Presumptuous prohibitionist: Ken Burns ignores drugs

Public TV's documentary historian refuses to see the connections between yesteryear's prohibition and today's drug war. It's particularly strange for someone who otherwise sees so much about race in America.

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Down the drain, in Ken Burns' 'Prohibition.'

Public TV's documentary historian refuses to see the connections between yesteryear's prohibition and today's drug war. It's particularly strange for someone who otherwise sees so much about race in America.

There’s a good chance you just watched what I just watched, on Monday and Tuesday night: the first airing on KCTS of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s generally excellent (and, compared to previous Burns projects, blessedly brief) documentary, ProhibitionAs usual, it assembles a terrific collection of period photos and star narrators; who knew Tom Hanks worked so cheap? And it does a better-than-usual-Burns job of charting the 18th Amendment’s place in and influence on politics and social changes, from the New Deal to sexual liberation.

But Prohibition also displays the most glaring omission by Burns and company since their 19-hour Jazz series entirely neglected Brazilian music’s huge influence on the medium (not to mention a host of important artists, from Woody Herman and Nat King Cole to Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, and John McLaughlin). And it concerns a more serious subject this time. Prohibition teases and thumps us about the vital “lessons” that the experience of banning (but scarcely eliminating) booze in 1920-33 can teach today. And then it shuns the issue on which those lessons are most pertinent: the ongoing prohibition of other drugs and the wasteful, mostly collateral war being fought to enforce it.

Surely this couldn’t reflect the same sort of ignorance as Jazz, where Burns the naïf fell under Wynton Marsalis’s classicism and Louis Armstrong worship. So I presumed that cowardice explained it: Don't want to roil all those staid PBS stations and donors by mentioning something controversial. But after viewing this interview with Burns on the libertarian, I’ll concede that he's sincere. Arrogant and ignorant, but sincere.

“What are the parallels with today?”’s Nick Gillespie asked. “Are the parallels directly to the drug war?”

“No I think it’s less to that,” Burns replied. “I mean, alcohol is used by every culture since there have been human beings. Drugs are a subcultural thing. Alcohol was something everybody did, so eliminating it required a great leap of faith to take place. Drugs are not favored by a majority of people. While there are lots of similarities and the possibility of taxing and regulating marijuana is a hugely interesting [pause] consideration, once again it’s unintended consequences. You have to be careful.” He then escaped into platitudes about “our essential dichotomy” of “sincerity and hypocrisy" and all that.

Since Prohibition is about the unintended consequences of banning alcohol, it sounds like Burns equates that with legalizing cannabis, a truly inspired logical contortion. But it pales beside the blind presumption of his other statements.

First, alcohol is just one of many ancient mood-altering substances — from xocolatl to cannabis — whose first use is lost in the mists of pre-history. Observant Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, and members of various dry Protestant sects may be surprised to hear that “everybody” and “every culture” use it. That “everybody” includes just a little over half the adult and adolescent population of the United States, according to the National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health. Sure, far fewer — about 9 percent, or 26 million people — say they use illicit drugs (though there’s always a question as to whether they report their use as readily as drinkers do). But that's still a sizable chunk of America, 26 million people. And many more than that have tried marijuana — 42 percent, according to a WHO survey, more than twice the share of Dutch adults who've tried the stuff, even though it's virtually legal for them. Sixteen percent of Americans have even tried cocaine.

No doubt Burns, like me, prefers his pinot to somebody else’s doobie. But he should get his nose out of his glass, or out of the history books, and see what real live Americans now think. Even though most don’t use it, a majority now favor legalizing marijuana. Two-thirds think the drug war is a failure. They can see that its effects — waste, corruption, gangsterism, ruined lives, lost taxes, poisoned international relations — are strikingly similar to those catalogued in Prohibition, and in some cases much worse. We still cluck over a couple hundred bootleggers and gangsters killed in Chicago in the 1920s. Mexico’s drug wars, fueled mainly by U.S. demand for illicit marijuana, have killed 30,000.

I asked our former police chief Norm Stamper, who now campaigns for a drug-war armistice with LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), what he thought of the documentary. "It's a little unfortunate, I think, that Burns didn't take the next logical step in showing the folly of [other] drug prohibitions," Stamper replied. "Still, it's encouraging to witness huge numbers of people, across the political spectrum, drawing the self-evident parallel between alcohol prohibition and today's drug war. Not included among the enlightened are the drug czar [as it happens, Stamper's successor as Seattle chief, Gil Kerlikowske] and the rest of the drug-warrior industry — people whose very livelihood, and identity, depends on keeping prohibition on the books, long after its utter failure has been established."

It’s amazing that Burns, who's often fixated on race as the driver of American history, doesn’t see how racism underlies drug prohibition. Witness the grotesque disparities in federal sentences for white folks’ powder cocaine and black folks’ crack. Marijuana became a bugaboo in the neo-racist 1920s and ‘30s because it was a “Negro” and “Mexican” drug; prohibitionists promoted that label (originally “marihuana”) over the familiar “cannabis” because of its ominous foreign overtones.

Indeed, Drug Wars seems a natural sequel to The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, Burns's epic trilogy on race. It’s not too late for him to round out the story — even if it’s taking this country much longer than 14 years to come to grips with this prohibition.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.