Is Obama right about pot and alcohol? Yes and no

Guest Column:
Stephen Mihm
President Barack Obama recently took some heat for saying that marijuana is no worse than alcohol, and perhaps less dangerous “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.” More

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OP-ED / LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

Is Obama right about pot and alcohol? Yes and no

Guest Column:
Stephen Mihm
Posted 2/3/14

President Barack Obama recently took some heat for saying that marijuana is no worse than alcohol, and perhaps less dangerous “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.”

The comparison between pot and alcohol is apt. The growing disenchantment with the war on drugs parallels the nation’s rejection and repeal of Prohibition 80 years ago. Little wonder that proponents of marijuana have used this history to justify legalization.

Unfortunately, parallels can be misleading. Yes, history helps us understand what may happen if we legalize recreational marijuana. But the lessons of Prohibition’s rise and fall are a bit more sobering than both sides of the debate may realize.

The story of Prohibition is straightforward: Moralizers banned alcohol, but Americans still wanted their booze. Criminals happily supplied it, and before too long Al Capone and company controlled the supply of alcohol. After 13 years of rising criminality and soaring alcohol consumption, Americans repealed Prohibition. Liberty triumphed over an overbearing nanny state.

It’s a nice story. It’s also wrong.

Let’s begin with the popular image of bootleggers and criminals. While a few high-profile figures held sway in a handful of big cities, alcohol production and distribution were overwhelmingly decentralized, with tens of thousands of producers running illegal stills or turning grapes into wine. Distribution was equally democratic, with thousands of enterprising, amateur bootleggers smuggling booze from Canada and abroad.

This arrangement is strikingly similar to the current market in illegal marijuana. Drug cartels, college students and others grow and sell pot; an equally eclectic network of wholesalers and retailers funnels the products to consumers. As with alcohol in the 1920s, barriers to entry are low, and quality and potency vary a great deal.

What about crime? Homicides spiked in the 1920s, then declined after the repeal of Prohibition. It has become an article of faith that legalizing alcohol caused the drop in crime (just as it is predicted that legalizing marijuana will lead to less crime). But a recent article by economist Emily Greene Owens challenges this assumption.

Greene points to other shifts – urbanization, changing demographics and even New Deal spending – to account for the rise and fall of homicide levels.

What about the argument that legalization will promote drug use? The evidence from Prohibition is unambiguous. According to one estimate published in the American Economic Review, the national ban on alcohol cut per-capita alcohol consumption by more than 70 percent in the early 1920s.

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