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 What lessons might we draw from Prohibition, which was repealed in 1933 with the passage of the 21st Amendment?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.