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A Short People’s History of Addiction in America by Catherine HBO’s latest wunderkind Boardwalk Empire has brought the famously corrupt Prohibition era back to chintzy, glitzy life. Those thirteen years – for which the sale and manufacture of alcohol was officially banned in the United States – did not, of course, eradicate America’s drinking pastime as thoroughly as its crusaders had hoped.  Yet the much-glamorized era, in which outlaws ruled and moonshine made its wicked way through the veins of the black market, symbolizes an important turning point in the history of addiction – how it was thought about and dealt with both in Washington and on the ground.

Prohibition was mostly a response to the U.S. temperance movement, which had its roots in 19th-century Christian social reformism. Temperance promoters – many of them women who decried alcohol as the source of social decay – were notable in opening up a spattering of “sober houses” as early as 1840. These were, in effect, the first rehabilitation centers in American history.

After the failure of the great Prohibition experiment in the face of economic crisis, it seemed clearer to policy-makers and the populace at large that alcohol’s visibility could not simply be erased. If the temptations of drink were to be legal once again, then maybe the damaging effects of alcohol could be curbed and prevented through other means. This change in perspective – a shift towards helping alcoholics rather than condemning alcohol altogether – was codified in a new concept of addiction and rehabilitation.

The controversial idea that the criminalization of alcohol during Prohibition actually increased levels of alcoholism and crime has a current-day analog – in the debate over marijuana decriminalization.

The premise of this comparison is that the rarer something is, and the harder and shadier the process of obtaining it, the more voraciously and irresponsibly people consume it once they have it. There is ample room for debate: http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/if-marijuana-is-legal-will-addiction-rise/

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