Drug Policy

3 Lessons from Prohibition, Which Started Today in 1919

The 18th Amendment was ratified, extending an existing ban on liquor passed during World War I.



On January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment became law when five state legislatures (North Carolina, Utah, Nebraska, Missouri, and Wyoming) passed it. In the end, 46 of 48 states passed it, with only Connecticut and Rhode Island voting it down. The text of the amendment set into motion what became known as Prohibition:

Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

Here we are, almost 100 years later and marijuana legalization is proceeding apace, despite the efforts of the current attorney general. What lessons might we draw from Prohibition, which was repealed in 1933 with the passage of the 21st Amendment? They are many, for sure, but here are three quick takeaways worth pondering:

  1. The government gets what the government wants. Booze was already pretty much banned before the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act (which was the law implementing Prohibition). The Wartime Prohibition Act of 1918, which banned making and selling drinks with a kick higher than 1.28 percent alcohol by volume, had been sold as a national-security measure to save grain needed to feed troops during World War I, went into effect on November 18, 1918. Note the date, by the way, which was a week after World War I ended, suggesting a slightly different lesson: The government isn't always honest about its aims. Prohibition was politically popular enough to pass a constitutional amendment. As with a lot of the rhetoric surrounding today's war on drugs, Prohibition fed off fears of foreigners, especially Catholics from southern and central Europe who had been flooding U.S. cities for decades. That beer and wine were closely associated with German Americans, relatives of our enemy in World War I, made it easier to paint drinking culture in general as un-American.

  2. Wikimedia

    Prohibition was enforced very differently, depending on who you were and where you lived. One of the great insights of Harvard historian Lisa McGirr's excellent The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (2015) is to show that despite being the law of the land, Prohibition took vastly different forms. The state government of New York, for instance, told the feds that it didn't have the manpower to police bootlegging and speakeasies. If Washington wanted to enforce the law, they were going to have to do it themselves (as McGirr documents, Prohibition massively goosed federal law enforcement efforts, including incarceration on a mass scale; she argues convincingly that Prohibition helped create many aspects of modern federal governance). But in other areas, such as North Carolina and Virginia, Prohibition was strictly enforced at the state and local level, especially when the malefactors were immigrants, women, and blacks. If that sounds a lot like the drug war, well, it should. "The war on alcohol and the war on drugs were symbiotic campaigns," she told me in a Reason TV interview. "Those two campaigns emerged together, [and] they had the same shared…logic. Many of the same individuals were involved in both campaigns." The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was established in 1930 and employed many of the same people who worked in the Federal Bureau of Prohibition.

  3. Popular opinion—and the need for tax revenue—can overcome almost anything. If Prohibition enjoyed broad support at its start, it quickly became apparent that the costs outweighed the benefits (which did include a significant decrease in the total amount of alcohol consumed and incidence of cirrhosis of the liver). The law was not only enforced erratically and unfairly, it created the precondition that allowed criminals to corrupt law enforcement and to make huge profits via black markets. More important, it force crime to, well, become organized in order to facilitate smuggling and transport of verboten goods to every market that wanted them. The Gallo brothers out in California supplied Al Capone in Chicago with wine concentrate, for instance, and New York gangsters started reaching out to Canadians and beer barons in Cincinnati and elsewhere. Public opinion turned against Prohibition and some of its leading advocates became its biggest opponents. As important, once the Great Depression hit, the federal government desperately wanted revenue and excise taxes on booze had always been a strong source of income. As Daniel Okrent, author of the essential history Last Call, told Reason, D.C.'s need for cash helped to make Prohibition not just possible, but desirable.

In today's America, of course, beer, wine, and alcohol are legal, and even recreational marijuana is cool in eight states and the District of Columbia. Legalization efforts have wisely focused on many of the same arguments that brought down Prohibition. Currently, 61 percent of Americans think pot should be treated the same as alcohol. That's up from just 31 percent in 2000, suggesting escape velocity has been reached. All this makes sense, as nearly half of all Americans have tried an illegal drug and while pot smoking among younger people is nowhere near its high point in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it's less controversial than it ever has been. As important, since 1969 (when just 12 percent of us thought pot should be legal), virtually all of us use a wide variety of legal, illegal, and prescription drugs to manage our moods, productivity, and pain in ways that were unimaginable 40 years ago. Which bodes well for legalization of other currently "illicit" (the government's preferred term for pharmaceuticals it arbitrarily makes illegal) drugs. But even if parts of the drug war are ending, there is still no real peace treaty that's been signed, much less a reparations plan for all those people whose lives were sacrificed in the pursuit of keeping consenting adults from doing business with each other. Until all that happens, we will do well to recall Prohibition as a dark chapter in our history and draw its lessons out into contemporary debates.

