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Prohibition, Abolition: Mistakes Were Made
November 10, 2022
by William P. Meyers

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In 2021 a wave swept over the liberal to progressive to socialist community of Seattle. It happened in other parts of the nation, but I watched it up close in Seattle, so I will use it as an example. The wave was called Abolitionism, and it was purposefully named after the movement to abolish slavery, which did end slavery following the Civil War. But this new Abolitionism was not about slavery. It was about not prosecuting people who engaged in criminal activity. I will be explaining how this idea almost became mainstream in Seattle before failing. But first I will meander into the history of the Prohibition movement, because that can bring our understand to the intersection of drug policy and criminal justice.

Writings going back to about the beginning of human history pointed out the dangers of intoxication with alcohol. In colonial America puritanical ministers preached against its evils. Over time the problems caused by alcohol generated a movement called Prohibition. It took decades of education, protest, and political pressure, but at last it was passed as the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919.

The benefits foreseen by the promoters of Prohibition went beyond keeping sinners out of hell. Men would no longer squander their paychecks in saloons, nor would they beat they wives and children. Diseases related to alcohol consumption, such as cirrhosis of the liver, would decline. Mental health would improve. Men would be better husbands and fathers.

Instead, or perhaps because of Prohibition, the U.S. had the Roaring Twenties. I suspect that decade might have roared anyway, perhaps even louder with legal alcohol, in reaction to the carnage of World War I, the booming economy, and the general industrialization and modernization of what still was a largely rural and conservative society. Amending the Constitution did not prevent many people from wanting a drink. Criminals stepped into fill demand, resulting in a decade of organized crime. Within a few years obtaining alcohol illegally became almost as easy as it had been before Prohibition. On the whole, however, historians believe that less liquor was consumed under Prohibition.

The experience with Prohibition has often been used to critique the War on Drugs and advocate for legalization of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, amphetamine (meth), and opioids. The basic idea is that some people are going to take these drugs whether they are legal or not. The harm actually done by the drugs themselves is said to be less than the harm done to society by the fueling of criminal organizations.

The Abolition movement of 2021 (which of course has its origins in older ideas) played upon this idea while mixing it with other social theories about crime. The basic idea is that illegal drug users and criminals in general have no free will. They are driven by their biology in the case of drug users and by social malfunctions in the case of other forms of crime. There is a racist component to the theory: black Americans are more likely to end up in jail or prison because they come from a poorer socio-economic strata and because of racist enforcement of the laws by police, prosecutors, and courts. We are all just pinballs in this pseudo-Marxist vision of the world, bouncing around the social machinery, some of us working and following the law, others bashing people over their heads, stealing purses, and shooting up drugs because society has messed up our nervous systems.

According to these New Abolitionists, the solution to crime and addiction is to abolish the police and courts. Instead Social Services would be expanded. Why steal or get in fights when the government gives you a nice apartment, does not require you to work, and provides free drugs of your choice? Under such a benevolent regime, the Abolitionists believe, the formerly oppressed will come to their senses and become productive members of society.

In Seattle this idea jumped to the front of the Progressive line after the Black Lives Matter protests and several member of the City Council jumped on the Defund the Police bandwagon. It came up in the context of election of the City Attorney. The incumbent City Attorney, Pete Holmes, had been in office since 2011, and was seen by frustrated citizens as soft on crime. He was eliminated in the primary. One of the primary winners was Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, who introduced the idea of Abolition to the rest of us. She actually toned it down a bit. She said she would stop prosecuting misdemeanors. It was not clear, initially, how this would relate to "diversion" programs that sent offenders to counseling, rather than to jail. A crucial fact is that the City Attorney does not prosecute felonies, which is the responsibility of the King County Attorney.

Fortunately a person of reasonableness, Ann Davison, was the other candidate who made it to the general election. While progressive Democrats and Seattle's surprisingly large socialist contingent adopted and promoted Abolition, reasonable people (me, Ann, many others) started pointing out flaws in Kennedy's position. For a starter (and Kennedy knew this as a former public defender) if there is no prosecution of misdemeanors, then when someone commits a felony there is nothing to plea down too. This creates a dilemma for prosecutors and criminals: risk a trial, conviction and serious consequences instead of the routine plea to a misdemeanor. A larger problem is that misdemeanors can include quite serious crimes, including assault. But the wedge issue turned on spousal abuse: Kennedy had to back off and start making exceptions to her Abolitionist original stance. She would prosecute men who battered women, for instance.

