Columnist Luke Ryan: Apply today the lessons from Prohibition

Published: 1/13/2017 9:16:02 PM

This is a story about pot, politics, and a pig. On Dec. 15, 2016, personal possession, use and cultivation of marijuana became legal in Massachusetts.

Two weeks later, a handful of legislators (who happened to oppose legalization) pushed through a surprise measure delaying the retail sale of marijuana for recreational use. The upshot is we now face a substantial period of time where pot will be legal to possess but cannot be sold.

While this situation may be awkward, it is hardly unprecedented.

In 1838, the Massachusetts Temperance Union successfully lobbied for the passage of legislation that prohibited the sale of liquor in quantities less than 15 gallons. The purpose of the law was to keep intoxicating spirits from the unwashed masses who could not afford to buy their booze in bulk.

According to social historian Gerald Carson, “Out of the fifteen-gallon law came ingenious evasive action, an educational exhibit known as ‘The Striped Pig.’” Shortly after the law took effect, “an enterprising man with a touch of Barnum in him caught a white pig, painted its back with alternate stripes of red and black, and got a license” from the Town of Dedham to charge admission into a tent where this “rare animal” roamed. “Trade was brisk as word got around that for every patron of the pig there was a free drink. Thus the problem was neatly solved: liquor was dispensed but not sold.”

Last week, an enterprising western Massachusetts man took similar evasive action by posting an ad for empty plastic bags in the “farm and garden services” section on Craigslist. Prices for the bags ranged between $20 and $325. According to the Boston Globe, “Depending on which bag is purchased, the seller promised to include a ‘gift’ of marijuana inside.”

Although the ad characterized the marijuana as “a legal gift,” unconnected to the sale of the bag, law enforcement officials have taken a different view.

The point of this piece is not to weigh in on the legality of these empty-bag transactions. The hope here is these words will serve as a reminder that each time the “war on drugs” takes a new turn, we need only review past government efforts to eliminate the consumption of alcohol to see what lies ahead.

Fifteen years ago, The Economist described our drug policy as “a dismal rerun of America’s attempt ... to prohibit the sale of alcohol.” That first attempt to compel temperance took aim at a substance deemed to be so destructive to the fabric of society the Constitution had to be amended to prevent its distribution.

As we know, the cure of Prohibition turned out to be worse than the epidemic of alcoholism. The 18th Amendment enriched bootleggers and had dire consequences for public health. Not only did the consumption of hard drinks skyrocket, thousands of Americans died or went blind after ingesting tainted industrial alcohol they obtained from the black market.

Prohibition also spawned massive government corruption. By 1926, Fiorello La Guardia estimated that enforcing of the Volstead Act in New York City “would require a police force of 250,000 men and a force of 200,000 men to police the police.”

Albert Einstein was immediately struck by the damage Prohibition did to the “prestige of government.” In his view, nothing was “more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced.”

Some 2,500 years ago, the Greek historian Thucydides described war as a plunge into the dark. When then-President Richard Nixon launched our “all-out global war on the drug menace,” there was no excuse for policymakers to fly blindly into this battle. Our experience with Prohibition should have taught us this was an enemy we could not defeat with the tools of law enforcement.

Over the last 45 years, taxpayers have spent over a trillion dollars financing the “war on drugs.” Today, the hardest drugs on the black market are less expensive, more potent, and more widely used than they have ever been.

While alcohol prohibition is still regarded by some as a “noble experiment,” the drug war does not deserve this moniker. There is nothing noble about repeating mistakes that ruin countless lives and ravage our most impoverished communities.

It’s time for the Massachusetts Legislature to put in place regulations to make the sale of marijuana legal.

Luke Ryan is a lawyer with the firm Sasson, Turnbull, Ryan & Hoose in Northampton.

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