Did We Learn Anything from Alcohol Prohibition?

By David Jenison

Did We Learn Anything from Alcohol Prohibition?

In three years, America will reach the centennial anniversary of alcohol prohibition, a 13-year clusterfuck that increased organized crime, government spending, mass incarcerations, social injustice and bootleg-related deaths. Restaurants unable to support themselves with alcohol sales closed in droves, and unemployment skyrocketed as distillers, truck drivers, barrel makers, service staff and other related professions met with prohibition-driven pink slips. The “great social and economic experiment” was good neither for society nor the economy.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution—which took effect January 20, 1920—banned the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol and put enforcement in the hands of the Federal Prohibition Bureau. The law did reduce availability in the first few years, but the demand only grew, and it made bootlegging a highly profitable endeavor. Prohibition enriched and empowered criminal empires with violent gangsters like Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, “Lucky” Luciano, “Nucky” Johnson and Bugsy Siegel whose names remain famous to this day.

Organized crime kept alcohol on the street, and New York City (NYC) alone had an estimated 30,000 speakeasies at its peak. This meant a massive loss of tax revenue and increased spending as the government dumped huge sums into law enforcement and prisons. At the same time, prohibition increased fatality rates associated with alcohol. Bootlegging meant more bloodshed on the street, but it also meant the unregulated production of alcohol that was often less safe to consume. Likewise, prohibition led to increased binge drinking, which in turn led to a dramatic increase in alcohol poisoning.

Still, if some prohibitionists had their way, even more people would have been killed or harmed as a consequence of alcohol use. According to the 1962 book Prohibition: The Era of Excess, suggested punishments for alcohol offenders included torture, lashings, sterilization, death, concentration camps, brandings, being forced to drink castor oil, public imprisonment in glass bottles and even being hung by one’s own tongue.

Despite the push for harsh penalties, much of the nation willingly became outlaws by continuing to drink. In turn, the prohibitionists kept amping up and pumping out the propaganda. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) actively promoted the “scientific fact” that most beer drinkers die from edema or swelling, while so-called scholars produced a new version of the Bible that removed all references to alcohol. The propaganda even made its way into the classroom as prohibitionists insisted that school books only describe alcohol as poison with no mention of its medical uses. And it gets worse.

Slate.com published a story in 2010 that showed just how far the prohibitionists were apparently willing to go. “The Chemist’s War” described how the federal government “ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols… regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits.” The idea was to deter lawbreakers by increasing alcohol-consumption risks, and if lawbreakers died because of it, some argued they got what they deserved. Indeed, the so-called “chemist’s war” added another 10,000 fatalities to prohibition’s kill list.

A Chicago Tribune editorial criticized the poisoning in 1927 saying, “It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified,” while Omaha Bee in Nebraska asked, "Must Uncle Sam guarantee safety first for souses?" NYC’s chief medical examiner Charles Norris summed it up best as “Our national experiment in extermination.”

By 1933, the legacy of prohibition was police and political corruption, massive gangland violence, increased spending, decreased tax revenue and a financial boon for grave diggers. Absent from this legacy was an end to large-scale alcohol consumption. That same year, Congress passed the Twenty-First Amendment ending alcohol prohibition on a national level, though many cities and counties continue to prohibit alcohol to this day (as the following chart shows).

As part of its massive expenditure on prohibition, the government hired countless agents at the Federal Prohibition Bureau and elsewhere. What happened to these people when prohibition ended? Many joined the newly formed Bureau of Narcotics, helmed by alcohol prohibitionist Harry "The Orangutan" Anslinger, who quickly turned his focus to cannabis.

