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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.

1913-1933: NATIONAL PROHIBITION -- PROLOGUE AND FINISH

The distrust of the immigrant population became more pronounced as the economic, political, and social power of the cities developed. It was given a strong impetus by the anti-German tremors which shook the country in a mood of anticipation before World War 1.

The United States Brewers Association misread the prevailing temper and associated itself with the German-American Alliance to oppose the temperance advocates and defend German kultur in the United States.

As the United States came closer to war, the antipathy which developed against the Central Powers was directed with equal force against brewers and tipplers (Furnas, 1968: 334-35) :

Pro-Germanism is the only froth from the German's beer saloon. Our German Socialist Party and the German American Alliance are the spawn of the saloon. . . . Prohibition is the infallible submarine chaser (Sinclair, 1962:122).

The war gave the prohibition cause new ammunition. Literature depicted brewers and licensed retailers as treacherously stabbing American soldiers in the back. Raw materials and labor were being diverted from the war effort to an industry which debilitated the nation's capacity to defend itself. It was urged that wartime prohibition would stop the waste of grain and molasses and would remove a handicap on workers' efficiency.

"Liquor is a menace to patriotism because it puts beer before country," preached Prohibitionist Wayne Wheeler (Odegard, 1928: 72). The fact that names Pabst, Schlitz, and Blatz broadcast their national origin only did further injury to their interests.

In this atmosphere the Wartime Prohibition Act was passed in 1918. It followed a series of federal laws such as the Wilson Original Packages Act and the Webb-Kenyon Act, attempts to protect dry states from their wet neighbors.

The Wilson Original Packages Act was passed on August 8, 1890, and provided that all intoxicating beverages shipped interstate would be subject to the laws of the destination state upon arrival. No mechanism for federal enforcement was provided.

The Webb-Kenyon Act, enacted March 1, 1913, was intended to reinforce the 1890 Act by providing that it was a violation of federal law to ship an intoxicating beverage interstate with the intent that it be used or sold in any manner in violation of the laws of the destination state. The lack of federal enforcement rendered the statute virtually meaningless.

The Reed Amendment, enacted four years later, provided a fine of $1,000 for transporting liquor into a dry state with no greater effect.

None of the earlier acts met with substantial success in curbing the flow of liquor into purportedly dry regions, but they did mark a change in federal policy. Formerly liquor laws were designed solely to produce federal revenue; Congress now took cognizance of the role it could play in the regulation of consumption.

The role was actually forced upon a reluctant Congress at first. Indeed, the government had passed up numerous prior opportunities to involve itself in the temperance movement as such. The particular part it was to play was forecast by the Sons of Temperance who, in 1856, declared themselves for national constitutional prohibition.

Twenty years later, Congressman Henry Blair of New Hampshire introduced a prohibition amendment to the Constitution for the first time in Congress. As a senator, he introduced another such resolution in 1885, along with Senator Preston Plum of Kansas. After consideration by the Senate Committee on Education, the bill was reported out favorably and placed on the Senate Calendar in 1886. Nevertheless, no action resulted (Cherrington, 1920: 317 ).

In the meantime, states continued the struggle between the wets and the drys, with great success for the temperance advocates. By 1913, nine states were under stateside prohibition. In 31 other states, local option laws were in effect. By reason of these and other variants of regulatory schemes, more than 50% of the United States population was then under prohibition.

The national constitutional campaign was resumed as such in 1913 when the Anti-Saloon League went on record at its 15th National Convention in favor of immediate prosecution of the objective of constitutional amendment.

The National Temperance Council, founded at the same time, coordinated the activities of numerous temperance organizations with the same object. In 1913, the demands of the League were formally presented to Congress by the Committee of 1,000.

The measure was then introduced in the House by Congressman Thompson and in the Senate by Senator Sheppard. The following year, the first joint resolution failed to secure the necessary two thirds majority for submitting a constitutional amendment to the states. A second resolution was submitted in 1915 and favorably considered by the Judiciary Committees of both houses, but neither ever came to a vote.

Ultimately, in 1917, the resolution to prohibit the manufacture, sale, transportation or importation of alcoholic beverages in the United States was approved by Congress and sent to the states for ratification (Cherrington, 1920: 317-330).

It took only one year and eight days for the 18th Amendment to secure the necessary ratification. On January 8, 1918, Mississippi proudly became the first state to ratify, and on January 16, 1919, Nebraska completed the job as the 36th state (Lee, 1963: 42). By the end of February 1919, there remained only three hold-outs: New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island (Cherrington, 1920: 330).

October 28, 1919, was the day that Congress enacted the National Prohibition Act-more often known as the Volstead Act-with the intent to give effect to the new constitutional amendment. Officially, the liquor drought was to begin on January 17, 1920. The celebrants of the occasion were concentrated in the membership of the Anti-Saloon League, which could rightly claim that its consummate skill in pressure politics had maneuvered the country into its dry state.

