Clarence Darrow on Prohibition: Lessons for Today’s Drug War

Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), the lawyer who defended evolution in the infamous ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’, has a birth date that fitted him:  April 18, the anniversary of Paul Revere’s famous ride.  Few have traveled more miles to alert sleeping citizens than Darrow did.

Manchester, Vt.: Dellwood Cemetery, 1/2011

Saturday morning’s New York Times made me think about Darrow’s decades-long campaign against Prohibition.  Elisabeth Malkin & Damien Cave in ‘At Mexico Morgue, Families of Missing Seek Clues’ report the Mexican government has found new mass graves in Tamaulipas state.  Tamaulipas shares the mouth of the Rio Grande with Texas.

The 145 victims were likely killed to terrorize both public and opponents in Mexico’s three-sided war among the federal and state governments, the Gulf Cartel and the Cartel’s former enforcers, the Zetas.  Drug prohibition in the US – and the 40 year campaign to make it global – caused this war.  Revenues from US demand fuel it.

Clarence Darrow, in one of America’s great autobiographies, The Story of My Life (1932) (page references below are to the Da Capo1996 reprint), restated his adamant opposition Prohibition.  What he said of efforts to cut off liquor then applies to the drug war today.

 Darrow thought Prohibition’s supporters were much the same as those who rejected the concept of evolution:

I knew it was supported by all the forces that were hostile to human freedom.  I foresaw that it meant a fanaticism and intolerance that would hesitate at nothing to force its wishes and ways of life upon the world. [pp. 284-85]

It was on this popular [puritan] foundation that prohibitionists organized their forces and waged the campaign to destroy the liberties of American citizens.  It was on this foundation that they foisted upon the United States a reign of terror, intimidation, violence, and bigotry unprecedented in the modern world. [pp. 290-91]

Darrow had real gages by which to measure Prohibition’s effects.  He had defended communists during the Red Scare following WW I [pp. 218ff] and a black doctor who killed a white man threatening his home [pp. 304ff]  Nonetheless, his summary feels contemporary:

For more than ten years tens of millions of people have refused to be coerced by this fanatical law.  More money has been spent in an effort to enforce it than all other Federal criminal statutes.  As many men and women have been sent to prison by our Federal courts for the violation of this stature as for all other offenses put together, excepting selling dope.  More lives have been recklessly and wantonly taken in the mad effort to make the United States dry than by the efforts in behalf of all the rest of the criminal code.  This law has developed more snooping, sneaking, informing, prying, and entrapping than all other acts of Congress. [p. 298 emphasis added]

Darrow lived in Chicago for his last 50 years.  The Story of My Life appeared in 1932 when Al Capone’s mob – built on the unquenchable demand for liquor – was at its most powerful.

Seven murders in 1929, dubbed ‘the St. Valentine’s day massacre’, had ended Capone’s decade-long war with competitors – but not the authorities who with a few notable exceptions ‘stayed bought’.  The number of civilian casualties had been nearly insignificant (and inadvertent) both in absolute terms and certainly relative to those in Mexico’s war.

Prohibition ended four years later.  Organized Crime survived the loss of its major income source because it had diversified its business lines.  Capone and the nascent Cosa Nostra saw opportunities in the host of Progressive Era prohibitions  – on prostitution, gambling, marijuana, opiates, etc.  Those businesses and the lessons learnt in the Roaring 20s enabled Organized Crime to flourish for another four decades.

 During the Drug war, we Americans have chosen – knowingly, complicitly – to shrug off the consequences of prohibition Darrow listed.  As right as he was – Predator drones will soon be watching the US under a just-passed bill – we have to end prohibition for a very different reason: national security.

Mexico’s war has stopped being a ‘drug war’ – a fact with frightening implications for the US.  As I’ve written, its northern front has crossed the border.  Until we Americans cut off the fuel for this war – drug revenues – we have no chance of stopping it.


 Note:  Like Paul Revere, Clarence Darrow was a very complicated, not altogether admirable man.  Without question, he was heroic – particularly in the Loeb-Leopold and Sweet cases.  But it seems at least probable that he committed acts lawyers must consider beyond forgiveness.  On at least one occasion, he may have bribed jurors, violating one of the fundamental standards of a free society.

 Nonetheless as Harvard professor and litigator, Alan M. Dershowitz, wrote in the Introduction to the Da Capo edition: ‘Whether legend, history, or a combination thereof, The Story of My Life is still must reading for any contemporary law student, lawyer, or citizen.’ [p. xi]

 H/T: Prof. Douglas O. Lindner of the University of Missouri – Kansas City Law School for his sources, resources and informative essays on his Darrow website, and especially for his own essay, ‘Who is Clarence Darrow?’ (1997).

 H/T: Da Capo Press, for keeping in print The Story of My Life.  But why, oh why, did Da Capo omit the telling photographs in the original Scribners edition?