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Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding - Table of Contents

National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse

History of Alcohol Prohibition*

*This section is based in large part on a paper prepared for the Commission by Jane Lang McGrew, an attorney from Washington, D.C.

 


 

In 1920, the national policy of Prohibition began. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution had been officially ratified:

It sought, by law, to make the whole Nation into enforced teetotalers and to put an end to all evils associated with drinking. It sought to eradicate a taste deeply rooted in the habits and customs of a large part of the population through outlawing the business that ministered to its satisfaction (Hu, 1950: 48).

1650-1750: THE FIRST HUNDRED YEARS

In fact, it started earlier. "Ministers shall not give themselves to excess in drinkinge, or riott, or spending their tyme idellye day or night," ruled the Virginia Colonial Assembly in 1629 (Cherrington, 1920:16).

Massachusetts ordered that no person shall remain in any tavern "longer than necessary occasions" in 1637, while Plymouth Colony in 1633 prohibited the sale of spirits "more than 2 pence worth to anyone but strangers just arrived" (Cherrington, 1920: 18).

This sampling of the earliest colonial laws is representative of the attempt, continued since those times, to control excessive consumption. Excessive drinking, it was considered, produced behavior unseemly in some, such as ministers, and dangerous in others, such as Indians.

But drinking per se was not frowned upon. Indeed, when the Puritans set sail to Massachusetts, they had taken care to carry with them 42 tons of beer (in contrast with 14 tons of water) and 10,000 gallons of wine (Lee, 1963: 15).

The regulation of liquor consumption was a matter of considerable concern in certain colonies. Thus, for a time, Massachusetts went so far as to prohibit the drinking of healths in 1638 (Lee, 1963: 19). The law was soon abandoned for reasons obvious, albeit unrecorded. It rapidly became clear, however, that liquor laws could do more and perhaps better, than control consumption: they could provide a source of revenue. By the turn of the 18th century, the regulatory impulse was concentrated on fines, excise taxes and license fees.

Fines were imposed for drunken behavior, unlawful sales to a drunken tippler or to Indians, and for selling without a license. Court records indicate that these laws were enforced with reasonable regularity (Krout 1967: 29-30). Licenses often carried their own fees, and excise taxes were levied upon distilled spirits as well as beer and fermented drink in many cases.

Until the 18th century, however, there was no attempt to prohibit the manufacture, importation, sale, or consumption of alcoholic beverages. Quite the contrary, at least one individual-in some cases a reluctant individual-was required in many towns to run the local inn or public house for visitors and travelers.

Although colonial statutes made it clear that tipplers and idlers were unwelcome, the diary of a colonial traveler, Sarah Kemble Knight, suggests that such laws were unsuccessful in containing the ribaldry which took place in many such houses. Madam Knight complained:

I could get no sleep, because of the Clamor of some of the Town Tope-ers in the next room.... I heartily fretted & wish't 'am tongue tyed.... They kept calling for Tother Gill, Wch while they were swallowing, was some Intermission, But presently, like Oyle to fire, encreased the flame (Miller, Johnson, eds., 1963: 430-431).

Persons other than Madam Knight were to become more outspoken about their concern for the use of spirits. The, most significant premonition was the Colony of Georgia's action in 1735 when the first prohibitory statute against the importation of "ardent spirits" was enacted. At the same time, however, the consumption of beer was encouraged (Grant, 1932: 1). The time for temperance had not yet arrived.



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