Daniel Okrent, who served as the first public editor of The NYTimes and most recently authored the new book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, was interviewed yesterday by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. Here’s how she kicked off the session:

GROSS: [C]an you see a style of activism or a moralistic streak in American politics today that you think is descended from the leaders of temperance?

Mr. DANIEL OKRENT (Author, “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition”): Well, I certainly think that styles of activism and political agitation come directly from what happened in the years leading up to Prohibition. The issue wasn’t entirely Prohibition. That was a stand-in issue for a whole set of issues, just the same way today I think we could say that same-sex marriage is a stand-in issue. If you tell me what you think about same-sex marriage, I can probably tell you what you think about 10 other things. And Prohibition became the same sort of political football that people on either side would use trying to struggle to get it toward their goal, which was control of the country.

But the parallels don’t stop with same-sex marriage. How about race?

GROSS: So if you believed in Prohibition, what are some of the other things you were likely to believe in?

Mr. OKRENT: Well, there was a mix. I shouldn’t oversimplify, but it largely had to do with a xenophobic, anti-immigrant feeling that arose in the American Middle West among white, native-born Protestants. It also had a strong racist element to it. Prohibition was a tool that the white South could use to keep down the black population. In fact, they used Prohibition really to keep liquor away from black people but not from white people.

Does anyone see an echo in that in the recently reduced but still unjust disparities in drug sentencing between rock and powdered cocaine? The parallels continue… medicinal marijuana liquor:

[W]ithin two or three years of the enactment of the Volstead Act, you could go into virtually any city in the country and buy a prescription for $3 from your local physician and then take it your local pharmacy and have it filled and go home with a pint of liquor every 10 days. And this is really how many of the large distilleries in Kentucky and elsewhere in the middle of the country stayed in business throughout the Prohibition years.

A fun fact: medicinal liquor sales helped Walgreens go from 20 stores in Chicago in 1920 to a chain of 525 stores nationwide by the end of the decade. Okrent calls himself an economic determinist and, speaking from that perspective, says he expects “the need for tax revenue…will lead to legalization of marijuana.”

He points out that, ironically, “it became harder to get a drink after Prohibition than it had been during Prohibition.” Legalization brought regulation and a decline in drinking. (Alcohol consumption in the U.S. peaked again in the 1970s and is today somewhere between there and the post-Prohibition low.) Some of us suspect legalization and regulation would work the same with pot.

Obama, in this policy shift, is moving us in the right direction. Ron Paul Wants to go far further. He submitted a statement to the Congressional Record recognizing next week as Hemp History Week and urging his colleagues to pass legislation legalizing hemp farming.

For all that, the book sounds relevant and fascinating. Here’s more…

  • The Daily Beast excerpts the section calling the long-held beliefs about Joe Kennedy’s bootlegging business bunk!
  • Tyler Cowen says the book is very good, noting that the introduction of the income tax made Prohibition fiscally feasible. His review ran in Business Week.
  • Okrent at Big Think on how prohibition was similar to today’s health care debate.
  • You can find me @jwindish, at my Public Notebook, or email me at joe-AT-joewindish-DOT-com.

    JOE WINDISH, Technology Editor
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