possession based on the belief that marijuana caused insanity, criminality, and death.

In 1956, the Daniel Act increased penalties by a factor of eight over the Boggs Act based on the idea that marijuana use leads to heroin (the gateway theory).

In 1961, the UN Treaty 406 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs outlaws cannabis use and cultivation worldwide. The resolution sought to eradicate cannabis from the earth within thirty years – with Anslinger aggressively pushing for US drug policy to become global.

In 1969, Richard Nixon launches his historic War on Drugs with the Controlled Substances Act and begins to build the largest prison complex in history.

In 1973, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) replaces the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs

In 1976, Gerald Ford illegally bans medical research on cannabis.

In 1983, the Federal Government orders American universities to destroy all 1966-76 research papers on cannabis.

In 1986, Congress passes mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which forces federal judges to deliver fixed sentences to individuals convicted of possession or sale of marijuana. The accused may receive a reduced sentence only if he or she provides information that leads to the arrest of other offenders.

In 1988, the UN passes the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances which increases the penalties for recreational use of cannabis.

In 1989, Presidents Reagan and Bush SR. declare an all out war on cannabis that includes urine-testing, seizure of assets and private property, and sentencing of convicted pot smokers to prison camps. The crackdown increases the value of cannabis per ounce beyond that of gold, and organized crime moves in to take control of the world market. At the same time, Ronald Reagan declares victory in the war on drugs.

In 1990, Jack Herer publishes "The Emperor Wears No Clothes," the definitive history of cannabis and the conspiracy by American prohibitionists to eradicate the plant from the earth.

In 1992, Bill Clinton admits he smoked marijuana but did not inhale. In spite of the President’s evasive reply, the active ingredient, THC, did pass through the lining of his mouth and into his body. We call this method of absorption, mouth smoking.

The Clinton administration oversees the arrest of one and a half million Americans, mostly for simple possession.

In 1996, the FBI threatens doctors with prosecution if they prescribe cannabis for seriously ill patients.

In 1997, the Drug Czar, Barry McCaffrey, who has no medical degree, threatens to prosecute doctors in California and Arizona who prescribe or supply cannabis.

In 1998, Oakland bypasses federal law by swearing in medical marijuana suppliers as deputies, to protect them from arrest by state and local police.

In 2003, the DEA arrests deputized medical marijuana provider, Ed Rosenthal. At the trial, jurors find him guilty because the judge failed to inform them that Oakland authorities had deputized Rosenthal. Ed receives one day in jail, as a punishment but in 2006, the DEA re-prosecutes Ed on the same charges with another stalemate in May 31, 2007.

 In 2006, the FDA announces, "Marijuana is the equivalent of heroin and cocaine," and denies that marijuana has any medical benefit whatsoever.

 In 2006, Mexico's Congress tries to legalize small amounts of cannabis for personal use to reduce drug violence but abandons the effort under pressure from the US. The violence that follows results in over 7,000 deaths, on both sides of the border. Government statistics reveal that cannabis is America's biggest cash crop.


Quotes and Comments


"Prohibition... goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control man's appetite through legislation and makes a crime of things that are not even crimes… a prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our governments was founded." Abraham Lincoln, Dec. 1840.

"The ever-changing marijuana laws are nothing more than arguments and opinions that provide political or religious comfort to those who make them. There is no doubt they violate the freedoms and rights given to us by our founding fathers - rights that Congress, the Supreme Court and the Presidents find politically troublesome." James Wiley, Feb. 2007

To repeat the same action repeatedly and expect a different result is a failure of common sense. James Wiley, Feb. 2007

You can have Prohibition or you can have Democracy - you cannot have both. James Wiley, Feb. 2007

The Government receives it's authority from the people. Without that support, the government has no authority. Thomas Jefferson began the Declaration of Independence with the words, "We the people," not "We the Government." James Wiley, Feb. 2007

Libertarian philosopher Paul Hager argues that a nationwide prohibition against marijuana should require a public debate and become a constitutional amendment to become law - same as alcohol prohibition.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra O'Connor says that the power to prohibit marijuana belongs to the states and that the Treasury Department should not abuse its control over interstate commerce to persecute pot smokers.

Richard Davenport-Hines reports that law enforcement intercepts less than 30% of smuggled marijuana, which means that more than 70% of smuggled pot reaches its destination. Other sources say 90%.This obscene profit margin attracts a steady stream of traffickers who replace those nabbed by the police.

The only way to stop marijuana trafficking is to direct the cash flow away from the dealers and back to a legal market, and the only way to stop the demand for marijuana is to turn off the brain's cannabinoid receptors, which lie outside the reach of Congress.

LEAP, (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition,) believes that decriminalization allows drug traffickers to flourish, whereas legalization diverts money back into the legal economy and puts traffickers out of business.

Thanks to the persistent and illegal enforcement of the Marijuana Tax Act, the United States now has the largest prison population per capita in the world. By sentencing pot smokers to tent prisons run by private industry, the Federal Government has created a new underclass of jobseekers hobbled by felony convictions.

If the gateway theory were true, the separation of cannabis as a store bought drug and heroin as a drug obtained in a clinic; we could reduce the incidence of heroin addiction and overdose.

As the failure of the drug war becomes plain to everyone, prohibition supporters argue it is not a war we can win but a containment effort that will continue indefinitely. They believe that without an ongoing deterrent, the damage to society by cannabis would increase. The legalizers argue that pot smoking would increase initially but would drop once the “forbidden fruit syndrome” was removed. The Government prohibitionists argue that the marijuana smoker risks not only one's own health but also the health of others. The pot smoker is a corrupting influence on society, they say, especially the young and the weak - but this is also true of tobacco smoke and alcohol, which we tolerate. What we have discovered the hard way, is that use of violence to drive out of existence a substance that people want, will always result in more damage to society than the substance itself.


James Wiley, Feb. 2007

Updated May 2009