When and why alcohol prohibition was passed in the United States
Prohibition of alcohol in the United States took place between 1920 and 1933. The reasons for this move were to minimize crime and exploitation, provide remedies to social issues, reduce revenue burden enhanced by prisons and shanties, and make health and hygienic standards in America better (Thornton 1). In short, it was thought that less drinking would lead to better lives.
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Some scholars have referred to the ban as a prohibition experiment, rather than a law enforcement action. This is because compared to all other reforms, it is the only one that was intentionally and decisively repealed (Burham 1). Whereas this perspective regards prohibition as a total failure, others regard it as a success. Nevertheless, the lessons learned from prohibition are relevant and applicable to the contemporary world debate over the war on drug and substance abuse, abortion, gambling, and other issues.
Alcohol prohibition was a failure
According to Thornton (1), alcoholism declined shortly after Prohibition began. On the other hand, the Schaffer Drug Library (1) states that most indicators show alcohol consumption declined just before national prohibition began. However, by 1926, it had increased over its previous rates, leading to a rise in both crime and corruption that really strained the courts and prison systems.
There were also various newer problems; for instance, a drinking epidemic among children. The Introduction of Prohibition also triggered many drinkers into the use of other dangerous drugs such as opium, marijuana, and cocaine. This could not have taken place in the absence of the alcoholic prohibition.
In the workplace, Prohibition did not have positive effect on levels of productivity and absenteeism. American Labor Leader Andrew Furuseth spoke before Congress in 1926 and noted that just after prohibition began, there was a large change in the working population, but he also added:
“Two years afterwards I came through the same identical place, staying in Portland for about three days, and went to the very same place for the purpose of looking at the situation, and the condition was worse than it had been prior to the passage of the law” (Schaffer 1).
Prohibition did not only lead to a large loss in business revenue, it also affected the government spending. Primarily, tax revenues declined as alcohol traders closed shop or switched to underground market where the taxman could not reach them, while at the same time, production and distribution of alcohol business declined resulting to lower taxes.
In addition, as noted above, productivity and absenteeism at workplaces led to reduced income thus lower taxes to the government. In relation to government’s spending, large sums of money were spent on policy implementation and enforcement. In the perspective of its supporters, Prohibition related advantages were dependent on reduced quantity of alcohol consumption. Shortly after the ban, there were indicators that the quantity of consumption had indeed been lowered.
The iron law of Prohibition
The Eighteenth Amendment was the culmination of a long campaign by church and women’s organizations; they wanted an iron law that would keep people away from alcohol and its immoral behaviors.
Four conditions that indicate a reduction of alcohol intake: first, there must be a decrease in alcohol usage after Prohibition began. Although it was discovered that the amount of alcohol bought had declined some years before the ban, Prohibition did not exactly eliminate alcohol consumption as speakeasies became an underground sensation and gangsters ran liquor everywhere.
Secondly, although the drinking of alcohol had initially dropped, this did not hold in subsequent years as consumption eventually soared beyond its previous numbers. The annual degree of consumption had been reducing from 1910; however, it reduced greatly during the 1921 recession and shot up again after the ban in 1922. Even investment in enforcement resources showed little results such that, despite the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, alcoholic consumption levels exceeded the pre-prohibition period.
Thirdly, increase in enforcement resources were directly proportional (rather than inversely proportional, as they should have been) to alcoholic consumption. Therefore, this did not discourage consumption either.
The fourth condition is the most imperative in that, a decrease in alcohol consumption does not actually equate to a success of Prohibition. In this vein, the overall social implications of Prohibition must be analyzed.
Prohibition did not only have degenerating effects on alcoholic consumption, but also on its production and distribution, leading to unprecedented repercussions in the whole system. The most notable of those repercussions is “the iron law of Prohibition” which states that the more harsh the enforcement law, the more potent the prohibited product becomes.
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Statistics reveal that prior to Prohibition, most Americans spent equally on beer and spirits; however, during Prohibition, beer became a liability because of its expense and bulkiness leading to increased consumption of both homemade and near beer.
Hence, the alcohol dealers turned their attention to cheaper and stronger liquors (whiskey) instead of beer in order to meet the needs of the consumers. The usual beer, wine, or whiskey was more highly alcoholic by volume during Prohibition than was during either pre-Prohibition or post-Prohibition (Thornton 4).
The production standards were compromised during Prohibition, resulting in largely non-uniform quality. Moonshine production by amateurs during Prohibition resulted to products that were detrimental to human health and contained dangerous ingredients. It was also reported that during Prohibition, the death rates due to consumption of toxic illicit liquor rose (Thornton 6).
