I don't really understand the prohibitionist impulse, which is probably no surprise, considering that I work for Reason, where I like to think the only forbidden word is "forbid." But I admit that I have more than a philosophical objection. In fact, I have more grounds than most people to understand that making things illegal doesn't make them go away. Provided that there's demand for the subjects of a ban (and would anybody bother banning something that nobody wanted?) making things illegal creates business opportunities for those willing to work in the shadows, and despite the law. I know this, because much of the history of my family in the United States consists of providing goods and services that government officials don't want Americans to have. So when former Rep. Patrick Kennedy and his cronies demand that the federal government enforce marijuana prohibition against the explicit wishes of the residents of Washington and Colorado, I have to wonder if my extended relations are breathing a sigh of relief. And when a gaggle of ill-informed congresscritters cook up an unlikely scheme for banning certain firearms and related accessories, I peer into the background at the press conference, looking for the familiar face of a cousin or uncle of mine suppressing a grin.
Finding business opportunities under the legal floorboards became a family tradition soon after my great-grandfather, Giuseppe "Joe" Marano, arrived in this country. As my father documented in his book Heretic:
When Prohibition was imposed on the nation ten years later, Joe's ristorante was flourishing openly as the most successful speakeasy in the Bronx. Marano's Bar and Restaurant was the place where some of New York City's leading politicians, including the police commissioner, adjourned to drink contraband beverages far from the scrutiny of nosy reporters.
Giuseppe made a mint — and spent it before his son-in-law, my grandfather — could get his hands on it. Which is why Salvatore Tuccille was still running illegal games along the New York City waterfront at the outbreak of World War II. One of Salvatore's nephews collected debts for a loan shark — an occupation made possible by restrictions on high-interest, short-term loans. Another relation of mine was involved in what became known as the "French Connection," though I'm quite happily ignorant of the details of that venture. Financial services were in the mix, too — scrubbing dubious dollars that might otherwise run afoul of the tax man to get them gleaming and boasting of impeccable origins.
Personally, at one time in my life I "corrected" identification documents to help customers work in accord with drinking-age laws, and I also made certain herbal goods available at very competitive prices.
Let me be clear here, that these black market businesses often extended into other illegal ventures that weren't so victimless. People were bribed, extorted, hurt, robbed and more because criminal enterprises sprang up and thrived where legitimate ones weren't permitted to operate — and then they extended their reach.
The idea that doubling-down on marijuana prohibition, especially in light of shifting public opinion, and banning "assault weapons," also in defiance of widespread sentiment, will do anything other than open up markets for the likes of Giuseppe, Salvatore and assorted others, related to me or not, is laughable.
Of course, prohibition brings opportunity not just to those who defy the law, but to those who take advantage of its enforcement. My colleague, Mike Riggs, points out that Patrick Kennedy's prohibitionist pleading letter was signed by "[a] coalition of interest groups whose members profit off marijuana prohibition, including the former leader of a chain of abusive teen rehab centers."
So maybe it's understandable after all. Banning things that people want doesn't have the slightest chance of making them go away. But people will get rich as the powers-that-be go through the motions.