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Pouring confiscated liquor into the sewers in New York. NOOOO![note 1]
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Highs and lows
In these days, when devils enter into swine, they do not rush violently down a steep place. They call themselves moral reformers, and vote the Prohibition ticket
—Simon Iff, in Aleister Crowley's Moonchild
Prohibition is better than no liquor at all.
—Will Rogers
Prohibition makes you want to cry into your beer and denies you the beer to cry into.
—Don Marquis

Prohibition, as a sort of term of art, refers to the prohibiting of alcohol and psychoactive drugs. It is generally a political stance taken by people who get more out of their favorite vices when they're forbidden… or whose favorite vice is denying others the right to their vices.

In a historical context, Prohibition refers to the period of time in between 1919 and 1933 when it was generally illegal in the United States to produce, transport, purchase, or consume any alcoholic beverage. (Possession of preëxisting alcoholic beverages within one's home was permitted, so in the year between the enabling Volstead Act's passage [overriding a Presidential veto] and its coming into effect, wealthy Americans went on a spiritous buying-spree of monumental proportions.)

Canada also had a period of prohibition, but their laws were enacted at the provincial level, so the years vary: Ontario from 1916 to 1927; Alberta from 1916 to 1924; Quebec (where prohibition was highly unpopular) in 1919 only, but it was quickly repealed; Prince Edward Island from 1900 to 1948. PEI was the last Canadian province to repeal prohibition.

Prohibition in the US[edit]

The unintended consequences of Prohibition have since become a staple of American popular culture as shown in this screenshot from Mafia: Definitive Edition, where a billboard campaigning in favor of Prohibition is eventually replaced with an ad for beer.

The United States had a Prohibition Party since 1869, and in fact, Republicans castigated Democrats as the party of "rum, Romanism, and rebellion." The Anti-Saloon League, formed in 1893, mobilized a large number of churches, including the Catholic Church, under their slogan of "The Church in action against the saloon". With renewed vigor, the prohibitionist movement was able to get many local "dry" laws passed. Their big prize was federal prohibition. The 18th AmendmentWikipedia was passed by the houses of Congress in a "perfect storm" during December 1917 and ratified by the required 35 states in short order. The prohibition movement had long been associated with anti-immigrant sentiment that asserted American Anglo-Protestant virtue and it was at its all-time high, particularly against German immigrants.[1] Prohibitionist sentiments were also more popular among women than among men, and the widespread gains in women's suffrage in the years leading up to the war helped get the prohibitionist movement over the electoral hump at the state and local levels.[2]

Many people who supported the 18th amendment did so with the understanding that the "intoxicating liquors" it banned would not include undistilled alcohol such as wine or beer. However, the Volstead ActWikipedia that Congress passed to enforce the 18th amendment did not make this distinction and banned all alcohol. In this, one can see the dangers of a moderate movement allowing its more extremist members to get out of control; most Prohibitionists had no idea how the Volstead Act would be written until the fanatic it was named after actually got it passed. Once the wave of prohibitionist hysteria subsided and the new law came into effect, the unpopularity of prohibition expressed itself in the explosive growth of underground alcohol production and smuggling and the widely disseminated code of figurative winks and nudges for those who sought to obtain alcohol. "Speakeasy" underground drinking establishments proliferated. It was an open secret that the industry was patronized by solid citizens who would never publicly speak out against prohibition, and that payoffs from the industry were rampant among police forces and local governments. Local law enforcement efforts against the alcohol industry took on an Opera Buffa quality as it became obvious that most were for appearances only. Flouting prohibition became semi-mainstream. The Laurel and Hardy comedy BlottoWikipedia illustrated the public attitude that prohibition was not to be taken seriously.

The natural consequence of this policy was that organized crime rapidly increased in order to meet the American demand for black market booze. Since the Italian underworld (the Mafia in New York and The Outfit in Chicago) now had an extremely lucrative racket, they became very rich and powerful and the crime rate skyrocketed. The underground environment favored brewing and smuggling distilled spirits, since they were easier to conceal than beer and wine. The most serious enforcement efforts against the underground industry were led by the US Treasury Department. By the early 1930s, it was clear that prohibition wasn't working and the 18th Amendment was rescinded with the 21st Amendment. Alcohol was to be strictly regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms as well as at State and local levels. Legal beer was strictly defined in 1934 as having an alcohol content of 3.2%. Much of the industry continued to operate outside of the law.

