January 28, 1994

Only Yesterday

Prohibition has an overwhelming majority behind it throughout the United States (during the post-WWI period).....Nor is there anything ironical in the expressed assumption of these men that when the Eighteenth Amendment goes into effect, alcohol will be banished from the land. They look forward vaguely to an endless era of actual drought.

Frederick Lewis Allen, 1931

In 1931, Frederick Lewis Allen published a book called Only Yesterday, An Informal History of the 1920's. Thirty four years later, it was reprinted as a 95 cent paperback. I have known about the book since my high school days, and picked up a copy at a library book sale. It sat on my shelf for several years. Just for want of something to read, I picked it up and started reading. I couldn't put it down. I guess you just have to be ready for some books and I was finally ready to read a book about the period that ended when I was 5 years old.

The similarities between the Reagan-Bush years and the Coolidge-Hoover years were striking, even to when the depression started and Hoover proposed to cut taxes; and that was about all that he proposed. There were also striking similarities between the 20's and the 60's. When this book was written, both Bush and Reagan were children.

For me, the most interesting story was prohibition and its similarity to the current drug problem. The assumptions of the time about alcohol were virtually identical to the assumptions made today about drugs: they are evil and would be best done away with. The fundamental attractiveness of the substances to a large number of people is ignored.

During prohibition, it soon became obvious that a large segment of the public was skirting the law and that an immense illegal and violent industry had evolved to supply the citizenry with what they themselves had interdicted. As is happening with drugs today, the people who were ignoring and circumventing the law were not some small minority, but a substantial part of the population --a substantial part of the affluent population. Today, most of the cocaine that is smuggled into this country is destined for places like Silicon Valley, not the poor neighborhoods. During prohibition, the working man had his beer and the rich had either bathtub gin or smuggled Canadian whiskey; all supplied by bootleggers.

The people who supplied the booze, like the people who supply drugs today, constituted a large underworld empire that had little regard for anything but money.

It took a lot of headlines about murders of one group of gangsters by another to alarm the public. The word gangster seems to have gone by the boards, only to be replaced by drug lords and gang members. Instead of gangsters killing only other gangsters, now gang members are also killing innocent bystanders, some being children.

In the thirties, the answer was the repeal of the 18th Amendment and legalizing and taxing the booze industry.

It is not hard to predict that eventually, when the country is ready, the interdiction of drugs will be gone and the attitude of our federal and local governments will be similar to that in The Netherlands, where people are allowed to commit slow or fast suicide if they want to. The powers that be and the government will see the drug business as a source of money.

Will this happen because, all of a sudden, the majority will approve of drugs? Not at all. It will happen because the public and the power structure will simply acknowledge the futility of interdiction. They will realize that, if you can't prevent it, you might as well let it be and regulate and tax it.

I hope that when drugs are legalized, that we will not go the way of alcohol and have them pushed on the young by the advertising industry. I hope that, when, not if, drugs are legalized, that the advertising of ALL drugs will be forbidden, including alcohol, tobacco and pain killers, and that stiff penalties will be incurred by those peddling the stuff to children. However, that seems unlikely. Unrestricted capitalism is almost indistinguishable from what many of us call crime.

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