In January 1920, Prohibition came into effect, outlawing the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol in the United States. The US government fully expected that people would carry on as normal and find new ways to spend their time, but many unintended and unexpected consequences unfolded. Prohibition came to an end in December 1933, following increasing criticism from many platforms of US society.
In hindsight, it’s quite obvious that Prohibition didn’t work, and many scholars and commentators today have suggested that we learn its lessons and perhaps apply them to the much-debated drug laws of modern times.
10 Organized Crime Flourishes
It’s argued that not only did prohibition provide organized crime syndicates with a gap in the market in the 1920s, but it also increased their wealth and influence, which in turn allowed them to continue their ventures in other areas once the ban on alcohol was lifted. Prohibition essentially bankrolled organized crime’s expansion.
Those involved in organized crime were viewed as heroes by many, with some well-known gangsters having an almost celebrity status in their communities. Their frequently bloody crimes were overlooked, as they were providing hardworking people with what they wanted. Some previously law-abiding citizens even began to turn to crime syndicates for work, particularly those whose jobs in industries tied to alcohol production had become redundant. This trend only increased as the Great Depression took hold in the 1930s.
Many illegal bars and saloons were in the hands of criminal syndicates, and almost all were supplied by them. Criminal gangs would often fight among themselves over the “rights” to supply these drinking houses as well as to operate exclusively in certain areas. The results of these clashes were often bloody and resulted in a dramatic increase gang-related murders.
9 Prohibition Criminalized Everyday People
The apparent assumption that the vast majority of people would simply abstain from alcohol once Prohibition was enacted couldn’t have been more wide of the mark. It should be noted that consuming alcohol during prohibition was not illegal, nor was possession of it. The manufacturing, transportation, and sale of alcohol were. This lack of clarity led to several loopholes and gray areas, and they were exploited, unwittingly or not.
There was particular ambiguity regarding making wine at home for one’s own pleasure and enjoyment, for example. The equipment used to do so was widely and openly for sale in stores across the US, and information on how to make homemade wine was available in most public libraries. Technically, however, making wine in your own home was illegal during prohibition.
Pharmacists and religious organizations were also exempt from Prohibition due to alcohol being used as medicine and in ceremonies, respectively. Many pharmacies suddenly sprung up, often no more than a front for their real intentions, while many churches experienced a surge in membership.
Alcohol that had been purchased prior to the start of Prohibition was technically legal and allowed to be stored and consumed in a person’s home. However, carrying that alcohol from one place to another was illegal, and should a person not be able to prove the alcohol was purchased prior to prohibition, they were at risk of arrest.
8 The Rise Of Cocaine And Heroin
Cocaine was taken by people in the United States long before Prohibition came into effect, but it experienced a spike in popularity in the 1920s, particularly among the jazz scene of the time. Whether or not this was due to Prohibition or pure coincidence is unclear.
The US government was at least aware of the possibility that people who would have previously consumed alcohol would now turn their attention to harder drugs and substances. An article that appeared in The Literary Digest in April 1921 stated that the Board of Health of every state was sent a questionnaire to try to establish if there had been a rise in “narcotic and habit-forming drugs” since Prohibition came into effect.
Much like Prohibition contributed to the rise of organized crime, it also assisted in opening the door to the spread of harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin—epidemics that would sweep the US in the coming decades. With their newfound wealth and influence, crime syndicates’ reach went much further, and so did their alliances. Add to this the need to replace their source of income once prohibition was repealed in 1933, and the first steps toward what would become the big business of narcotics trading had been taken.
7 Rise In Alcohol Consumption And Alcoholism
Opinion seems to be split on whether alcohol consumption increased or decreased during the Prohibition years. The main reason for this is that illegal sales of alcohol were not declared to the government, and consequently, no accurate data was kept. Many people were also making their own alcoholic drinks at home, which, again, were not officially declared.
Even the data that is available has to be studied with certain caveats. For example, in 1925, arrests for alcohol-related crimes were at an all-time high. While this did indicate that these kinds of crimes were rising since Prohibition first began in 1920, a lot of the offenses in question were legal before the change in the law. Generally speaking, however, it did appear that problems with alcohol were worse by the mid- to late 1920s than they were the previous decade.
It’s possible that alcoholics would have been hit hardest and suffered in silence for the most part. Alcoholics were less likely to seek help for their addiction during Prohibition largely due to the sale of alcohol being illegal and instead were more likely to turn to bootleggers in the same way that drug addicts will turn to their dealers. Whether Prohibition created more alcoholics, however, is very much up for debate. Data from the time does suggest that deaths from alcohol-related illness did rise throughout the 1920s, but overall, there were less than the previous decade.
6 Long-Lasting Corruption
Part of the reason that organized crime syndicates and bootleggers were so successful in supplying their goods was the fact that they had people in their pocket; they had bribed key people in positions of power and responsibility. Some of those ties made during the 1920s lasted for years after Prohibition ended. The manner in which those ties were achieved has been replicated for generations.