Incidence of alcohol abuse and alcohol-related deaths increased during Prohibition.[3] Critics of the War on Drugs often point to prohibition as one example of why the legislation of morality does not work. On the other hand, at least at the beginning, people drank way less on average than they did before — indeed, Americans previously averaged almost 6 drinks per day. The average level of drinking then sharply increased, and in the years immediately afterwards (exactly how long is still disputed) went back up to pre-Prohibition levels, although distilled spirits were slightly less of a factor even afterwards.[4][5] The level of cirrhosis, which is usually alcohol-related, also dropped to 1/3 of what it had been before Prohibition.[6]

For Constitutional historians, it is interesting to note that the amendment authorizing Congress to engage in Prohibition (the 18th) is the only amendment to date to have been subsequently repealed (the 21st). Considering the extreme difficulty in amending the US Constitution, getting both of these passed in such a time frame is rather remarkable.

Despite Prohibition's catastrophic failure at solving the problem of alcohol abuse and its related social ills, there remain some diehards in what's left of the Prohibition Party who still think that it was a good idea.

The roles of racism and xenophobia[edit]

The KKK brags about its support for the Eighteenth Amendment.

It is well established that the origins of drug prohibition in the United States are intertwined with racial mistrust, and with a sense that American Anglo-Protestant culture was under threat from Catholic and non English-speaking immigrants from the mid-19th Century on. The Know Nothing Party railed against Irish and German immigrants as whiskey and beer swillers. Smokable opium was used almost exclusively by Chinese immigrant workers who started showing up in the latter half of the century, and was the first target of drug prohibition. Anti-Catholicism, and anti-immigrant sentiment in general, played a large role in advocacy for Prohibition. As successive waves of immigrants increasingly came from countries in Southern or Eastern Europe, promoting Prohibition proved a convenient way for Nativist bigots to demonize these new arrivals they feared and hated.[2]

A similar component fueled anti-alcohol sentiment at the opening of the 20th century. Under the Anti Saloon League, many organizations united in support of Prohibition, although for differing reasons. Among such constituents, ironically, were both the Ku Klux Klan and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Furthermore, following the 1913 income tax amendment and United States entry into World War I, anti-German demonization associated beer and breweries with both German-American immigrants and treason.[2] The biggest opponents of prohibition were beer breweries, who joined together to form the Brewers Association. Almost to a man, these breweries were owned and operated by German-Americans whose primary customers were also Americans of German descent. A prohibition on alcohol, some felt, was another way of excluding "the hun" from American life.

In the Old South, the KKK often organized vigilante bands to enforce prohibition laws, heavily targeting those of Italian or Jewish heritage under the guise of stamping out bootleggers. [7]

Blacks were also targets of prohibitionist sentiment. The Anti-Saloon League, the most politically-powerful proponents of prohibition, campaigned in the South by playing up fears of black saloon-goers with "[...] a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a ballot in the other."[8][9]

A late 19th Century moral panic emerged over white women frequenting the "Chinaman's" opium dens and losing their morals.

Marijuana, cocaine, and heroin were either unnoticed or accepted until their sociological context changed after the turn of the 20th Century. Marijuana was popular among cowboys in the southwest, many of whom were either black or Hispanic. Its visibility increased with urban migration of blacks, becoming part of the jazz subculture and leading to the "reefer madness" panic of the 1930s. Heroin was originally derived from opium by the Bayer Company as a remedy for respiratory ailments. Its side effects led Bayer to develop another product for that purpose, but it remained a commercial product with brand names sold as a sedative and painkiller. It became popular among Jews, becoming associated with a subculture seen as un-American. Cocaine was used as a stimulant, in commercially available kits with syringes, in bulk, and as an additive in commercial products such as Coca-Cola. Rumors started to circulate of blacks snorting cocaine and engaging in all sorts of deviant behavior, including rape, leading to a push to restrict it. After the Harrison Narcotic Tax Act of 1914, it was still accepted as a party drug in Hollywood, celebrated with the "cocaine comedy" genre such as the Douglas Fairbanks character Coke Ennyday. With the efforts of the good Christian Will Hayes to clean up the image of Hollywood in the aftermath of the Fatty Arbuckle trial, cocaine became an easy target as a symbol of Hollywood's immoral and un-Christian (largely Jewish) influences.

Exemptions in the United States during alcohol prohibition[edit]

Prescription for medicinal alcohol, 1922.

During the Prohibition era, it was not entirely impossible to obtain alcohol legally. The Volstead Act contained a few loopholes:

  • Each home could make up to 200 gallons of "non-intoxicating cider and fruit juice" per year for its own use. The "non-intoxicating" part of that clause was a legal fiction, and it opened the door for home winemaking. This was widely considered to be a reward for widespread support from rural 'drys' who held their hard cider blameless.
  • Since Volstead was a strongly Christian congressman himself, wine could be manufactured for sale, and actually sold, if the wine was "sacramental wine" and the purchaser was a priest or rabbi, resulting in "[...] rabbis named Patrick Houlihan and James McGuire, and Major Mills said he "found two Harlem Negroes posing as rabbis, claiming to have 'got religion' in the Hebraic persuasion.""[10]
  • Up to a pint of liquor each week could be consumed "for medicinal purposes", if it was prescribed by a physician. (Compare this with the current legal status of medical marijuana.)
  • Manufacturers of grape juice concentrates were instructed by the Government to post warnings on their products that the manufacture of wine was illegal. A number of producers responded by listing explicit directions on how not to make wine, complete with detailed steps to avoid.[11]

While home winemaking in small quantities was legal, home beermaking was not.[note 2] This, again, stemmed in part out of a distrust of German-Americans, who controlled the majority of U.S. beer breweries at the time Prohibition went into effect.