The early experience of the Prohibition era gave the government a taste of what was to come. In the three months before the 18th Amendment became effective, liquor worth half a million dollars was stolen from Government warehouses. By midsummer of 1920, federal courts in Chicago were overwhelmed with some 600 pending liquor violation trials (Sinclair, 1962: 176-177). Within three years, 30 prohibition agents were killed in service.

Other statistics demonstrated the increasing volume of the bootleg trade. In 1921, 95,933 illicit distilleries, stills, still works and fermentors were seized. in 1925, the total jumped to 172,537 and up to 282,122 in 1930. In connection with these seizures, 34,175 persons were arrested in 1921; by 1925, the number had risen to 62,747 and to a high in 1928 of 75,307 (Internal Revenue, Service, 1921, 1966, 1970: 95, 6, 73). Concurrently, convictions for liquor offenses in federal courts rose from 35,000 in 1923 to 61,383 in 1932.

The law could not quell the continuing demand for alcoholic products. Thus, where legal enterprises could no longer supply the demand, an illicit traffic developed, from the point of manufacture to consumption. The institution of the speakeasy replaced the institution of the saloon. Estimates of the number of speakeasies throughout the United States ranged from 200,000 to 500,000 (Lee, 1963: 68).

Writers of this period point out that the law was circumvented by various means. Although there may have been legitimate, medicinal purposes for whiskey, the practice of obtaining a medical prescription for the illegal substance was abused. It is estimated that doctors earned $40 million in 1928 by writing prescriptions for whiskey.

The legal system was equally evasive; the courts convicted about seven percent of those charged with liquor violations (Sinclair, 1962: 193-195; Dobyns, 1940: 292). The exception for sacramental wine from protection under the Volstead Act also invited abuse. In 1925, the Department of Research and Education of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ reported that:

The withdrawal of wine on permit from bonded warehouses for sacramental purposes amounted in round figures to 2,139,000 gallons in the fiscal year 1922; 2,503,500 gallons in 1923; and 2,944,700 gallons in 1924. There is no way of knowing what the legitimate consumption of fermented sacramental wine is but it is clear that the legitimate demand does not increase 800,000 gallons in two years (Dobyns, 1940: 297).

The smuggling trade was revived with new vigor and new incentives. Rum-runners, often under foreign flags, brought liquor into the country from Belgium and Holland. In 1923, there were 134 seizures of such vessels. The following year, 236 were apprehended (History of the Alcohol . . . 928). With fewer risks, liquor was readily smuggled across the Canadian border. One way or the other, the Department of Commerce estimated that, as of 1924, liquor valued at approximately $40 million was entering the United States annually (Sinclair, 1962: 198).

The manufacture of "near-beer" and industrial alcohol provided other opportunities for diversion from licit channels, while the salvage of the California grape industry was section 29 of the Volstead Act (27 U.S.C. 46) which authorized the home production of fermented fruit juices. Although the section was allegedly inserted to save the vinegar industry and the hard cider of America's farmers, it was welcomed by home winemakers as well. In the spirit of cooperation, the grape growers even produced a type of grape jelly suggestively called "Vine-go" which, with the addition of water, could make a strong wine within two months (Sinclair, 1962: 206).

One of the great ironies of the prohibition era was the fact, noted by the Wickersham Commission, that women happily took to drink during the experimental decade, and, what is more, did so in public. As the counterpart of the WCTU, the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform was founded, stating in its declaration of principles that Prohibition was "wrong in principle" and "disastrous in consequences in the hypocrisy, the corruption, the tragic loss of life and the appalling increase of crime which has attended the abortive attempt to enforce it" (Dobyns, 1940: 107).

Drinking at an earlier age was also noted, particularly during the first few years of Prohibition. The superintendents of eight state mental hospitals reported a larger percentage of young patients during Prohibition (1919-1926) than formerly. One of the hospitals noted: "During the past year (1926), an unusually large group of patients who are of high school age were admitted for alcoholic psychosis" (Brown, 1932:176).

In determining the age at which an alcoholic forms his drinking habit, it was noted: "The 1920-1923 group were younger than the other groups when the drink habit was formed" (Pollock, 1942: 113).

AVERAGE AGE AT FORMATION OF DRINK HABIT

Period Males Females
1914 21.4 27.9
1920-23 20.6 25.8
1936-37 23.9 31.7

To be sure, the Volstead Act was enforced in the United States wherever it had popular support. In the rural South and West prohibition was effective and in some cases still is. The failures of prohibition enforcement were spotlighted in the big cities where the law was flagrantly defied and in the smaller towns, populated by miners and industrial workers, where the law was simply ignored (National Commission on Law Observance, 1931: 345).

Notwithstanding the weak enforcement of the Volstead Act, some believe that it was only the coming of the Depression with its demand for increased employment and tax revenues which finally killed the experiment (Gusfield, 1963: 127). Others observe that Prohibition was a by-product of the stress and excesses of war and could not have survived in peacetime even under optimal economic conditions (Sinclair, 1962: 23-24). Finally, there are those who accuse the selfishly motivated businessmen of the United States for repeal which they allegedly brought about through the same high-pressure tactics so successfully employed by the partisans of temperance in the preceding decades (Dobyns, 1940: 5-130 passim).

