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Ten legacies of Prohibition

The end of Prohibition was perhaps the biggest political reversal in American history. The passage of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that repealed Prohibition in 1933 showed how deeply dissatisfied the country was after nearly fourteen years without the right to legally purchase liquor without a doctor’s prescription.

Even committed Prohibitionists lost faith amid Mob-run bootlegging, rampant crime and open disregard for the law by drinkers. The Great Depression that began in 1929 caused waves of unemployment, federal tax revenue plunged and the government anxiously looked for a new source of revenue. A new windfall of federal tax money from legal liquor sales would do nicely.

The new pro-repeal president, Franklin Roosevelt, on March 13, 1933, urged Congress to do away with Prohibition. Congress acted quickly. Ten days later, Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act that legalized beer with 3.2 percent alcohol (up from the 0.5 percent national maximum set by Prohibition laws). In April, states started electing special conventions to consider the 21st Amendment to rescind the general ban on alcohol. Michigan was first to approve it on April 10.

The seemingly complicated process took less than nine months. On December 5, 1933, Utah’s state convention was the 36nd of the 48 states to vote wet, the three-quarters needed to end the nationwide ban on most liquor sales in the United States in effect since 1920. The 21st Amendment overturned the 18th Amendment. The new amendment took hold as of December 15, 1933. The era was officially history.

But Prohibition, born from the temperance movement of the 19th century, when alcohol abuse was widespread, has had a lasting impact on American society, a country with a patchwork of alcohol laws unique to each state.

For sure, the nationwide, blanket ban on liquor that was Prohibition is long gone. All fifty states currently permit the sale of alcohol in some form (the last one, Mississippi, stayed “dry” until 1966). And Prohibition-era anti-liquor “blue laws” in place for decades are in decline. For instance, since 2002, sixteen states have repealed laws banning alcohol sales on Sundays.

However, Prohibition’s legacy, while still evolving, touches many if not all Americans. In some places, alcohol prohibition still exists. About sixteen million Americans live in areas where buying alcohol is still forbidden.

Here are ten examples of Prohibition’s lasting legacy in America.

Americans drink less liquor than before Prohibition

You could argue that Prohibition actually did have its intended effect of reducing the consumption of alcohol. In the 1830s, adult Americans (namely men) drank an incredible amount of alcohol – on average, seven gallons a year, three times the current level. By 1900, there were almost 300,000 saloons (for men only) in the country.

Before Prohibition began in 1920, the average American drank 2.6 gallons of alcohol each year. That average, even with speakeasies and the bootlegged liquor, fell drastically, by more than seventy percent, in the early years of Prohibition. After its abolition, Americans did not return to the pre-Prohibition drinking level until 1973. Since the mid-1980s, annual consumption has fallen to about 2.2 gallons per person. The United States does not even make the list of the top ten countries with the highest consumption of liquor (Luxembourg, at 4.11 gallons per capita, is No. 1 followed by Ireland at 3.62 gallons and Hungary at 3.59 gallons).

It’s harder to find a drink than during Prohibition

The 21st Amendment essentially shifted regulation of the production, sales and distribution of alcohol from the federal government to the states. Whereas drinking illegally in speakeasies or elsewhere during Prohibition was unfettered and free, state regulation has in effect made it more difficult to drink.

The states passed a variety of laws limiting the hours of operation and locations where alcohol may sold and who may receive sales licenses. There are eighteen so-called Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) states that rule over liquor sales directly by controlling the wholesale or retail sales of alcohol, except for beer and wine. Some ABC states sell state-produced spirits to independent stores and some only will sell their liquor from state-owned businesses with limited hours of operation.

The feds retained the right to collect excise taxes on beer, wine and spirits. While it’s legal today to make wine and beer at home for personal or family use, running an old-fashioned “still” to concoct spirits or making gin in a bathtub are felony crimes under federal law. Production of distilled spirits, allowed in processing plants, is strictly regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Treasury Department.

Many “dry” jurisdictions remain

There are still dozens of “dry” counties in the United States – or “moist,” with some of their cities wet – mainly in the Midwestern and Southern Christian “Bible Belt.”

Many states permit counties and cities to decide for themselves, by local vote or ordinance, whether to be “wet” or “dry.” In Kentucky, 31 of its 120 counties are dry, where selling or possessing booze is a “class B” misdemeanor. Thirty-seven of Arkansas’ 75 counties are dry. In Alabama, 24 of 67 counties are dry, while all but one have at least one “wet” city. In Texas, voters in 450 dry municipalities voted to become “wet” between 2004 and 2012, leaving 126 municipalities where you still can’t buy alcohol. In Nevada, the small town of Panaca, in Lincoln County about 160 miles northeast of LasVegas, is the state’s only dry jurisdiction.

Some states allow beer to be sold but not with more than 3.2 percent alcohol content (such as Utah), or up to 6 percent content (West Virginia), even as high as 17.5 percent (South Carolina). Many states cap the alcohol levels in wines sold (in Vermont, wines with less than 16 percent alcohol may be bought at supermarkets). Some states, such as Alaska, don’t permit alcohol sales in grocery stores. Twelve states prohibit the sale of spirits (beer and wine are exempted) on Sundays. Indiana doesn’t allow any alcohol sold on Sundays. Some don’t allow sales of beverages on major holidays. Kansas bans it on Memorial Day, Labor Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.

Constitutional history

Prohibition’s repeal was a remarkable historical event in the annals of American constitutional law. It was the first and only time the Constitution was amended by state constitutional conventions – instead of state legislatures – and the only time an amendment abolished a previous one.

