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“Slayings tie 2000 total” is the morning headline in the Pittsburgh
Tribune-Review as I’m writing this. This time it’s a black woman, Katrenia
Rae Seymore, 29, dumped naked in a wooded area with an electrical cord around
her neck. She was the mother of seven girls, ages 11, 10, 9, 8, 7 and twins,
5.

“She had a drug problem,” explained her mother. Her death brought the
total number of homicides this year in the city to 43, the same number of
homicides all last year and we still have the better part of five months to
go.

Before Seymore, it was two young black men, 24- and 32-years-old, gunned down
at 2 a.m. as they were approaching a traffic light. Both died from gunshot
wounds to the chest. At around the same time, another black man died in the
hospital from wounds he suffered in a shooting seven weeks earlier. All told,
27 of the city’s latest 28 murder victims were black.

“It’s heroin,” says a Pittsburgh cop. “A turf fight.” Word on the street is
that demand is up, a good supply is getting through the airport and the
killings, in large part, are the work of guys fresh out of prison and
fighting to get back their old territories.

Unhappily, the whole bloody mess is little more than a replay of what was
once called the “noble experiment,” the national prohibition of alcohol, 1920
to 1933. Back then, the idea was to take something that most people do,
something that most people can handle, and make it suddenly illegal as of
midnight on January 16, 1920.

Pour the Demon Rum down the sewers, proclaimed the hallelujah chorus, and
it’ll be heaven on earth. “The reign of tears is over,” proclaimed Reverend
Billy Sunday when Prohibition was enacted. “The slums will soon be a memory.
We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and
corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and children will
laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.”

On top of corncribs and smiling women, the prohibitionists envisaged less
crime, less corruption, improved marriages, fewer prisons, empty poorhouses,
and lower taxes. Instead, Prohibition became a classic illustration of the
Law of Unintended Consequences. What the federal ban on liquor delivered was
an increase in alcohol consumption, more murders, more bribes, more
government, more jail and a large increase in Al Capone’s net worth.

Mark Thornton, assistant professor of economics at Auburn University,
summarizes the results: “Alcohol became more dangerous to consume; crime
increased and became ‘organized’; the court and prison systems were stretched
to the breaking point; corruption of public officials was rampant; tax
revenues declined; and government spending greatly increased.”

More specifically, the homicide rate jumped from 6 per 100,000 population in
the pre-Prohibition period to nearly 10 per 100,000 by 1933, a rise that was
reversed by the repeal of Prohibition; the reported death toll from poisoned
liquor hit 4,154 in 1925, up from 1,064 in 1920; the annual budget of the
Bureau of Prohibition went from $4.4 million to $13.4 million during the
1920s; and the jail business boomed, with the number of federal convicts
increasing by over 500 percent from 1920 to 1933, primarily due to
convictions for drugs and alcohol.

Bottom line, annual per capita spending on alcohol during Prohibition was
greater than it had been before Prohibition, after falling steadily before
Prohibition, and crime grew into an empire. With sales and earnings
escalating on products made illicit by government decree, it was only
criminals, by definition, who could run the increasingly profitable show. In
Chicago, gang related murders topped 400 in a single year. Said Will Rogers,
“Governments used to murder by the bullet only. Now it’s by the quart.”

And so, here we go again, back to the drive-bys in the inner city, back to
the overdoses from products with adulterated potencies, with J. Orlin Grabbe,
author of “The Function of the Drug War” and other essays that “inspect the
global underbelly,” asking the right questions: “When was the last time our
murder rate soared suddenly and innocent bystanders were killed during
drive-by shootings between rival criminal gangs? When was the last time a
significant number of people died from adulterated alcoholic beverages? When
was the last time large numbers of Americans had dealings on a daily basis
with vicious thugs and sociopathic underworld characters? When was the last
time corruption so pervaded our police forces and judicial system that
ordinary citizens in many cities and towns lost all respect for their own
government authorities?”

The answer’s the same to all those questions, says Grabbe: “During alcohol
prohibition, 70 years ago.”

Simply stated, Prohibition didn’t work in the 1920s and ’30s and it’s not
working in 2001. As Thornton says it, “Sound economic theory predicts that
prohibition of mutually beneficial exchanges is doomed to failure.” Last time
around, for instance, by 1925, some five years into Prohibition, the number
of speak-easies in the U.S. outnumbered the number of saloons that had been
closed. Over 100,000 operated in New York City alone. Demand, in short,
created the supply.

And today, it’s no different. With the highest rate of incarceration in the
world and after all the drive-bys and all the prisons overflowing with
nonviolent drug offenders, it’s still easier in Pittsburgh to find some smack
at midnight than a good reuben, still easier to get an 8-ball than a good
hamburger.

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