Criminal organizations could have hundreds, even thousands, of people on their books. Policemen, politicians, judges, and even federal agents all played a part in the alcohol black market. There would be advance warnings of planned raids on saloons, and evidence would simply disappear. If cases did make it to court, it wasn’t unheard-of for judges to simply dismiss all the charges and throw the case out.
Corrupt officials were well-paid for their services, some of them making six-figure sums in a year. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because more and more people began to disagree with prohibition, there was no shortage of people who were willing to turn a blind eye.
5 Unsafe Homemade Alcohol
Although gallons’ worth of authentic alcoholic drinks were successfully smuggled over borders and into the United during the Prohibition years, the cheaper option was to purchase homemade beverages. Whether it was beer, wine, or hard liquor, all were made to varying degrees of success—and seemingly to varying levels of damage to the drinker’s health. Whereas home-brewed beer tended to simply taste foul and have a sludge-like appearance, homemade liquor could very well leave people paralyzed or even dead.
The US government did little to curb fatalities from drinking homemade alcohol, which was often poisonous due to the high amounts of methanol used in the beverages. In 1927, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of Prohibition Seymour M. Lowman stated that “a good job will have been done” if the “fringes” of society died off as a result of drinking “poison hooch.” In 1928, Time magazine highlighted the fact that those in charge of prohibition were turning a blind eye to such deaths when 33 people died over a period of just three days in Manhattan due to consuming homemade alcoholic drinks that contained lethal amounts of methanol.
4 Loss Of Tax Revenue
Not only did the US government lose millions of dollars in tax revenue from alcohol that would otherwise have been sold during Prohibition, but they were also hit a second time as a result of not being able to collect taxes from people no longer employed in jobs connected to alcohol production. On top of that, those people didn’t have any money to spend (and therefore put back into the US economy), and what they did spend was increasingly going to criminal organizations, dealing the US government a third hit in revenue. Also, it was estimated to have cost $40 million to implement and police Prohibition.
By the time the Great Depression hit, Prohibition was increasingly seen as a costly exercise on one hand and a missed opportunity for tax revenue on the other. There was even sentiment that the amount of money lost due to prohibition would have been much better spent on helping those with alcohol addiction instead of criminalizing them.
3 Burden On The Legal System
One of the main reasons that Prohibition ultimately failed was the pressure it placed on law enforcement, the courts, and prisons. By the time it became apparent that people would not simply abstain from alcohol as largely expected, US law enforcement was at its breaking point, the court systems were backing up, and the prisons were getting full.
As 1932 wore on, and the Depression continued to tighten its grip around the financial throat of ordinary Americans, it became clear that ending Prohibition would kill not just two, but several birds with one stone. The court systems would be cleared and money freed for more serious cases, like murder, which itself was up considerably in part due to increased gangland killings over territory rights.
Law enforcement would be freed of having to enforce the increasingly hated Prohibition, and most importantly, thousands of jobs would suddenly be made available both in breweries and once-again legal bars and establishments. Franklin D. Roosevelt made a pledge that he would end Prohibition if he were to be elected president of the United States, which he was in a landslide victory in November 1932. He made good on his promise, and Prohibition was brought to an end in December 1933.
2 Increased Division
Like many polarizing issues, the subject of Prohibition caused quite a division in US society. It wasn’t just those who liked a tipple versus teetotalers, however. As a result of World War I, there was an increasing anti-German sentiment throughout the US, which those in favor of Prohibition used to their advantage, most notably the Anti-Saloon League and various Christian movements. Not only did they state that grain should be used to make food in times of war as opposed to beer, but they insinuated that since many of the brewers were German, they were trying to corrupt and weaken Americans with their alcoholic beverages. Enjoying a drink suddenly became a moral and even a patriotic decision as much as a social one.
The Ku Klux Klan also took advantage of prohibition, stating that they were defenders of Prohibition and the need to enforce it. Although operating outside of the law, they torched many illegal saloons and considered bootleggers to be a section of society that had to be purged from existence. The KKK made toxic claims that the drinking of alcohol and the problems it caused were due to black people as well as Irish and Italian immigrants. Even as support for Prohibition decreased as the 1920s gave way to the 1930s, they continued to use such hard-line rhetoric in an attempt to keep it in place. They also formed political alliances of sorts with many hard-line Christian groups such as the Anti-Saloon League and various women’s Christian organizations.
1 General Distrust Of Authority
A long-lasting and underlying consequence of Prohibition was perhaps a general distrust of those in power—both of those who make decisions and of those who enforce them.
As the 1930s began, it became increasingly obvious to most that Prohibition had not been a good idea, nor had it been a success. Many questioned, albeit retrospectively, why it had been allowed to carry on for so long when many signs of its failure were there for all to see.
The corruption that had surfaced during this time also left a lasting impression on people, as did the question of where power really resided in the country. After all, in many cities across the US, it seemed as if criminal gangs were calling the shots as opposed to law enforcement.
Perhaps as a statement of how much they rejected Prohibition and the ideology behind it, many cities were quick to promote how many drinking establishments they had available. Chicago, a city that was seen as one of the epicenters of organized crime, had over 7,000 such venues.