The Prohibition Party

Formed in 1869 to elect politicians opposed to alcoholic beverages, the Prohibition Party is still America’s oldest third party – such as it is.

It was the first political party to permit women as members. Thomas Nast, the famed cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly in the late 1800s who created the elephant to symbolize the Republican Party and the donkey for Democrats, settled on the camel for the Prohibition Party, since that animal drinks only water.

The “dry” party once packed a punch. Party historians believe the group’s votes hurt the Republicans so much at the polls in the 1914 and 1918 presidential elections that the GOP backed Prohibition in 1919 to neutralize it. In 1916, the party’s candidate for the governor in Florida, Sidney Catt, was elected to serve one term.

But though it may have had some influence long ago, the Prohibition Party is today little more than a curiosity with very little support left. Its candidate for president garnered a measly 519 votes nationwide in 2012.

On the issues, the party’s focus remains its staunch opposition to alcohol, as well as all types of tobacco. Its 2016 platform is primarily mainline conservative (pro-life, for prayer in schools, against gay marriage) but it also favors an “actuarially sound” Social Security, developing “non-fossil fuel resources,” state-level health care programs and combating climate change.

During its nominating convention in July (held via conference call), the party nominated James Hedges, of Iowa for president and Bill Bayes of New York for vice president for 2016.

Women’s rights

The unprecedented impact of women on the temperance movement that began in the 19th century led not only to Prohibition but women’s suffrage. Women’s rights activists such as Susan B. Anthony, Amanda Bloomer and Lucy Stone started out in the anti-alcohol movement. That drive no doubt propelled the states, only a year after enacting Prohibition, to pass the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote nationally in 1920.

The 1920s saw the demise of the male-oriented saloon and the explosion of illegal “speakeasy” bars and jazz clubs where young women for the first time were seen drinking in public with men. It was the period labeled  the Jazz Age or the Roaring ’20s, known for the glamorous, carefree “flapper.” Women, who now had the right to vote, rejected the last vestiges of Victorianism and were free to hold progressive views about fashion, sexuality and the so-called vices.

Still many other more conservative women supported Prohibition in the ’20s. One of the most prominent female Prohibitionists was Pauline Sabin, who became the first woman on the Republican National Committee in 1923 and founded the Women’s National Republican Club. In the presidential election of 1924, Maria C. Brehm was America’s first legally qualified female candidate for vice president when she ran with Herman Faris on the Prohibition Party ticket.

But even ardent “dry” supporters, male and female alike, concluded by the late ’20s that the experiment was a failure. Sabin herself lost faith after witnessing young people and “dry” politicians routinely violating it. In 1929, she formed the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform to campaign for repeal. Membership surged to 1.5 million women by the time Prohibition ended in 1933. Women’s organizations since then, on multiple issues, continue to be a potent political force in American politics.

Alcoholics Anonymous

In 1934, Bill Wilson, who drank heavily during Prohibition and compounded his problem after its repeal, entered a detoxification program in Manhattan for the third time. While undergoing treatment, he claimed to have had a kind of spiritual epiphany and joined a Christian movement called the Oxford Group. During a meeting of the group in Ohio, he met a follow alcoholic named Dr. Robert Smith. Wilson convinced Smith that the only way to serve God was abstinence.

Smith finally agreed to sobriety on June 10, 1935, considered the day of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, a nationwide organization named after Wilson’s book of the same name. Wilson created AA’s famous “12-step” program, based on Jesus Christ’s 12 apostles, during which its members pledge to “surrender” to the “higher power” of God to achieve lifelong sobriety through complete abstinence.

Alcoholics Anonymous today is controversial among some experts who doubt its effectiveness. But the Bible-inspired group, which celebrated its 80th anniversary this year, has about 1.2 million followers (who are “anonymous” and not named) and 55,000 chapters nationwide.

Liquor is one of the highest-taxed industries

One vestige of the post-Prohibition years is taxing alcohol at a hefty rate as a target of “sin taxes” along with tobacco. The combination of federal, state and local taxes on legal hooch make up fully half the price of each bottle of alcohol that consumers purchase.

In 2014, the feds took in $7.9 billion in federal excise taxes on liquor, which by U.S. estimates is a $400 billion to $500 billion per year industry employing about four million people. The states brought in about $6.1 billion in alcohol taxes that year.

But the large liquor companies and the growing small “craft” distilleries are pushing a bill in Congress that would drastically cut the federal excise tax on booze. Under the bill, the current $13.50 tax per proof gallon would drop to $2.70 for the first 100,000 gallons at distilleries, then $9 a gallon above that. The legislation, the Distillery Innovation and Excise Tax Reform Act, was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee in May.

 Organized crime

The biggest “bootleggers” in organized crime in the ’20s – among them Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello – made vast fortunes thanks to their unlawful production and sale of liquor during Prohibition. After repeal, they invested their ill-gotten proceeds. Some, such as New Jersey kingpin Longie Zwillman, went into the legal booze business.

Others turned to the usual Mob rackets of illegal gambling, prostitution, loan sharking, narcotics and murder-for-hire. They also bankrolled various legitimate businesses, notoriously furnishing the seed money that practically created Las Vegas and its multibillion-dollar casino tourism industry. Las Vegas casinos were a source of millions in illicit “skimmed” cash for various Mafia families well into the 1970s.

Jeff Burbank is a content development specialist for The Mob Museum. Contact him at jburbank@themobmuseum.org.