Related: "Government Almost Killed the Cocktail," by Peter Suderman.

NEXT: A.M. Links: Steve Bannon to Appear Before House Intelligence Committee, Senate Democrats Aim to Restore Net Neutrality, Norway's Parliament Votes to Decriminalize All Drugs

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  1. Pot should be treated the same as alcohol and cigarettes. That so many ninnies who lose their shit over cigarettes are cool with pot smoke is a bit odd to me. It’s not like pot smells good and it’s not all of the problems of tobacco are somehow absent in pot.

    1. We could always try treating alcohol, marijuana and tobacco like food items. See how that works out.

      1. Well, in some sense we already treat tobacco like we treat at least some food items: We subsidize it.

        Yep; it is official government policy goal, funded by taxpayer money, that the tobacco business be destroyed, and that it be promoted. This was one of the first things that started opening up this rock-ribbed market-socialist’s eyes.

      2. We could always try treating alcohol, marijuana and tobacco like clothing.

        On the body, in the body — what’s the diff?

    2. Pot doesn’t smell good? TO each his own, I guess.

      I love the smell of pot. And tobacco too, I guess (as long as it’s not cheap cigarettes). Even before I smoked, I liked the smell of pipe tobacco and cigars.

      I agree that it’s pretty odd that some people who will freak out about second hand tobacco smoke don’t mind pot smoke.

      1. There’s no accounting for different peoples’ tastes. Most of the people who use pot that I know think it smells great. Personally, the smell of it makes me want to retch so I avoid even being around people using it like the plague. Cigarettes smell disgusting to me too. But pipe tobacco… that smells wonderful to me.

        Definitely weird that people who freak out about secondhand smoke don’t think about pot that way. I have always thought that is probably just people projecting their fear of tobacco and cancer onto the secondhand smoke, while pot doesn’t have that stigma.

        1. No, I’m pretty sure it’s culture war for those who hold that complex of opinions. Consider how some of them extend it to nicotine vape or even non-nic vape.

    3. ……………I just started 7 weeks ago and I’ve gotten 2 check for a total of $2,000…this is the best decision I made in a long time! “Thank you for giving me this extraordinary opportunity to make extra money from home.
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    4. For a reason that still escapes scientists marijuana smoke does NOT cause many of the problems present in tobacco smoke. Even among chronic MJ smokers there is no increase in the risk of lung cancer compared to a non-smoking adult. The damage caused by cigarette smoke is very real, you immediately make a huge jump in lung disease risk and risk in a variety of cancers. I’d much rather my son and grandsons smoke marijuana (when they are legal) than cigarettes.
      Regarding the pot smell — do you realize that smell of the pot varies greatly. Diesel, citrus, blueberry, etc are just a few of the smells that are available. It is one of the components that MJ growers breed for. CBD and THC levels along with other agents are bred to provide different affects ranging from pain relief, anxiety relief, provide an uplifting mood, PTSD, etc. You can get CBD variants that provide no high. There is a reason so many veterans are clamoring for the VA to be more accepting of marijuana, and no we aren’t all wanting to just get high.

      1. Probably because pot smoke’s irritating enough that the epithelia clear out the soot faster. Less smoke is taken in on a daily basis, & of that it’s mostly taken in brief periods of concentrated inhalation, so the breathing passages are on guard. It’d be the same if people smoked cigars the way they do cigarets.

        1. That’s the reason cigarets became so dangerous. They were made mild & tolerable to smoke a lot of around the clock. The Indians smoked tobacco as a strong intoxicant.

        2. THC kills cancer.

      2. Tobacco seeks out and concentrates Polonium 210 from the soil. Its radiological properties are kind of like those of Strontium 90. Tobacco commercials never mention that…

        1. I would be seriously skeptical of anything like this said about tobacco in the last, say, forty years. As I recall, it was in the late 1970’s that it became fairly clear that a stubborn remnant of the population wasn’t going to quit. It was also about that time that a handful of studies strongly suggest that the procedure of shaving the rats used in cancer testing and painting them with distilled water caused results strikingly similar to the ones that lead to a great many compounds being declared carcinogenic…which seemed to prove that the procedure of such experiments caused cancer in rats. It was certainly about that time that I started to notice pronouncements about tobacco and smoking that were very similar to some of the less credible charges made about alcohol during the heyday of the Anti-Saloon League.

