It happened today - January 16, 2016

On Jan. 16 we celebrate a bad idea done right. Specifically, Prohibition, which came into effect in the United States on this day in 1919.

Prohibition was a really bad idea for all sorts of reasons. First, it was unenforceable. Second, trying to enforce it brought the law into disrepute in principle as ordinary people drank throughout the Prohibition period, willingly seeking out and paying good money to criminal alcohol peddlers. And it brought the law into disrepute in practice as bootleggers became powerful organized criminals. Can you say War on Drugs? Third, as Bishop William Connor Magee said in opposing restrictions on liquor in the UK in 1872, “Better England free than England sober” if that must be the choice. But, finally, that’s not the choice. Alcohol is not something bad we regrettably can’t stamp out. Rather, except for the unfortunate minority prone to alcoholism, it is a genuine pleasure that helps brighten existence. The subtle flavours, the culinary aspects, the companionship, the hobby aspects and yes, the buzz are all in the right place and with suitable moderation positive blessings.

Why then do I say Prohibition was done right? Precisely because it was brought in by a Constitutional amendment, the 18th to the U.S. Constitution. I do not say such a thing is necessary every time you ban anything. Indeed, I do not think the prohibition on marijuana should have required such a measure, although I do think it was a bad idea and a silly one. But alcohol was so much a part of life in America, and in the lives of much of the human race going back to the dawn of agriculture soon after the end of the last glaciation, that it was not legitimate to try to remove it from the culture and people’s personal enjoyment without consulting the people in a fundamental way.

It was harder to remove once the nature and scope of the error became clear because it was brought in through such an elaborate procedure. It was necessary to pass another Constitutional amendment, the 20th, to repeal the blunder of the 18th, the only Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ever repealed. But they did so in 1933 and, apparently, learned nothing from it.

As I say, other drugs never occupied as central and accepted part in the culture as alcohol. But every other bad aspect of Prohibition is clearly visible in the failed laws against them. And at least they could be legalized without as much ruckus.

I should also note that with Canada’s Constitution being such a mare’s nest, we could never pass or repeal such an amendment. We cannot even make much less controversial changes given the way our fundamental law excludes the people from key questions of self-government. But that’s the point.

It’s wrong to do really major things without consulting the people. And even though Prohibition was an absurd and sanctimonious error, at least it was done that way before being undone that way.

So as I say, bad idea done right. You could do worse, and we often do