Al Capone and Prohibition

On January 17th 120 years ago, the American gangster, Al Capone, was born. He rose to prominence as a bootlegger in Chicago during prohibition, and became notorious for his brutality against rival gangsters. He was wealthy enough to have the city's mayor and police chiefs on his payroll, but was finally convicted on Federal charges of tax evasion on his illicit earnings and jailed in 1932, a year before prohibition ended.

The prohibition era, 1920-33, was racked by crime and violence, as ordinary Americans had to resort to criminality in order to drink alcohol, and ruthless gangs such as Capone's were happy to supply it. Many commentators have pointed to the similarity between the ban on alcohol in that era and the ban on narcotics today. The criminality of drugs means that prices are high and there are fortunes to be made in selling and smuggling them. In the countries that source them there is money to buy politicians, police and judges. Turf wars in city streets resemble those of the bootleggers, with dealers shooting each other to protect their patches. And otherwise law-abiding citizens are forced into conflict with the law to satisfy their preference.

If one had asked in 1930, "Will legalizing booze mean more alcohol-related health problems?" the answer would have been yes. "More addiction?" Again, yes. Will it mean some lives ruined?" Yes. "More accidents?" Yes. "More suicides?" Probably yes. Yet prohibition was repealed, partly because what they currently had was Al Capone, and that was worse.

Many similar questions could be asked about legalizing drugs, and the answers might be similar, too. True, quality control would be better, and prices lower, but there might well be more addiction and the related problems it brings. But what we have at present is the equivalent of Al Capone, and that's worse.