Today is the 75th anniversary of the repeal of alcohol prohibition in the United States, and lot of libertarians and anti-drug prohibition advocacy groups have taken the opportunity to remind the public of the fundamental sameness of 1920's era alcohol prohibition, and modern day drug prohibition. Radley Balko has an article up at Reason commemorating the day and relating it to our current prohibition, and he makes a point that I hadn't thought of before:
But there's one positive thing we can say alcohol prohibition: At least it was constitutional. The prohibitionists built support for their cause by demonizing alcohol from state to state, winning over local legislators one at a time. When they'd built a sufficient national movement, they started the momentum for a constitutional amendment. Congress didn't pass a blanket federal law, Constitution be damned. They understood that the federal government hasn't the authority to issue a national ban on booze, so they moved to enact the ban properly.
When America repealed prohibition, we repealed it with a constitutional amendment making explicit that the power to regulate alcohol is reserved for the states. Even today, when Congress wants to pass federal alcohol laws (such as the federal drinking age, or the federal minimum blood-alcohol standard for drunk driving), it can't simply dictate policy to the states. Instead, it ties the laws to federal highway funding, a blackmail that while distasteful, at least carries the pretense of adherence to the Constitution.
Contrast that to drug prohibition, where Congress (and the Supreme Court, when it upheld it) made no attempt to comply with the Constitution in passing the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA), the law that gave us the modern drug war.
For more on our modern day war on drugs and why it's so inevitably doomed, I suggest buying and reading Cop in the Hood by Peter Moskos, who joined the Baltimore police force for over a year and wrote a book about what it's like being on the front line of the war on drugs. Basically his conclusion was that the whole thing is a big sham, and that both current techniques and the entire idea of prohibition in general is hopeless. The writing style is very accessible, and I highly recommend the book.