The American Alcohol Prohibition

Although repealed more than 75 years ago, the American Prohibition is still firmly at the center of the public’s attention. Movies, television shows, books, comedies and even Broadway plays have featured stories about life during the Prohibition. Classic gangster movies like The Public Enemy, Scarface, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and The Untouchables have frightened and inspired both children and adults for decades, spawning a plethora of modern-day copycats. Other classics like The Great Gatsby dealt with life during the Prohibition that didn’t focus on bloodshed and gangsters, while Some Like it Hot sought to make light of the whole situation with a humorous plot. However, understanding our history is important so that we not repeat it, and being that the War on Drugs is alarmingly similar to the Prohibition, a better look at what happened three-quarters of a century ago might well provide guidance on how we should deal with today’s troubles.

The Volstead Act – also referred to as the Prohibition Act and sometimes as the Noble Experiment – was passed in 1920 and sought to prohibit the sale of intoxicating alcoholic beverages. Mark Thornton, the O. P. Alford III Assistant Professor of Economics at Auburn University, simplified the entire purpose of the Act;

“According to its proponents, all the proposed benefits of Prohibition depended on, or were a function of, reducing the quantity of alcohol consumed.” (1)

The Prohibition Act was precipitated by a long period of temperance, whereby alcohol was not frowned upon, but drunkenness and public intoxication was. However, eventually the temperance movement became the abstinence movement. At the time, many US states had already slowly been moving to better control alcohol by eliminating the public saloon. Proponents of the Act sold it to congress and the people with rhetoric that indicated divorce rates, crimes rates, infidelity, alcoholism, taxes, prisons and public funding could all be improved dramatically if alcohol were abolished from the American markets. The Prohibition Act consequently banned the sale, transport, manufacture, and distribution of all alcoholic beverages. Naturally, it also outlawed all establishments that customarily sold these types of beverages. Despite the fact that President Wilson vetoed the bill, Congress pushed it into law in 1920 and for a short time it seemed to be working, as alcohol consumption dropped significantly.

However, this drop appears by all accounts to be a short lull before the illegal supply networks became operable. By the early 20’s alcohol was widely available practically everywhere. Backyard bootleggers and their couriers made a great deal of money very quickly and became powerful and well-managed – and organized crime in America was born. In order to enforce Prohibition, more and more federal resources were allotted to fight organized crime and break up the tens of thousands of speakeasies and clandestine watering holes that sprouted up all around the country.

By the mid-twenties, Prohibition was out of control. Gun battles between law enforcement and gangsters erupted in the streets, sometimes with innocent blood being spilled. Battles also broke out between rival gangs over territory and other disputes. The American landscape was littered with the casualties of the Prohibition, but the people wanted their alcohol nonetheless. According to Essortment.COM;

“The hip flask, filled with “bootleg” whiskey and displayed openly, soon became a familiar symbol of the era. Every community of any size had their “speakeasies,” where both imported and homemade alcohol could be purchased. These underground saloons did a booming business.” (2)
Because the demand for alcohol was so strong despite severe consequences, the Prohibition was a central focus of nearly every part of American life. It affected the economy, agriculture, the job market, the safety of communities and the legitimacy of law enforcement. Federal, state and local government officials were often found to be either actively or passively contributing to the illegal alcohol trade in one way or another. This significantly worsened the struggle between law enforcement and the mafia, which controlled nearly all of the illegal alcohol sales in large cities across the nation.

The Prohibition made gangsters like Al Capone, Bugs Moran and Johnny Torrio notorious and powerful men who used any means necessary – including bloody massacres of rivals – to maintain their grip on profits from bootlegging. Despite the fact that Prohibition was intended to curb crime and reduce the public burden, it had the opposite effect. According to Albany.EDU, instances of the following crimes INCREASED after the Act was passed:

“Arrests for drunk and disorderly conduct by 102%, arrests of drunken drivers by 81%, thefts and burglaries by 9%, homicides, assault and battery by 13%, number of federal convicts by 561%, and federal expenditures on penal institutions by 1000%.” (3)

As a result, public opinion of the Prohibition, which originally had an immense amount of support, quickly waned. Even women, who prior to the Prohibition were not widely known to drink, became regular drinkers and joined the growing numbers of people who crowded speakeasies in underground and clandestine locations all over the country.

By the time the early 30’s arrived, Americans had had enough. For more than a decade, the public had demonstrated that it would not be kept without alcohol – often at the threat of violence and disregard for the law. In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Cullen-Harrison Act, which repealed Prohibition and regulated the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages.

Many people today compare the War on Drugs to the American Prohibition. After decades of fighting a bloody war with no measureable success, the War on Drugs appears to be a houseguest that has long overstayed its welcome. If we are to learn from our past, it’s obvious that this modern day prohibition isn’t working, just as the prohibition of the past failed miserably. And while there are some steps being taken – such as legalization of some types of marijuana use – legislation in this regard is relatively stagnant. But until we as a people begin to fight the war on the demand for drugs instead of waging war on the supply, it’s not likely that we’ll come to a middle ground between those who support the War and those who are tired of the same old status quo.

Ultimately, a great deal of both the Prohibition and the War on Drugs is about politics. If you’re a person who is battling a drug addiction or alcoholism, these types of political skirmishes probably mean very little to you. Addiction is a serious, personal disease, and those who are addicted will find a way to procure drugs regardless of consequence of law. If this sounds like you or someone you care about, it’s time to find your own way out of this trap and call the number at the top of your screen now. We offer one of the country’s most successful inpatient drug treatment centers, and we’re here 24 hours per day to consult with you confidentially. Don’t become another statistic of the failed War on Drugs – take action right now.

(1) Thornton, Mark Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 157: Alcohol Prohibition was a Failure 07/17/1991
Accessed 08/18/2011

(2) Essortment.COM History of the Prohibition Act of 1920 in America
Accessed 08/18/2011

(3) Albany.EDU Organized Crime and Prohibition
Accessed 08/18/2011

General information borrowed from Wikipedia’s page on: Prohibition in the United States
Accessed 08/18/2011

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Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers

The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More

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