Prohibition: 100 years on from the US alcohol ban

Prohibition: 100 years on from the US alcohol ban

The night club. The speedboat. The mob. The booze cruise. The spread of jazz. The cocktail. What do they all have in common? They are the results, direct and indirect, of Prohibition. The hundredth anniversary of legislation which introduced the banning of alcohol in the United States recently passed without much notice. But its effect can still be felt today in many aspects of American life: in most states, you are still not allowed to drink alcohol in public and it must be sold to you in a paper bag.

So how did a freedom-loving country come to enshrine the Prohibition of alcohol into its Constitution and what can we learn from its subsequent failure? In the years leading up to Prohibition, several factors led to its enactment. Most significant among them was the volume of alcohol consumed by US citizens. By the nineteenth century, annual per capita consumption averaged around five gallons per year – more than double today’s figure. Those celebrated Westerns that portrayed cowboys entering a saloon and drinking glass after glass of neat whisky were not entirely fictitious.   

Fuelled by temperance and religious groups, the Prohibition movement believed that less alcohol consumption would lead to a decrease in crime, spousal abuse, and raise the level of piety. Patriotism and anti-immigrant feelings also played a part. After the US joined World War One in 1917, sentiment turned against the large number of German brewers which then dominated the domestic beer market.

The leading organisation lobbying for Prohibition, the Anti-Saloon League, was not affiliated to any political party. Comparable to the National Rifle Association (NRA), it focused on one issue and worked across parties to achieve its objective, drawing support from Protestant ministers and their congregations: Methodists, Baptists, Disciples and Congregationalists. In becoming the most powerful Prohibition lobby group, it overshadowed the older Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Prohibition Party.

Comprised of some odd bedfellows, the broad dry coalition was a bizarrely diverse group of progressives, racists, populists and nativists: suffragettes who wanted the vote so that they could outlaw ‘demon liquor’; small town Protestants who felt threatened by the wave of Catholic immigrants and their ‘city saloons’; the Ku Klux Klan (which had 5 million members by the early 1920s) who exploited the pernicious stereotype of ‘the dangerous black man with a bottle’, and even Broadway producers who wanted patrons out of bars and in their theatres.

Despite being vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson, Congress passed enabling legislation on 28 October 1919, known as the Volstead Act, to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. When this came into effect in January 1920, the era of Prohibition had begun. It is now hard to believe that this alcohol ban lasted for almost fourteen years as the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified in every state except Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Championed as a one-size-fits-all cure for the ills of American Society, prohibition advocates had argued that it would not only eliminate alcoholism, but also solve poverty, child labour, prostitution, crime, and get rid of slums. The Volstead Act was designed to prohibit intoxicating beverages and regulate the manufacture, sale, or transport of intoxicating liquor. It also aimed to ensure an ample supply of alcohol and to promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye, and other lawful industries and practices, such as religious rituals.

Although the Act provided that “no person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, or furnish any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this act,” it did not specifically prohibit the purchase or consumption of intoxicating liquors. The definition of intoxicating liquor was any beverage containing more than 0.5% alcohol by volume – an extremely low limit which effectively included all wine and beer as well as spirits.

Initially, most US citizens obeyed the law and abstained. Alcohol consumption fell sharply – by around 75 percent in the first 12 months. Nevertheless, the legislation was badly drafted, ill-conceived and difficult to enforce. Prohibition led to unintended and unforeseen consequences. As economist Annelise Anderson wrote: “Prohibition was a major impetus for the growth of mafia organisations. Prohibition created the potential for a major illegal market in alcohol, and it is to the years of prohibition that America can trace the growth in scope and power of its mafias.”

The illegal manufacture and sale of alcohol – better known as bootlegging – occurred on a massive scale. In urban areas, where most people opposed Prohibition, enforcement was weak. Organised crime seized its opportunity: bootlegging was primarily controlled by the Mafia, which became rich and powerful from the illicit liquor trade. They bribed police and politicians on an industrial scale. Meanwhile in Chicago, Al Capone was earning an estimated $60 million annually from bootlegging and speakeasy operations.

Beyond Al Capone’s bootlegged booze, two classes of alcohol were still legally permitted: sacramental and medicinal. According to Section 6 of the Volstead Act “a person may, without a permit, purchase and use liquor for medicinal purposes when prescribed by a physician as herein provided.”

In 1922, The American Medical Association reinstated alcohol on its list of permitted medical therapies. But to buy it, you still needed a prescription. Section 7 of Volstead stated: “No one but a physician holding a permit to prescribe liquor shall issue any prescription for liquor. And no physician shall prescribe liquor unless after careful physical examination of the person for whose use such prescription is sought, or if such examination is found impracticable, then upon the best information obtainable, he in good faith believes that the use of such liquor as a medicine by such person is necessary and will afford relief to him from some known ailment.”

Walgreens flourished. In 1919, the pharmacy chain had 20 stores, but by 1929, as Prohibition fell out of favour with the public, this had grown to more than 520 outlets. Americans began to blame Prohibition for moral decay and disorder: the very opposite of what was intended by the legislation. After the sharp initial decline in alcohol consumption during 1920/21, it gradually increased to about 60 percent of its pre-Prohibition level by the end of the decade. Eventually, the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in December 1933 – the only time in history that an Amendment has ever been repealed – as the Twenty-first Amendment voided the Volstead Act.

Several lessons can be learned from the Prohibition experiment, not least that popular opinion and the need for tax revenue invariably triumph in the end. Not only was the law enforced erratically and unfairly, it also allowed criminals to corrupt law enforcement officers and to generate huge illegal profits and evade taxation. After failed attempts to try Al Capone on more serious charges, he was eventually convicted of tax evasion in 1932. A critical argument against Prohibition was that banning liquor sales deprived the federal government of millions of dollars in tax revenue.

Today, bad laws still exist in many countries across the world, often put in place in an attempt to stop people trying to do or say things that are legal elsewhere. The key lesson of Prohibition for these repressive governments is to think before you act.

We can all drink to that. 


Dominic Carman

Written by:

Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator. www.dominiccarman.com