Primarily, prohibitionists looked at alcohol related deaths as those occurring from cirrhosis of the liver. However, they did not count deaths stemming from other elements of prohibition drinking such as blood poisoning, fighting, car crashes, and other seemingly unrelated issues. These resulted in public relations constraints since the deaths were not necessarily accidental, though they were considered accidental.
In the 20’s there were no restrictions on the portrayal of drinking and smoking in film. Among the youth, the product became attractive due to its associated glamour. Young people gained interest in these vices by watching their parents and seeing glamorous stars drinking in the movies.
Apart from selling to the youth, the sellers successfully built up their businesses during Prohibition by selling to people who would not otherwise drink. Moreover, most old-fashioned Americans and new immigrants were unwilling to be left out making the whole period a moment when people drank more dedicatedly than at any other time.
One large deficit to Prohibition was that it changed the distribution pattern of alcohol. It eliminated the government-overseen bars and restaurants, replacing them with many covert speakeasies. In this, Prohibition increased the availability of alcohol such that, there were many places where people could buy alcohol from during this period than there were during pre-Prohibition.
Prohibition led to the elimination of alcohol production, location, and distribution regulations. Before Prohibition, the government had rules that could help deter selling alcohol; for example, near churches and schools on weekends and holidays.
However, during Prohibition, the regulations and oversight were eliminated while speakeasies opened up and dominated various areas that were initially dry. Following Prohibition, more Americans turned to increased intake of other forms of ‘legally’ distributed alcohol such as sacramental alcohol and patent medicines.
This happened despite existence of new regulations. Although the prohibitionists’ intention was to help people change from using alcohol to using dairy products, what was witnessed was an increase in spending on both alcohol and its substitutes. Apart from alcoholic medicine, those who could not consume alcohol switched to the use of other more addictive and dangerous drugs such as marijuana, hashish, and tobacco, to mention but a few.
The harmful consequences of the iron law of Prohibition proved more hindrance than benefit, thereby resulting to greater consumption. By these standards, it was only a mirage that alcoholic consumption decreased.
Prohibition was not a healthy initiative
Both American health and hygiene did not improve during Prohibition. This is indicated by the continued stream of deaths due to cirrhosis arising from increased intake of alcohol and other dangerous alcoholic beverages during the prohibition (Thornton 8). Those deaths, however, should not stand alone as indicators, since alcohol consumption went underground.
As noted earlier, there are other important indicators of drinking as well as cirrhosis. Contrary to the expectations of the prohibitionists that drunkards should be forgotten to let the young benefit from Prohibition, the health of young people was only at its best before Prohibition. For instance, during Prohibition, most young people’s lives were swept away due to increased alcohol intake.
Whereas it is medically proven that moderate alcoholic consumption is not harmful to one’s health but rather improves it, excess drinking on the other hand has devastating consequences on one’s health (Thornton 8). What took place during Prohibition was excessive alcoholism that had no positive impact on the American people.
Therefore, if the prohibitionists were concerned about the health of the public, they could have championed for moderate alcohol intake that has more health benefits, rather than banning alcohol as a whole. As we know now, to change the behavior of the people, one must change the sensibility of the culture.
Prohibition increased crime rate
The proponents of prohibition expected it to be a solution to all social evils (Thornton 10). Early reformers were right to assert that alcoholism led to poverty, broken homes, tax burden, and suffering. In this vein, America had registered a decline in crime rate towards the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century (Thornton 10). That trend was disrupted by launching the prohibition on alcohol. Increased cases of homicide were noted during this time.
Records show that during this period, more funds were spent on police and many people were arrested for flouting prohibition regulations. Furthermore, although drunkenness and disorderly arrests increased, the rate of drinking did not decline. This meant that instead of helping to decongest prisons prohibition and its enforcement seemed to fill prisons. This in turn increased spending on police and prisons. Along with expected crimes, there were also increased cases of burglary, robbery, and murder during the prohibition period.
Prohibition raised corruption levels
Thornton points out that there was increased bribery among politicians and the police, as they dealt with the cottage industry of moonshine, speakeasies, and organized crime bosses and their families. There was also corruption inside the bureau of Prohibition itself, leading to an influx of cases in the courts regarding corruption and lessening the efficiency of the judicial system.
Prohibition was a success
To begin with, contrary to the views of many, the enforcement law was not all-embracing (Moore 6). The amendment banned the commercial production and distribution of alcoholic products; however, it did not ban both use and production of alcoholic beverages for personal consumption.
