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. You’ll be amazed at how much water you get when there is no access to it. 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. The CCR lyricists are right. If so, you probably haven’t seen enough Netflix videos about the Mexican drug trade. They show how drug-eradication efforts can boost demand and corrupt officials. And reward the most cruel suppliers.
These lessons have been known for a long time. 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. This ended 14 years of insanity.
“By the 1930s, it was clear that Prohibition had become a public policy failure,” History.com noted. The ban was passed against the backdrop of progressive social reform. It “had not done much to reduce drinking, nor did it do much to help create organized crime syndicates.” To quench the government’s thirst for tax money, it turned to alcohol while stuck in Depression.
By then, the only groups supporting Prohibition were “Baptists and bootleggers”—the former for religious reasons and the latter because it protected their turf. Legal competition is something cartels hate more than G-men. This allows for disputes to be settled through taking their competitors to court, rather than hanging the corpses of others 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. California has become too greedy with the growing cannabis industry and this defeats the point 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. It has produced far fewer revenues than was expected.
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….According to (E)stimates 2018, legal sales represent only 20%-25% of all total sales.
Legalization is not the problem. This wise policy reduces injustice and costs of prosecuting innocent people for “crimes”. Prohibitionist regulations that keep the underground market thriving are not the problem. At least Proposition 64 attempted to further legalize a product.
California is trying to ban highly addictive drugs that are currently legal, but this has not been explained. Gov. Gavin Newsom last year signed Senate Bill 793, which banned the sale of flavored tobacco products. The bill is currently on hold in preparation for a referendum in November.
It is Prohibition in full force and it will bring about the unanticipated consequences of government bans. It targets vaping as well as menthol cigarettes.
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. Pennsylvania has a law that requires hard liquor to be sold only through state-run shops. This is in addition to the same ambiance and choice available at a DMV.
Prohibition is not limited to products or services that are “sin,” such as prostitution, drugs, and booze. 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. The state penalizes “economic crimes” instead of legalizing honest labor.
Work is much like tobacco or other addictive drugs. The people are willing to go to any length to obtain it. The only real beneficiaries of all prohibitions are bootleggers.
This column first appeared in The Orange County Register.