Daily Archives: November 11, 2020

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Nucky Thompson is Still Right …

Back in March 2016, in a blog post, “Nucky Thompson Was Right“, I wrote:

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This nightmarish ‘noble experiment‘ lasted from 1920 to 1933, until the Twenty-First Amendment repealed Prohibition (and was probably one of the most important reasons for FDR’s initial first-term popularity as an advocate for its repeal).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.'”

In that post, I discussed how the “War on Drugs” was one of those vestiges of the Nixon administration, a policy that Nixon’s chief domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman admitted was a blatant strategy “to go after anti-war protesters and ‘black people’.” He went on to say: “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. … 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.

I reiterated in that 2016 post: “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.”

Well. Something extraordinary happened on Election Day 2020. It was noted by both Jonah Engel Bromwich in his essay, “This Election, a Divided America Stands United on One Topic,” and Nicholas Kristof, who writes in his New York Times November 8, 2020 column, “Republicans and Democrats Agree: End the War On Drugs“:

One of America’s greatest mistakes over the last century was the war on drugs, so it’s thrilling to see voters in red and blue states alike moving to unwind it. The most important step is coming in Oregon, where voters easily passed a referendum that will decriminalize possession of even hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, while helping users get treatment for addiction. The idea is to address drug use as a public health crisis more than as a criminal justice issue. In Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota, voters decisively passed measures liberalizing marijuana laws. Marijuana will now be legal for medical use in about 35 states and for recreational use in 15 states. …


One result of the war on drugs is that today there are as many Americans with arrest records as with college degrees. Yet we still lost the war. Addiction has soared in the United States, and more Americans die from overdoses each year than died in the Vietnam, Afghan and Iraq wars combined. A baby is born dependent on drugs every 15 minutes. … Left and right both recognize the need for new thinking on the topic …


The new Oregon law is modeled after one in Portugal, which pioneered decriminalization and has emphasized treatment of those with addictions. 

The movement from prohibition to treatment will have a decisive impact on the prison population in the United States, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Let’s hope that this area of social policy will continue to find friends, both blue and red. Indeed, the time is now.

Postscript (16 November 2020): Check out “Who Will Follow Oregon’s Lead On Drugs” by Dr. Mary Bassett.