In addition, the enforcement was to be effected after one year in order to give people sufficient time to amass supplies. Secondly, Prohibition led to a decline in alcohol intake, reduction in deaths due to cirrhosis, and a reduction in admission to state hospitals for drinking psychosis.
In addition, alcoholic consumption declined leading to a drop in arrests that resulted from drunkenness and disorder (Moore 7). Thirdly, Prohibition did not contribute to organized crime because this existed before and after it. Moreover, other forms of crime did not rise dramatically during Prohibition (Moore 8). Fourth, after the repeal, there was increased alcohol intake. However, in the recent past, both thousands of motor vehicle deaths and homicides have been attributed to the use of alcohol (Moore, 10).
The modern war on drugs
Modern prohibition on drugs began in the nineteenth century due to a rise in production of both potent and habituating drugs from the medicinal industry (DuPont and Voth 3). Initially, drugs like cocaine were used for medical purposes, but later on, their use by public increased to unprecedented levels, resulting to distasteful consequences.
However, this period of carefree sale and consumption of illicit drugs ceased after the first two decades of the 20th century (DuPont and Voth 4), with several acts requiring not only labeling but also prohibition of some drugs. This led to sparing sale of habituating drugs mainly for medical rather than addictive reasons.
This move by the social contract to regulate drugs of abuse also led to great reduction of drug abuse epidemic. Moreover, the United States drug control laws were internationally recognized and their enforcement led to a decline in use of habituating drugs between 1920 and 1965 (DuPont and Voth 7).
The non-use of both dangerous and alcoholic drugs continued until the culture of the ascendant youth who incorporated drugs as part of their life style. However, the use of hard drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and the hallucinogens resumed with increased calls for their legalization under allegations that they were better in comparison to alcohol and tobacco. This led to negative effects, a situation that continued until recent calls for legalization.
Lessons in relation to the current war on drug abuse
Prohibition, which failed to reduce alcoholism in America, can be likened to the modern war against drug abuse. However, repeal of Prohibition led to a dramatic decline in many types of crime and corruption (Thornton 15). The result of this was that, not only were jobs created, but also new voluntary actions came in to help alcoholics.
In addition, the lessons on prohibition should be used to suppress the desire to prohibit. Current prohibition of alcohol and other drugs may lead to a rise in crime rate, corruption and increased use of other dangerous substances that may be a threat to people’s health. It may also lead to increased government regulation on its citizen’s lives (Thornton 15).
Prohibition was supposed to lead to reduced crimes, reduced alcohol consumption, cut in taxes and generally a boost in the moral and economic aspect. However, although some theorists claimed that alcohol consumption declined following prohibition, others claimed that the consumption was lower before prohibition, and further claiming that the actual result of prohibition was an increase in other social vices.
For instance, prohibition led to increased crime, corruption, and use of hard drugs. From another perspective, alcohol consumption per se did not decline, as people turned to underground market for cheap and illicit alcohol. Modern war on drugs has however had some impact mainly due to regulations that have set up to regulate sale of addictive drugs. In this case, due to the failure of prohibition, legalization has been incorporated in regulation to provide a viable solution to the problem of substance abuse and related vices.
America government has done a lot with regard to war against alcoholism drug use. This ranges from funding social initiatives that provide awareness on drugs to prohibition by establishment of laws through the office of National Drug Control. These efforts have not yet led to a drastic drop in the use of drugs as fighting drug use in most cases seems to attract violent war from dealers.
Neither prohibition nor legalization can end drug use as it will only aggravate drug usage, crime, death and other drug – use related consequences. The government reserves the right to protect its citizens from the adverse effects of drugs and alcoholism use. However, in regulating this, force should not be used as in prohibition.
In an attempt to regulate, two approaches are recommended. First, the government should devise policies that focused on drug harm reduction and in this way concentrate on dealers rather than users. This will allow production of drugs with reduced potency and toxic composition. Secondly, a policy permitting only doctors to prescribe drugs to addicts can be put in place.
Burham, John C. “New Perspectives on the Prohibition Experiment of the1920s.” Journal of Social History. 1968. Web.
DuPont, Robert and Voth, Eric. “Drug legalization, Harm reduction, and Drug policy.” Annals of Internal Medicine. 1995. Web.
Moore, Mark. “Institute for Behavior and Health: Actually Prohibition was a success.” The New York Times. 2009. Web.
Schaffer Library of Drug Policy “Did Alcohol Prohibition Reduce Alcohol Consumption and Crime?” Staff Writer. Web.
Thornton, Mark. “Policy Analysis: Alcohol prohibition was a failure.” Policy Analysis, No. 157. 1991. Web.