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Nucky Thompson Was Right

In the very first episode of the HBO hit series "Boardwalk Empire," Steve Buscemi, who plays the lead character Nucky Thompson — racketeer, political insider, and bootlegger — lifts his glass of liquor in a toast to "the distinguished gentlemen of our nation's Congress . . . those beautiful, ignorant bastards," who enacted the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which declared that "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited."

This nightmarish "noble experiment" lasted from 1920 to 1933, until the Twenty-First Amendment repealed Prohibition (and was probably one of the most important reasons for FDR's initial first-term popularity as an advocate for its repeal). Without a doubt, the major effect of this legislation was to give a boost to organized crime. From speakeasies to mob wars, the general population of this country became part of a new culture of criminality that put the Roar in the Roaring Twenties. As an entry on Wikipedia puts it:

Organized crime received a major boost from Prohibition. Mafia groups limited their activities to prostitution, gambling, and theft until 1920, when organized bootlegging emerged in response to Prohibition. A profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol flourished. Prohibition provided a financial basis for organized crime to flourish. In a study of more than 30 major U.S. cities during the Prohibition years of 1920 and 1921, the number of crimes increased by 24%. Additionally, theft and burglaries increased by 9%, homicides by 12.7%, assaults and battery rose by 13%, drug addiction by 44.6%, and police department costs rose by 11.4%. This was largely the result of "black-market violence" and the diversion of law enforcement resources elsewhere. Despite the Prohibition movement's hope that outlawing alcohol would reduce crime, the reality was that the Volstead Act led to higher crime rates than were experienced prior to Prohibition and the establishment of a black market dominated by criminal organizations. The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre produced seven deaths, considered one of the deadliest days of mob history. Furthermore, stronger liquor surged in popularity because its potency made it more profitable to smuggle. To prevent bootleggers from using industrial ethyl alcohol to produce illegal beverages, the federal government ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols. In response, bootleggers hired chemists who successfully renatured the alcohol to make it drinkable. As a response, the Treasury Department required manufacturers to add more deadly poisons, including the particularly deadly methyl alcohol. New York City medical examiners prominently opposed these policies because of the danger to human life. As many as 10,000 people died from drinking denatured alcohol before Prohibition ended. New York City medical examiner Charles Norris believed the government took responsibility for murder when they knew the poison was not deterring people and they continued to poison industrial alcohol (which would be used in drinking alcohol) anyway. Norris remarked: "The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol... [Y]et it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible."

One of the few really good things to have come out of that era has been a terrific flow of really good gangster movies, including the 1987 Grammy Award-winning Ennio Morricone-scored film, "The Untouchables," with Robert DeNiro as one terrific Al Capone, Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, and a fine Sean Connery, who played Jimmy Malone (based on the real-life Irish American agent, Marty Lahart), who went on to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. In the end, Capone was brought down not by his criminal activities, per se, but by tax evasion.

With prohibition repealed, however, the model for the expansion of organized crime extended into the prohibited black markets for hard drugs, from cocaine to heroin. From Mafia chieftans to drug lords running operations across the world, from Latin America to Afghanistan, much of the profits of this business have boosted the money flow to terrorist organizations of all sorts. Crime has soared. And the prison population in the United States began to outstrip that of every modern society.

Last week, a cover story with regard to the "War on Drugs," was published by the New York Daily News stating that John Ehrlichman, who went to prison for Watergate-related crimes, and "who served as President Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief," admitted that the ‘War on Drugs’ strategy was a "policy tool to go after anti-war protesters and ‘black people’." Apparently, these revelations were made in an interview with journalist Dan Baum, for a 1994 book, but were not revealed until the current April 2016 issue of Harper's, where the writer provides a wide-ranging discussion of how to seriously readjust drug policies in the United States. Here is an excerpt from the Daily News article:

“You want to know what this was really all about,” Ehrlichman, who died in 1999, said in the interview after Baum asked him about Nixon’s harsh anti-drug policies. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying,” Ehrlichman continued. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” . . . By 1973, about 300,000 people were being arrested every year under the law — the majority of whom were African-American.

The following day, the News reported that Nixon's former White House counsel John Dean expressed shock over the revelations "but admitted 'it's certainly possible.' . . . If this was indeed true, it would have been the Nixon-Ehrlichman private agenda.'"

On this issue, a fine piece appears today from Mark Thornton, writing on Mises Daily (the site of the Ludwig von Mises Institute): "The Legalization Cure for the Heroin Epidemic." For years, voices on the left and on the right (from the time of William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman to Senator Rand Paul today) have been advocating a saner drug policy. Forty years after this declaration of a "War on Drugs," 1 trillion dollars in taxpayer money spent, the prisons are packed — drug use is apparently just as rampant behind bars as on the streets — but the epidemic stretches from the inner cities to suburbia.

It is clear, however, that no political change will occur if we have to depend on those "beautiful, ignorant bastards," until there is a cultural shift across this country that allows this issue to be re-examined fundamentally. The time has come.