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It was explosively controversial, bringing out the haters and sparking a national conversation that totally dominated the media.
And depending on who you asked, it was either a bold experiment that dared to break new ground or it was a financial disaster. An awesome idea or an epic fail. An opportunity for women to finally show their stuff, or a slap in the face to a beloved cultural institution.
No, we're not talking about the Ghostbusters remake.
We're talking about Prohibition, the period in the U.S. between 1920 and 1933 when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution made it illegal to manufacture, sell, or import "intoxicating beverages" anywhere in the U.S. Yep, that all-American pastime—drinking beer, wine, and hard liquor—was soon to be illegal. After you drank up the stuff you already owned, if you wanted to drink, you had to violate the Constitution.
Let's back up, though.
Americans have always loved them some partying.
Colonial Americans drank early and often. By 1760, there were 60+ rum distilleries in Massachusetts and 22 just in Newport, Rhode Island, alone (source). Cowboys had their saloons, rich folks had their fancy private clubs, working guys had their neighborhood bars, college students had, well, anywhere they could think of. Forget baseball—drinking was the real national pastime.
So what made Americans decide to turn off the tap?
Lots of things, it turns out. In the early 1800s, as the result of a religious revival that swept the country, social reformers and evangelical Christians decided it was time to get serious about the dangerous effects of drunkenness on society and the family. Women were tired of having their lives ruined by husbands who spent their paychecks on whiskey instead of food and rent. Temperance societies sprung up around the country, preaching—wait for it—temperance (moderation) in the use of alcohol. Alcoholism came to be seen as a major public health issue.
The Temperance Movement was a mad success. In 1851, Maine went "dry," followed soon after by twelve other states. Prohibitionists formed the ultimate single-issue political party, The Prohibition Party; a politician was either "wet" or "dry," and it had absolutely nothing to do with how recently they'd gotten out of the bathtub.
Except for a brief intermission for the Civil War, the Prohibition movement gained steam through the turn of the century thanks to a coalition of different groups that all hated alcohol for their own reasons. Women saw Prohibition as part of the march of social progress that included universal suffrage and equal access to education and the professions. Industrialists like Henry Ford thought that a sober workforce might be more productive. Colleges saw the benefits of non-hungover students. Even the KKK and the Communists came out in favor of Prohibition.
Starting with local and state governments, the politically savvy Anti-Saloon League threw the support of its voting bloc behind dry candidates. More states went dry. The League decided to go big: no less than a Constitutional amendment to smack down demon rum once and for all.
The final piece of the puzzle dropped into place in 1913 with the passage of the 16th Amendment creating a federal income tax. Up until then, 40% of federal revenue came from liquor taxes. (Did we mention Americans loved to drink?) With the new tax, Prohibition wouldn't break the bank.
A Prohibition resolution was put before Congress and passed. By the beginning of 1919, the required number of states ratified the shiny new 18th Amendment. Then everyone stopped drinking and the country entered a new golden age.
Problem was, Prohibition was impossible to enforce. One Detroit newspaperman said, "It was absolutely impossible to get a drink...unless you walked at least ten feet and told the busy bartender what you wanted in a voice loud enough for him to hear you above the uproar" (source).
Making alcohol illegal gave criminal groups an instantly valuable product that could make them, like, all the cash. Gangsters like Al Capone made a fortune manufacturing, importing, and selling liquor. With all that money on the line, gang violence escalated to insane levels, and law enforcement either couldn't keep up or were in the pockets of the gangs and looked the other way.
By the late-1920s, public sentiment turned against Prohibition. The stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression didn't help. People had to deal with the misery of financial ruin without the help of the occasional beer, and all those alcohol tax dollars started looking pretty good to a panicked government.
In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned at least partially on a platform of repealing the 18th Amendment. By early 1933, the 21st Amendment was on the table, and its only job was getting rid of the 18th. When Utah became the 36th state to ratify the Amendment (giving Congress the required 3/4 of states), what President Herbert Hoover had called the "noble experiment" with Prohibition was over.
And FDR? He celebrated.
With a martini.
"What Colorado and other states have already done is generating revenue, creating jobs and reducing crime, so it's not surprising that voters in more places are eager to end prohibition," said Tom Angell.
Wait. Wasn't Prohibition already repealed?
Oh, we get it. Dude's talking about weed.
After the election of 2016, 29 states had laws allowing medical marijuana use, and, as TIME magazine put it, "roughly one-fifth of the population lives in a place where adults 21 and older can legally consume weed for fun."
Shmoopers, it's gonna be up to you to make the nation's drug laws. To legalize or not to legalize? That is the question. Is there anything to be learned from Prohibition?
Everybody knows that Prohibition was a total failure. Or was it?
Actually, Prohibition really did reduce drinking dramatically. Sure, people still drank, and lots of what they drank was dangerous homemade stuff. But even though rates of alcohol use gradually rose starting in the mid-1920s, they didn't reach pre-Prohibition levels until decades after repeal. Deaths from cirrhosis of the liver plummeted during Prohibition, as did psych hospital admissions for alcohol-related problems. Ditto arrests for drunkenness (source).
