Sobering Articles

As a follow-up to my piece Infamous Anniversary, I refer those interested to interesting items in the BBC History Magazine, volume 21, number one (January 2020) and the Associated Press article by David Crary, published in The Dallas Morning News (Sunday, January 19, 2020) and elsewhere. See links at the end of this writing.

Both writings chronicle the unintended negative consequences of national Prohibition. While it did not  organized crime, it certainly gave it a product for massive expansion. It turned many Americans into scofflaws, and overwhelmed the criminal justice system. Crary quotes a source that claims plea-bargaining, generally rare before, became a common practice in American jurisprudence. Whether or not that is correct, I’ll leave to other legal scholars.

Many who are calling for the decriminalization of cannabis, and other presently controlled substances, point to the failure of Prohibition as a reason to discontinue the “War on Drugs.” They have an argument, at least to some extent. Such advocates may miss that national Prohibition did not generally criminalize the possession and use of alcoholic beverages, only the manufacture, sale, importation, and transportation of intoxicating liquors that were defined by the Volstead Act as having more than 0.5 % of ethanol. (Some corresponding state laws did criminalize possession and drinking it, however.)

Crary, avers that Prohibition targeted minorities, immigrants, and adherents to religions institutions, especially Roman Catholics and Jews, disproportionately. Not much question that was true in effect, whether that was the intent to begin with is not clear, though many advocates probably brought it up in their supportive rhetoric.

Perhaps the most lasting consequence of national Prohibition was the impetus, later compounded by the 1930s economic crisis (for which is not beyond possibility that the ban of alcoholic beverages had a causal role) and World War II, for the expansion and intrusion of the government into our daily lives. Deprived of significant revenue from excise taxes on liquor, Congress found it necessary to increase reliance on the income tax.  Ironically, the prohibition deprived the government of sufficient funds to enforce the law. It also created the agency which was the predecessor of BATF, which some consider the most abusive of federal law enforcement agencies.

(As an aside, I recall a story from my mom when she was a child in the 1920s about how my grandfather, a lawyer, would meet with clients on his front porch in the evening and treat them to a strong beverage, which thoroughly horrified my grandmother.)

Anyway, here’s the BBC History Magazine, and the Dallas Morning News item.

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