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When Booze Was Banned But Pot Was Not

What can today’s crusaders against prohibition learn from their predecessors who ended the alcohol ban?

Reviewed: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent, Scribner, 468 pages, $30

Of the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the 18th is the only one explicitly aimed at restricting people’s freedom. It is also the only one that has ever been repealed. Maybe that’s encouraging, especially for those of us who recognize the parallels between that amendment, which ushered in the nationwide prohibition of alcohol, and current bans on other drugs.

But given the manifest failure and unpleasant side effects of Prohibition, its elimination after 14 years is not terribly surprising, despite the arduous process required to undo a constitutional amendment. 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.”

After Prohibition took effect, Okrent shows, attempts to punish bootleggers with anything more than a slap on the wrist provoked public outrage and invited jury nullification. One can imagine what would have happened if the Anti-Saloon League and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union had demanded a legal regime in which possessing, say, five milliliters of whiskey triggered a mandatory five-year prison sentence (as possessing five grams of crack cocaine did until recently). The lack of penalties for consumption helped reassure drinkers who voted for Prohibition as legislators and supported it (or did not vigorously resist it) as citizens. Some of these “dry wets” sincerely believed that the barriers to drinking erected by Prohibition, while unnecessary for moderate imbibers like themselves, would save working-class saloon patrons from their own excesses. Pauline Morton Sabin, the well-heeled, martini-drinking Republican activist who went from supporting the 18th Amendment to heading the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, one of the most influential pro-repeal groups, apparently had such an attitude.

In addition to paternalism, the longstanding American ambivalence toward pleasure in general and alcohol-fueled pleasure in particular helped pave the way to Prohibition. The Puritans were not dour teetotalers, but they were anxious about excess, and a similar discomfort may have discouraged drinkers from actively resisting dry demands. But by far the most important factor, Okrent persuasively argues, was the political maneuvering of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) and its master strategist, Wayne Wheeler, who turned a minority position into the supreme law of the land by mobilizing a highly motivated bloc of swing voters.

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