The Temperance Movement succeeded in getting alcohol to be viewed as a public health problem, and that's still how it's seen today. Prohibition even survived the soaking-wet Jazz Age, and people still elected Herbert Hoover, the "dry" candidate who called Prohibition "a noble experiment," as President in 1928 over the anti-Prohibition Al Smith. Public drunkenness became generally less acceptable—and still is. Lots of states kept their own prohibition laws on the books even after the 21st Amendment was ratified.
Something must have been working.
The real reason for the failure of Prohibition, according to some scholars, wasn't that it couldn't stop people from drinking—to a certain extent, it did. Or that organized crime was out of control—it was there after Prohibition and had sure been there before. Didn't everyone see The Godfather II, for Pete's sake?
According to these guys, it was an economic issue—the Depression—that hammered the last nail in the Prohibition coffin. Prohibition had destroyed an entire industry, and people needed jobs. A panicked government needed the tax revenues. It was those external factors that led to the repeal, not that the policy wasn't doing its job. People who were determined to drink could still find a way to do it…but there was less of it.
So what does this all mean for the legalization of pot? Lots of people think that the "War on Drugs," which has been going on for almost half a century, is as big a failure as Prohibition seemed to be. Crime, jails crowded with nonviolent drug offenders (mostly men of color), neighborhoods destroyed, violent drug cartels—pro-legalization advocates believe these have all been the result of opposing a legal, taxed, appropriately regulated marijuana trade.
On the other hand, social scientists know from studies of alcohol use that if you make alcohol harder to get, drinking rates go down. When alcohol is more expensive, or the number of retail sellers or their hours of operation are restricted, or bars and fraternities enforce underage drinking laws, guess what? People drink less (source). So if adults can just walk into their friendly Boulder neighborhood pot shop, will that translate into more Rocky Mountain highs for teens?
Some surveys have said yes, by a lot, plus marijuana-related traffic fatalities and hospital admissions are up, too. Others have found that rates increased somewhat for teens or not much at all. (Colorado legalized recreational use in 2012, so there's not a ton of data yet.)
On the other hand (and you need way more than two hands in the weed debate), your street-corner or high school locker room dealer doesn't care how old you are, but a legal dispensary is going to ask for ID. And legal sellers aren't going to put dangerous stuff into their weed or sell you fake stuff—they could lose their licenses.
In the first 10 months of 2016, Coloradans spent $1.1 billion on medical and recreational marijuana, an increase of 30% from 2015. That put about $150 million of tax revenue into the state's coffers, including $50 million for building schools (source). That kind of money is hard for states to give up, regardless of how you feel about recreational pot.
It's déjà vu all over again. And if we've learned anything from the Prohibition/Repeal story, it's going to be very, very complicated.
Just your basic overview of the whole thing.
Some of the More...Colorful Folks
Prohibition was the age of gangsters, and here they are. Just don't be like them.
Vintage Mob Mug Shots
For your aesthetic appreciation.
Lots of people like the streamlined-yet-glamorous look of the '20s.
Eliot Ness and his squad of incorruptible Treasury Agents go up against gangster Al Capone. Has an incredible cast and crew, and this is where Sean "James Bond" Connery won his Oscar. Just don't look here for historical accuracy.
Prohibition gets the HBO prestige drama treatment. Not as good as some of the network's other offerings, but still worth a look. It plays fast and loose with the big parts of history, but gets a lot of the period details spot on.
Prohibition by Ken Burns
You know, if you have a spare five and a half hours.
A Revisionist Take
Sure, the author thinks it was a failure, but she goes a bit further than that.
A Really Revisionist Take
This author says it worked, and he's a professor at Harvard.
Prohibition and the Mafia
The most visible of the people who benefited from Prohibition.
3 Ways Prohibition Shaped America
The How Stuff Works people talk about Prohibition.
Five most fascinating facts.
FDR approves the liquor code
Don't worry about your computer's sound; it's supposed to be silent.
"Knockin' a Jug" by Louis Armstrong
The great jazz trumpeter performs a Prohibition-era standard.
Warren G. Harding speech
The future president (at the time) gives a speech.
"Happy Days Are Here Again"
This ditty was the unofficial song of the FDR campaign. You can't blame lots of folks for thinking it referred to the imminent repeal of Prohibition.
The man behind Prohibition.
The Volstead Act's namesake. Check out the 'stache.
...and her hatchet. She didn't want you to drink. Really didn't.
A 1919 cartoon from Life magazine about how everyone in the U.S. would leave the country if they decided to ban other delicious stuff. That's just silly. Who would ban supersized sodas or transfats? Oh.
Apparently Prohibition cops would do anything.
Going Out of Business Sale
People flocked to liquor stores (this one's in Detroit) on the last day before Prohibition.
Ocean's Eleven Hundred
Federal agents confiscate hundreds of cases of whiskey from a "rum runner" boat.
Disposing of Illegal Liquor
It had to go somewhere...
This is how popular Prohibition was in the late 19th century. We really hope there were cosplayers in there somewhere.
He Fought the Law and the Law Won
The driver tried to run from the law. Didn't work out.