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ASL gets sneak peek of ‘Prohibition’

Blue Ridge PBS and ASL teamed up in October in a community forum to provide a preview of Ken Burns' "Prohibition," a three-part documentary that premiered later that month.

moonshine still

"It's a great privilege to be here," said Katherine Foreman of Blue Ridge PBS. "Anytime a Ken Burns documentary comes to TV, it's a big deal for us." ASL's was the only event that was actually screening parts of the film, she said.

ASL was chosen partially because of its location in a region that became a center for moonshining during the Prohibition era.

After an excerpt from the documentary, Professor Stewart Harris introduced a panel discussion on prohibition, then and now, by noting some of the issue's constitutional aspects.

Though Prohibition is considered a dead issue, it has plenty of historical interest. Alcohol became "the only drug with its own amendments," so it's still worth studying, he said.

Harris said that interest groups were able to harness the power of the Reformist Era to make Prohibition possible. Ultimately, though, the amendment was repealed because outlawing alcohol was expensive, led to crime and corruption, and encouraged a more intrusive federal government.

Carl Mullins, a historian with Breaks Interstate Park, showed students an old moonshine still in the courtyard before the panel. He "knew a lot of families that survived on account of moonshine," especially during the Great Depression, he said. "They were hard-working, honest people who never touched a drop in their lives."

Prohibition was responsible for the "complete devastation" of many families in the region, he said, because organized crime took over production of moonshine, and quality of the alcohol plummeted. "It caused more problems than it ever cured."

Howard Wooldridge, a former police officer and co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, agreed with that comparison. The modern war on drugs isn't working, just as Prohibition didn't work, he said.

The war on drugs creates an incentive for kids to become dealers, promotes violence, distracts police officers from protecting the public, and costs an astronomical amount to perpetuate, he said.

"We're not in a war on drugs," he said. "We're at war with ourselves."

Drugs continue to be widely available because dealers accept the possibility of death or prison, and "saving people from putting something in their body that harms only themselves" wastes resources, he said.

Former Buchanan County Commonwealth's Attorney Tamara Neo disagreed. "We are paying the bill when people abuse drugs," she said, noting that drugs often go hand in hand with violence. She noted that Buchanan County struggles most with prescription drug abuse.

While honest families may have sold moonshine in the past, the same doesn't hold today with drugs, she said. "The big fish use addicts to sell drugs they don't do themselves" to make money without putting themselves in harm's way, she said.

"Seeing as many overdoses as I see," it's safe to say drug abuse is far more destructive than moonshining ever was, she said.

While the idea of legalizing drugs so that only drug abusers are harmed seems like the libertarian ideal, it assumes a "utopia that probably can never exist," she said. "There needs to be a cultural change."

Wooldridge said alcohol and tobacco, which are both legal but regulated, cause far more deaths than drugs would if legalized. The idea that legalization of drugs would cause an explosion of users is a myth, he said.

"The thin blue line is thin and getting thinner," he said. "Officers aren't chasing pedophiles - they're in helicopters looking for a green plant."