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Why is Alcohol Legal?

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Alcohol is, without question, our country's deadliest recreational drug - and one of the most addictive. But it's also the most legal and, in a country where our criminal justice system regularly ruins thousands of lives over marijuana for less reason, that should give us pause.

So why is alcohol legal, and what does this tell us about how our government makes drug policy decisions?

1. Because too many people drink.

This is, ultimately, the main reason alcohol is legal. Marijuana legalization advocates often point to a large-scale 2008 study that showed 42% of Americans had tried marijuana, but the same study shows that more than twice as many Americans - 91.6% - have had an alcoholic beverage. Realistically speaking, how can you outlaw something that more than 9 out of 10 Americans have already done?

2. Because the alcohol industry is too powerful.

Firearms are a $32 billion industry, and almost impossible to regulate. Tobacco is a $96 billion industry, so a cigarette ban_ is out of the question. But alcohol - a $400 billion industry with 3.9 million employees - dwarfs them both. If the alcohol industry were a state, it would be the 12th wealthiest (edging out Massachusetts) and the 27th most populous (beating Oregon). That's a lot of economic muscle.

3. Because alcohol is endorsed by the Christian tradition.

Prohibitionists have historically used religious arguments to ban alcohol, but they've had to fight the Bible to do it. Alcohol production was Jesus' first miracle, according to the Gospel of John, and the ceremonial drinking of wine is central to the Eucharist - the oldest and most sacred Christian ceremony. Wine is a central symbol within the Christian tradition, and the Christian tradition has informed U.S. public policy for centuries. That's a lot of tradition to overcome.

4. Because alcohol has an ancient history.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the fermentation of alcoholic beverages is at least as old as civilization - dating all the way back to ancient China, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. There was never a time in recorded human history when alcohol wasn't part of our experience, as a species.

5. Because alcohol is easy to produce.

As you might expect (given how long it has been around), alcohol is pretty easy to make. "Fermentation," as About.com: Chemistry guide Anne Marie Helmenstine notes in her page on the subject, "is a natural process" - and banning the product of natural processes is always tricky. Jailhouse pruno can be easily made in cells using products available to prisoners - which means that even if you were arrested for drinking, you could still drink - and much safer,_tastier beverages can be made cheaply at home.

As Clarence Darrow put it in his 1924 anti-Prohibition speech:
Even the drastic Volstead Act has not prevented and cannot prevent the use of alcoholic beverages. The acreage of grapes has rapidly increased since it was passed and the price gone up with the demand. The government is afraid to interfere with the farmer's cider. The fruit grower is making money. The dandelion is now the national flower. Everyone who wants alcoholic beverages is fast learning how to make them at home.

In the old days the housewife's education was not complete unless she had learned how to brew. She lost the art because it became cheaper to buy beer. She has lost the art of making bread in the same way, for she can now buy bread at the store. But she can learn to make bread again, for she has already learned to brew. It is evident that no law can now be passed to prevent her. Even should Congress pass such a law, it would be impossible to find enough Prohibition agents to enforce it, or to get the taxes to pay them.
But the best argument in favor of keeping alcohol legal was the precedent set by the very Prohibition to which Darrow referred.

6. Because the government has already tried, and failed, to ban it.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1919, and would remain the law of the land for 14 years - but even in its first few years of enforcement, its failure was evident. As H.L. Mencken wrote in 1924:
Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.
The prohibition of alcohol was such a complete and humiliating failure to our nation that, in the 80 years since its repeal, no mainstream politician has advocated restoring it.
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