Near the end of the prohibition era, Congress relented and allowed the sale of beer with an alcohol content of 3.2% or less. The spirit (pardon the pun) of this law has carried forward into the statutes of many states that exist to this day. In many states and counties throughout the U.S., "3.2 beer" is the only kind of beer allowed to be sold in grocery stores or served in restaurants. (Even in Utah.)

The awful aftereffects continue[edit]

The primary benefactor of prohibition.

Believe it or not, Prohibition is cited as a source to why NASCAR proliferated in the States.[12] Yep, them mountain boys needed some fast cars to outrun the revenooers. And while you gots a fast car, why not get together with the other boys with fast cars every so often to find out what's what?[note 3]

The failure of Prohibition was also a cause of the collapse of the first wave of feminism. The movement for women's suffrage was entwined with prohibitionists, due largely to overlapping membership among organizations like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Intellectuals of the time, such as H.L. Mencken, saw suffragism and prohibition as two sides of the same coin, with women being the defenders of Victorian morality out to tame and emasculate men. As a result, feminist movements collapsed at least until the entry of many women into the workplace as a result of World War II.[13]

The organized crime cartels Prohibition helped create diversified into loan sharking, prostitution, gambling, and protection. This money would be used to bribe officials to look the other way and put into legal businesses as a way to make them fronts for the illegal activities. After the conviction of Al Capone for tax evasion, these businesses served another purpose… as a way to report illegal income without admitting that it was illegal.Wikipedia[note 4] It has been joked that Nevada should have a statue to Bugsy Siegel because he was instrumental to the establishment of the modern casino, and he only went into that because Prohibition had been repealed.

Ironically, some of the crime bosses of the Prohibition era had their own prohibition against getting involved in drug trafficking (not for any moral reasons, but because they felt it would create too many freelancers that couldn't be "convinced" to work for them or be eliminated). Needless to say, that worked about as well as Prohibition had, and many of these old bosses died of lead poisoning or got one-way rides.

Oh, and don't even get us started on the War on Drugs, which is failing for a lot of the exact same reasons that Prohibition did…

See also[edit]


  1. Even more so considering how they might have ended up intoxicating the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
  2. This was repealed in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter, who signed a law legalizing home brewing of beer and ale.
  3. We don't want to say that we automatically take a dim view of anything located in Jesusland, but the culture of that area does tend to lag behind the rest of America in a moral sense…[citation NOT needed]
  4. The IRS caught on to this and in the master instructions for federal taxes, Publication 17, states "Illegal activities. Income from illegal activities, such as money from dealing illegal drugs, must be included in your income on Form 1040, line 21, or on Schedule C or Schedule C-EZ (Form 1040) if from your self-employment activity."


  1. White, C.; World War I played key role in passage of Prohibition, 2018, The Mob Museum
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Prohibition, documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, published by PBS
  3. Did Alcohol Prohibition Reduce Alcohol Consumption and Crime? Schaffer Library of Drug Policy.
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Prohibition (miniseries).
  5. Jeffery A. Miron, Jeffrey Zweibel, Alcohol Consumption During prohibition. National Bureau of Economic Research, April 1991.
  6. Robert E. Mann, Reginald G. Smart, and Richard Govoni, The Epidemiology of Alcoholic Liver Disease, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Alcohol Research & Health. 2003;27(3): 209-219.
  7. How the Anti-Saloon League, responsible for Prohibition, shaped modern racist policing, Sismodo, C., Macleans
  8. Daniel Okrent (2010), Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, p. 43
  9. Herd, D.; Prohibition, Racism and Class Politics in the Post-Reconstruction South, Journal of Drug Issues, Volume: 13 issue: 1, page(s): 77-94
  10. Daniel Okrent (2010), Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, p. 189
  11. Paul Aaron and David Musto (1981). "Temperance and Prohibition in America: An Historical Overview". In Moore, Mark H.; Gerstein, Dean R. Alcohol and Public Policy: Beyond the Shadow of Prohibition. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. pp. 127–181. ISBN 0-309-03149-4.
  12. Why the US is addicted to fast cars and street racing, BBC
  13. Engs, Ruth C (2001). Clean Living Movements: American cycles of health reform. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-275-97541-X.