Politicians Are Still Stuck on Prohibition

Nearly 90 years after the 21st Amendment ended America's failed experiment with banning alcohol, our leaders are still trying to tell us what to do.


Few explanations about the ultimate pointlessness of Prohibition are better than the one found in the 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival song, Bootleg: "Take you a glass of water, make it against the law. See how good the water tastes when you can't have any at all. Bootleg, bootleg, bootleg, howl."

That's a howling good way of saying that when the government bans stuff, people still want it—and they'll do almost anything to get it. If you don't believe the CCR lyricists, then you haven't watched enough Netflix shows about the Mexican narcotics trade, which show how drug-eradication efforts boost demand, corrupt officials, and reward the most ruthless suppliers.

We've long known these lessons. Eighty-eight years ago last Sunday, two hard-drinking states, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and one tee-totaling one, Utah, approved the 21st Amendment to the Constitution repealing the 18th Amendment's Prohibition on the manufacturing, sales, and transportation of intoxicating beverages. It ended a 14-year experiment in insanity.

"By the 1930s, it was clear that Prohibition had become a public policy failure," noted. Passed against a backdrop of progressive do-gooding, the ban "had done little to curb" drinking and a lot to create modern organized-crime syndicates. Stuck in the Depression, "money trumped morals, and the federal government turned to alcohol to quench its thirst for desperately needed tax money."

By then, the only groups supporting Prohibition were "Baptists and bootleggers"—the former for religious reasons and the latter because it protected their turf. There's nothing a cartel hates more (even more than G-men) than legal competition, where disputes are settled by taking competitors to court rather than dangling their corpses from bridges.

Cutting government in on profits often protects an industry—in a similar way that paying "protection money" to mobsters allows a business to continue. In California, however, the government has gotten too greedy in dealing with its emerging cannabis industry, thus defeating the purpose of legalization.

Californians passed the Proposition 64 weed-legalization measure in 2016. Its proponents made the proper conceptual argument—that legalization would extinguish the black market and provide revenues that fund government programs. The revenues have been far less than predicted.

The "legal weed industry has struggled in the face of high taxes, local government opposition, and burdensome regulation," the libertarian Cato Institute explained. "As a result, much of the market remains underground….(E)stimates from 2018 suggest legal sales account for only 20-25 percent of total sales."

The problem isn't legalization, which is a wise policy that lessens the cost and injustice of prosecuting people for victimless "crimes." The problem is the continuation of Prohibitionist restrictions, which keep the underground economy flourishing. At least Proposition 64 attempted to further legalize a product.

What explains California's efforts to impose new prohibitions on highly addictive products that currently are legal? Gov. Gavin Newsom last year signed Senate Bill 793, which banned the sale of flavored tobacco products. It's on hold pending a referendum next November.

This is full-fledged Prohibition and will have the totally foreseen consequences that accompany government bans. The law targets menthol cigarettes, as well as vaping and various smokeless tobacco products such as Swedish snus.

There's little question tobacco companies targeted African Americans in marketing menthol, but an outright sales ban will lead to black markets—such as the peddling of "loosies" on the streets of inner-city neighborhoods (and all the potentially dangerous police encounters that will take place as a result).

"Economic studies demonstrate that cigarettes and e-cigarettes are substitutes for each other," wrote public-health professor Kenneth Warner in the Washington Post. "(I)f e-cigarette prices rise relative to cigarette prices…some people will smoke cigarettes who would otherwise have used e-cigarettes."

He was referring to the Biden administration's misguided attempt to raise taxes on alternative nicotine products that are, per the top British health agency, 95 percent safer than cigarettes. Imagine how many smokers will return to their deadly habit if California prohibits their sale—or how many underground entrepreneurs will find ways to smuggle them into the state.

In terms of alcohol policy, California regulators have done a decent job learning Prohibition's lessons, given that alcohol sales aren't hobbled here by many prudish regulations that are common in more conservative states. I recently visited Pennsylvania, which mandates that hard liquor is sold through state-run stores with the choice and ambiance one expects in a DMV office.

Prohibition doesn't only apply to "sin" products and services such as booze, drugs and prostitution. As these editorial pages have frequently detailed, California prohibits honest work through Assembly Bill 5's limits on independent contracting—and through occupational-licensing rules that turn handymen into scofflaws. Instead of legalizing honest work, the state is punishing "economic crimes."

Like tobacco and other addictive substances, work is a lot like water. People will do whatever they have to do to find it. The only real beneficiaries of all prohibitions are bootleggers.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.