There are several complex, intersecting problems here, but let's wade into them, because we want real solutions, not slogans. Consider drugs. Alcohol still causes a lot of harm, ranging from drunk driving car wrecks to death by pickling the liver. Making alcohol legal made it difficult for organized crime to profiteer from it, but it did not make the basic problem go away. Same now that marijuana has been legalized: it is, on the whole, less harmful than alcohol, but it does lead to people losing their jobs and sometimes their mental health. Hard drugs are another matter. Each has its particulars, but they cause self harm and often cause users to harm the innocent. If they were available over the counter in drug stores our society would be a serious mess in a relatively short period of time. As it is, for practical purposes, use of hard drugs is not prosecuted in Seattle, and they are available at reasonable prices from local dealers in every neighborhood. The courts may occasionally refer someone to a rehab program, but always for other offenses related to addiction (like violence and theft), not for drug possession.

Sometimes the order you do things in is important. That is true if you are fixing a car, building a house, or trying to raise food crops. Going back to Prohibition, it is clear to me that the idea was good, but the moral righteousness and religious fervor of it proponents caused them to implement it in the wrong order. Programs should have been set up to help get people out of the habit of drunkenness. The availability of alcohol should have been limited gradually. Eventually those who could not cope with life without alcohol should have been placed in the hands of medical professionals. It might have taken an entire generation, or two or three, to end the use of alcohol in the United States, but it could have been done. Instead the Twenty-First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reversed the 18th Amendment in 1933. Some individual states, or jurisdictions within states, did continue with Prohibition. I once rode in a car with some new acquaintances across a county line, from a dry county to a wet county, to buy alcohol. Those were the days.

People commit crimes for a wide variety of reasons, and not just because they are poor. While criminals emerge in every class from children of families on welfare to children of multi-millionaires, the key element seems to be culture. Most poor and working class young people do not become criminals (meaning people who repeatedly commit crimes). Most people don't get off on hurting other people. Cultures that encourage bullying and selfishness tend to turn out criminals at the highest rates. Cultures where organized criminal gangs are embedded are the worst.

When Nicole Thomas-Kennedy ran for office pledging to refuse to prosecute misdemeanors, which for the office she would have had would have meant no prosecutions at all, I argued with many of my progressive friends who were supporting her. I pointed out that if the City Council (or State Assembly or Congress) did not want something to be a felony or misdemeanor, they could change the law. They could also lower penalties for specific misdemeanors, when appropriate. I pointed out that some people, when told they will not be prosecuted for stealing, raping, selling dangerous drugs, or violently assaulting people, will not automatically turn into model citizens. There is a reason we speak of carrots and sticks.

If socioeconomic problems or a lack of social or psychiatric counseling are the cause of criminal behavior, then lets put more resources into drying up crime before it gets started. With less crime we can spend less on police, courts, and jails. But I have seen that crime leads to crime. A successful pro shoplifter or porch pirate will boast of it, and others will copy the behavior. This is true of sex crimes, drug dealing, fraud, and even violent behavior. It is human nature, at least for some of us.

We do not need Abolition, Prohibition, or to replace the War on Drugs with a Peace with Drugs. We need to be clear on what is right and what is wrong (harmful to individuals, society, and nature). Then we need to Play a Better Game. We need better public examples, better mentoring, and better diversion programs. But I doubt, even if we play the Game well for decades, that we will ever be able to keep our society safe without some level of policing, court system, and detention systems, including involuntary mental health detention.

History has shown, with Prohibition and the War on Drugs, that it is possible to get bad outcomes despite good intentions. It is not easy to micromanage criminal law, but we need to. It is not easy to supervise people who have shown an inclination to anti-social behavior, but we need to. We need to stop encouraging violence with games, music, and video that glorifies crime. We need to remind people, at all points of the political spectrum, that life is complex. When we reduce it to a slogan, that is fine, but just shouting slogans does not help much when we need to micromanage in the real world.


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