“In 1933, you find the end of prohibition, and alcohol becomes legal nationally once again,” said University of Kansas professor Dr. Barney Warf in an interview with PRØHBTD. “That's when the ‘elite-engineered’ moral panic begins because Harry Anslinger said to himself and to his buddies, ‘Oh, my God. We're going to be out of a job and lose our budget’ because their job was to control alcohol. So they began this very conscientious campaign to demonize cannabis. They had a variety of allies working on their behalf. The Hearst newspaper chain in California, which engaged in sordid yellow journalism, helped them out. Hollywood helped them out. That's when you start getting movies like Reefer Madness. All of this culminates in the Stamp Act of 1937, which essentially makes marijuana illegal. You had to buy a stamp in order to sell it, and the stamps were impossible to find. Then they would have hearings in Congress and in state legislatures where you would get a doctor to come up—someone who had never seen cannabis in their life—and say, ‘Well, I heard some Mexican guy smoked weed and then he killed his family with an ax.’ It was just a little hearsay, but that was good enough, and they passed a law saying now it's illegal.”

Understanding the damage caused by alcohol prohibition provides insight into the counter-productive and socially destructive effects that flow from the ongoing cannabis prohibition. Thanks to the Bureau of Narcotics (which later became the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA), the United States quickly shifted from alcohol to cannabis prohibition, and the results were unsurprisingly similar: international drug cartels, increased government spending, lost tax revenue, baseless propaganda, gang-related street violence and little effect on usage rates. And the damage ran deep.

Prosecuting non-violent cannabis offenders caused a significant and sustained spike in the prison population, and employment opportunities are more scarce for people who served time, leading to greater reliance on government-funded social services. Furthermore, law enforcement itself primarily targeted minorities and low-income individuals, adding new layers of racism and classism to legislation that was already inherently discriminatory. Though no one suggested hanging cannabis users from their tongues, mandatory minimum sentences meant several non-violent offenders are still serving life sentences.

Likewise, the same propagandists that vilified alcohol launched a hysteria-driven disinformation campaign, originally saying the plant turned people into murderers, rapists and lunatics. When the public finally saw through the reefer madness, Anslinger shifted to the stepping-stone theory telling Congress that more than half of cannabis users quickly started injecting heroin. Though widely discredited, this propaganda tool lives on today as the gateway drug theory.

From calculated propaganda to packed prisons, cannabis prohibition recalls the Chicago Tribune quote that no one dares justify such barbarism outside the “curious fanaticism of Prohibition.”

The similarities between alcohol and cannabis prohibition are many, but cannabis differs in regard to its historic and widespread medical use. Millennia before recreational use caught on, cannabis was used medicinally around the world, including in the United States. Medical cannabis appeared in the oldest-known pharmacopeia nearly 5,000 years ago, and clinical studies today continue to reaffirm the plant’s medical value and discover new ways it can complement modern treatments. In fact, members of the medical community were among the biggest opponents to its prohibition throughout history.

When Anslinger testified in Congress to criminalize cannabis in 1937, the American Medical Association argued against it. When Anslinger testified again in 1951 to push for mandatory minimum sentences, the U.S. Addiction Research Center argued against it. When Nixon sought to reaffirm the ban after the Supreme Court declared the Tax Act unconstitutional, he commissioned a panel of doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists and politicians to provide justification for prohibition. Instead, the commission came back and argued against it. According to a 2014 survey by WebMD, the majority of doctors today support the legalization of medical cannabis, including 82 percent of oncologists and hematologists.

In prohibiting even medical cannabis, the government hurts Americans by limiting a medical resource that can help treat disorders, ease neuropathic pain and—as noted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 2015—help cancer patients. Paradoxically, the federal government has legal patents on medical uses of cannabis, yet it enforces full-scale prohibition based on it linchpin argument that cannabis has no medical value.

According to a Gallup Poll in 2015, a minority 40 percent of America favors the continued prohibition of recreational cannabis. A 2014 CNN survey found that 20 percent of America also favors a return to full-scale alcohol prohibition, and this same group likely makes up half the people opposing cannabis. While their minds might never change, the other 20 percent could be more open to legal cannabis if government officials, DEA drug warriors and money-hungry lobbyists stopped force-feeding discredited Anslinger-era propaganda down the public’s throats.

As with alcohol, cannabis prohibition harms the country, and even if there was a valid reason to reduce adult-usage rates, it even fails to do that. America only needed 13 years to see that alcohol prohibition was a disaster, yet cannabis prohibition is going on 80. If we learned anything from the alcohol debacle, it should be that old-man prohibition needs to retire.

Photo credit: Orange County Archives/Flickr.

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