Reason.com reviews a new book about the Prohibition and its implications for ending the war on drugs. It sounds like a fascinating read and reveals to me how little I knew about that period.
The real puzzle, as the journalist Daniel Okrent argues in his masterful new history of the period, is how a nation that never had a teetotaling majority, let alone one committed to forcibly imposing its lifestyle on others, embarked upon such a doomed experiment to begin with. How did a country consisting mostly of drinkers agree to forbid drinking?
The short answer is that it didn’t. As a reveler accurately protests during a Treasury Department raid on a private banquet in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, neither the 18th Amendment nor the Volstead Act, which implemented it, prohibited mere possession or consumption of alcohol. The amendment took effect a full year after ratification, and those who could afford it were free in the meantime to stock up on wine and liquor, which they were permitted to consume until the supplies ran out. The law also included exceptions that were important for those without well-stocked wine cellars or the means to buy the entire inventory of a liquor store (as the actress Mary Pickford did). Home production of cider, beer, and wine was permitted, as was commercial production of alcohol for religious, medicinal, and industrial use (three loopholes that were widely abused). In these respects Prohibition was much less onerous than our current drug laws. Indeed, the legal situation was akin to what today would be called “decriminalization” or even a form of “legalization.”
...As Prohibition wore on, its unintended consequences provided the fire that wets had lacked before it was enacted. They were appalled by rampant corruption, black market violence, newly empowered criminals, invasions of privacy, and deaths linked to alcohol poisoned under government order to discourage diversion (a policy that Sen. Edward Edwards of New Jersey denounced as “legalized murder”). These burdens seemed all the more intolerable because Prohibition was so conspicuously ineffective. As a common saying of the time put it, the drys had their law and the wets had their liquor, thanks to myriad quasi-legal and illicit businesses that Okrent colorfully describes.
Entrepreneurs taking advantage of legal loopholes included operators of “booze cruises” to international waters, travel agents selling trips to Cuba (which became a popular tourist destination on the strength of its proximity and wetness), “medicinal” alcohol distributors whose brochures (“for physician permittees only”) resembled bar menus, priests and rabbis who obtained allegedly sacramental wine for their congregations (which grew dramatically after Prohibition was enacted), breweries that turned to selling “malt syrup” for home beer production, vintners who delivered fermentable juice directly into San Francisco cellars through chutes connected to grape-crushing trucks, and the marketers of the Vino-Sano Grape Brick, which “came in a printed wrapper instructing the purchaser to add water to make grape juice, but to be sure not to add yeast or sugar, or leave it in a dark place, or let it sit too long before drinking it because ‘it might ferment and become wine.’ ” The outright lawbreakers included speakeasy proprietors such as the Stork Club’s Sherman Billings-ley, gangsters such as Al Capone, rum runners such as Bill McCoy, and big-time bootleggers such as Sam Bronfman, the Canadian distiller who made a fortune shipping illicit liquor to thirsty Americans under the cover of false paperwork. Their stories, as related by Okrent, are illuminating as well as engaging, vividly showing how prohibition warps everything it touches, transforming ordinary business transactions into tales of intrigue.
The reviewer then considers whether the actions of the anti-prohibitionists - at practical and political levels - could today be emulated to end today's prohibition of drugs;
Another barrier to emulating the antiprohibitionists of the 1920s is that none of the currently banned drugs is (or ever was) as widely consumed in this country as alcohol. That fact is crucial in understanding the contrast between the outrage that led to the repeal of alcohol prohibition and Americans’ general indifference to the damage done by the war on drugs today. The illegal drug that comes closest to alcohol in popularity is marijuana, which survey data indicate most Americans born after World War II have at least tried. That experience is reflected in rising public support for legalizing marijuana, which hit a record 46 percent in a nationwide Gallup poll conducted the week before Proposition 19 was defeated.
A third problem for today’s antiprohibitionists is the deep roots of the status quo. Alcohol prohibition came and went in 14 years, which made it easy to distinguish between the bad effects of drinking and the bad effects of trying to stop it. By contrast, the government has been waging war on cocaine and opiates since 1914 and on marijuana since 1937 (initially under the guise of enforcing revenue measures). Few people living today have clear memories of a different legal regime. That is one reason why histories like Okrent’s, which bring to life a period when booze was banned but pot was not, are so valuable.
Reflecting on the long-term impact of the vain attempt to get between Americans and their liquor, Okrent writes: “In 1920 could anyone have believed that the Eighteenth Amendment, ostensibly addressing the single subject of intoxicating beverages, would set off an avalanche of change in areas as diverse as international trade, speedboat design, tourism practices, soft-drink marketing, and the English language itself? Or that it would provoke the establishment of the first nationwide criminal syndicate, the idea of home dinner parties, the deep engagement of women in political issues other than suffrage, and the creation of Las Vegas?” Nearly a century after the war on other drugs was launched, Americans are only beginning to recognize its far-reaching consequences, most of which are considerably less fun than a dinner party or a trip to Vegas.
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