Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972

Chapter 33. Why alcohol should not be prohibited

In contrast to the many logical arguments in favor of alcohol prohibition, the one decisive argument  against such a measure is purely pragmatic: prohibition doesn't work. It should work, but it doesn't.

The evidence, of course, was accumulated during the thirteen-year period 1920-1933. The arguments in favor of prohibition before 1920 were overwhelming. The Eighteenth (Prohibition) Amendment passed both houses of Congress by the required two-thirds majority in December 1917, and was ratified by the required three-fourths of the forty-eight state legislatures a bare thirteen months later. After experiencing alcohol prohibition for thirteen years, however, the nation rebelled. The Twenty first (Prohibition Repeal) Amendment passed both houses of Congress by the required two-thirds majority in February 1933-and this time it took less than ten months to secure ratification by three-fourths of the forty eight state legislatures.

Alcohol prohibition was  not repealed because people decided that alcohol was a harmless drug. On the contrary, the United States learned during Prohibition, even more than in prior decades, the true horrors of the drug. What brought about Repeal was the slowly dawning awareness that alcohol prohibition wasn't working.

Alcohol remained available during Prohibition. People still got drunk, still became alcoholics, still suffered delirium tremens. Drunken drivers remained a frequent menace on the highways. Drunks continued to commit suicide, to kill others, and to be killed by others. They continued to beat their own children, sometimes fatally. The courts, jails, hospitals, and mental hospitals were still filled with drunks, In some respects and in some parts of the country, perhaps, the situation was a little better during Prohibition-but in other respects it was unquestionably worse.

Instead of consuming alcoholic beverages manufactured under the safeguards of state and federal standards, for example, people now drank "rotgut," some of it adulterated, some of it contaminated. The use of methyl alcohol, a poison, because ethyl alcohol was unavailable or too costly, led to blindness and death; "ginger jake," an adulterant found in bootleg beverages, produced paralysis and death. 1 The disreputable saloon was replaced by the even less savory speakeasy. There was a shift from relatively mild light wines and beers to hard liquors-less bulky and therefore less hazardous to manufacture, transport, and sell on the black market. Young people-and especially respectable young women, who rarely got drunk in public before 1920–– now staggered out of speakeasies and reeled down the streets. There were legal closing hours for saloons; the speakeasies stayed open night and day. Organized crime syndicates took control of alcohol distribution, establishing power bases that (it is alleged) still survive. Marijuana, a drug previously little used in the United States, was first popularized during the period of alcohol Prohibition (see Part VIII); and ether was also imbibed (see Chapter 43). The use of other drugs increased, too; coffee consumption, for example, soared from 9 pounds per capita in 1919 to 12.9 pounds in 1920. 2 The list is long and could be lengthened–– but we need not belabor the obvious.

During the early years of alcohol Prohibition, it was argued that all that was wrong was lack of effective law enforcement. So enforcement budgets were increased, more Prohibition agents were hired, arrests were facilitated by giving agents more power, penalties were escalated. Prohibition still didn't work.

The United States thus learned its lesson–– with respect to alcohol. More remarkable, the mere memory of Prohibition, forty years after Repeal, is still so repellent that no proposal to revive it would be taken seriously. Since alcohol is treated as a nondrug, however, the relevance of the lesson to other drug prohibitions has been overlooked.

The Twenty-first (Repeal) Amendment left power in the states to retain statewide alcohol prohibition–– and made it a federal offense to ship alcoholic beverages into a dry state. Statewide alcohol prohibition, however, failed like national prohibition. State after state repealed its statewide alcohol prohibition laws; Mississippi's, in 1966, was the last to go.

In summary, far more would be gained by making alcohol unavailable than by making any other drug unavailable. Yet the United States, after a thirteen-year trial, resolutely turned its face against alcohol prohibition. Society recognized that prohibition does not in fact prohibit, and that it brings in its wake additional adverse effects. 

All of the drugs discussed in this Part, including alcohol, have important medicinal or social uses. All are subject to the same kinds of misuse. Establishing a social policy designed to maximize the benefits and to minimize the damage done by these drugs is a challenge for the future. But the first step toward that goal is surely apparent today: to make known the simple fact that the widely publicized perils of the barbiturates are in fact the perils of alcohol–– and that the other drugs in this class are not without hazard. When the United States eventually arrives at a sound policy for any of these drugs, this policy will almost certainly be a consistent policy for all of them. And society will seek to minimize for all of them what we have characterized in this Report as "the lure of the warning."


Chapter 33

1. F. R. Menue, "Acute Methyl Alcohol Poisoning,"  Archives of Pathology, 26 (1938): 79-92.

2. Louis Lewin,  Phantastica: Narcotic and Stimulating Drugs, Their Use and Abuse, 1924, trans. 1931 (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1964, reprint), p. 235.

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