          Is it true? Certainly some common foodstuffs concentrate certain poisons, and even radiative elements. Is it significant? So long as the Anti-Smoking Crusade continues in full cry, I son’t think there’s going to be any way to tell.

      3. The VA was the first federal bureaucracy the Reagan-Bush White Terror forced to piss into Dixie cups or be fired in the fall of 1987.

    5. You can eat cannabis.

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  2. I fucking want that poster. That is about the coolest fucking poster I’ve ever seen. I want that shit blown up on half my wall. If the blacks can collect mammies as a hobby, surely a Catholic immigrant Latino Zionist ex-bartender can collect shit like this.

    1. Right? I mean, the fist is wearing a KKK hood.

    2. reparations plan

      Is ‘take it case by case’ a plan? Otherwise, I’m having trouble coming up with a plan that doesn’t explicitly violate some libertarian convictions about governments paving over history and taking money from people who didn’t do anything wrong in order to make its mistakes go away.

      1. Whoops, threading fail.

  3. I’ve only been to Colorado, but I can say legalization has definitely improved the product in that State. Which is to say that quality was already good and getting better (they weren’t smoking bathtub gin before it was legalized), but the shit in Colorado is significantly better than any shit I ever saw in Amsterdam.


  4. The biggest lesson of Prohibition relevant for today is this: In 1919 its proponents felt the need for a constitutional amendment. The idea of such an amendment today is more laughable in that respect than it is in our shifted attitudes toward alcohol. (And as for us retreating from “the prohibitionist mentality,” that is the most laughable notion of all.)

    1. But note that they hadn’t needed it to get federal legislation enacted. They thought they had a temporary advantage they could press politically to make it harder to repeal, by amending the US Const. to require prohib’n.

    2. They had to coerce the entire country because whenever bigots got county or statewide prohibition, neighbors on all sides made some extra to sell them at 4x the price. Eventually they collapsed in poverty until repeal candidates could be found to get rid of the law.

  5. In today’s America, of course, beer, wine, and alcohol are legal, and even recreational marijuana is cool in eight states and the District of Columbia.

    Trust me, you stoners only think you are cool. You’re still a bunch of losers.

    1. I don’t know man; Linc Chafee said he smoked mad weed back in his day, are you going to tell me he’s “not cool” or a “loser”?

    2. So over 60% of the country, a number of Presidents, countless legislators …. are all uncool losers?

    3. Yes. It’s not like a stoner will ever be President or anyth…wait a minute…

      1. Ah! Comprehension dawns… Warren Gamaliel Harding was indeedy a hepcat doper. He even called the stuff dope in correspondence with buddies!

    4. Anybody who says Willie Nelson is a looser is not going to be respected.

  6. Considering my experience last yr. making apple wine & mead?both good, & so easy w common household materials used for non-alcohol beverages & baking?it amazes to me that the prohib’n did so much to build a black market. Seems to me anyone for whom wine was enough, unless they were very heavy drinkers, could easily have made all they wanted at home.

    1. That was the whole point. Corn sugar, syrup and Budweiser canned malt mix sold everywhere. Fleischmann’s Yeast had about a 94% market share. They and the Glucose Trust made out like bandits when U-boats made sugar imports scarce. Soon they could buy enough politicians to realize the Prohibition Party dream of universal coercion to ban trade and production while cottage home-made slipped thru the cracks. But selfish technologists began converting trainloads of corn sugar using refinery-scale continuous stills. The Crash came as the feds closed in on many such operations. Those indicted, including Fleischmann’s and Corn Products refining, had money enough to buy the politicians it would take to keep them out of the slammer–had FDR deigned to play along. Prohibition enforcement caused the depression. The Crash was simply the leper’s bell of the approaching looter.

  7. After the Supreme Court copied the pro-choice LP plank into Roe v. Wade, the Prohibition Party added to its 1976 platform: “We support a Constitutional Amendment to protect the unborn by prohibiting abortion…” The Republican Party copied that plank into its platform the very same year–and has repeated the demand every single election since that time. The Republican Party is STILL sold on the idea that if it fails to pander to the Prohibitionists, Prohi spoiler votes will cost them the election!

  8. If only the headline was three lessons LEARNED — — — —

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