Despite mixed motivations, the repeal movement was financed and driven by the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA).

The members declared that "the principal business and objective of the Association shall be to educate its members as to the fundamental provisions, objects and purposes of the Constitution of the United States" (Dobyns, 1940: 5). They worked for the election of Congressmen who agreed to submit the question of repeal to a vote of the people in each state. They were successful fund-raisers and by January 1, 1931, had almost $3 million in cash in the bank (Dobyns, 1940: 9).

The sources of the funds included a number of converts from the dry cause. In 1928, the DuPont family abandoned the drys, followed in 1932 by John D. Rockefeller and S. S. Kresge (Gusfield, 1963: 128). Their conversion was effected under the strong influence of the income tax. Doggedly, Pierre S. DuPont circulated a brochure concluding that "the British liquor policy applied in the United States would permit the total abolition of the income tax both personal and corporate" (Dobyns, 1940: 22).

Concern for the effects of the prohibition laws was not limited to the private, wealthy sector. In 1928, a dry-wet confrontation emerged in the presidential election between Alfred E. Smith, a Catholic New Yorker, and Herbert Hoover. Hoover solemnly praised the "great social and economic experiment" and tightened his grip on the dry vote.

Notwithstanding the popular image of Smith as a staunch wet, his platform tried to avoid any outright repeal sentiment. He asked instead for an amendment of the Volstead Act which would provide a "scientific definition of the alcoholic content of an intoxicating beverage." This would enable each state to interpret and apply the federal standard within its borders. In addition, he favored what was to be known as the "state store" system of manufacturing and dispensing alcoholic beverages (Lee, 1963: 212).

In retrospect, it is difficult to ascertain whether it was the religious campaign or the dry campaign which defeated Al Smith. H. L. Mencken may have written accurately that "if [Al Smith] loses, it will be because those who fear the Pope outnumber those who are tired of the Anti-Saloon League" ('Sinclair, 1962: 303). Nevertheless, Prohibition survived the 1928 election, as did Hoover's campaign pledge to establish a commission to investigate the conditions under Prohibition. Head of the Commission was George W. Wickersham, former Attorney General under Taft. Although the Commission's purpose was set forth as an examination of the problems of enforcement, it soon decided to undertake much broader policy considerations.

The Commission's report, published in 1931, included opinion surveys, statistics on the number of deaths connected with enforcement efforts, testimony by consultants and experts, and an analysis of the organization, personnel and methods of prohibition enforcement. On the basis of the five volume report, the Wickersham Commission ironically concluded in its summary that:

There have been more sustained pressures to enforce this law than on the whole has been true of any other federal statute, although this pressure in the last four or five years has met with increasing resistance as the sentiment against prohibition has developed . . . . That a main source of difficulty is in the attitude of at least a very large number of respectable citizens in most of our large cities and in several states, is made more clear when the enforcement of the national prohibition act is compared with the enforcement of the laws as to narcotics. There is an enormous margin of profit in breaking the latter. The means of detecting transportation are more easily evaded than in the case of liquor. Yet there are no difficulties in the case of narcotics beyond those involved in the nature of the traffic because the laws against them are supported everywhere by a general and determined public sentiment (Sinclair, 1962: 367-368).

Notwithstanding this dire analysis, 10 out of the 11 commissioners signed a summary of conclusions of the report which stated that the Commission as a whole opposed the repeal of the 18th Amendment, the entry of the Federal or state governments into liquor business, or even the modification of national prohibition to permit the sale of light wines and beer (Sinclair, 1962: 364).

Walter Lippmann commented, "What was done was to evade a direct and explicit official confession that Federal prohibition is a hopeless failure" (Sinclair, 1962: 365). Whether or not Lippmann correctly read the Commission's intentions, there was clearly a gap between the input and the outcome of the report.

It is difficult to assess the relative numbers of the wet and dry partisans during the last few years of national prohibition. In terms of strength, however, the wets surely had the edge which less than two decades before had belonged to the drys. The new wet strength showed up at the National Convention of the Democratic party held in Chicago in 1932, where Mayor Cermak of that city filled the galleries with his supporters. And, though Franklin D. Roosevelt had wooed the dry vote for some time, he now came forward on a platform which favored the outright repeal of the 18th Amendment. Accepting his nomination, he stated:

I congratulate this convention for having had the courage, fearlessly to write into its declaration of principles what an overwhelming majority here assembled really thinks about the 18th Amendment. This convention wants repeal. Your candidate wants repeal. And I am confident that the United States of America wants repeal (Dobyns, 1940: 160).

While dry leaders looked on with disgust, Roosevelt was elected president and Congress turned a somersault. The repeal amendment was introduced February 14, 1933, by Sen. Blaine of Wisconsin and approved two days later by the Senate 63 to 23. The House followed four days later, voting 289 to 121 to send the amendment on to the States (Lee, 1963: 231). It required approval by 36 states. Michigan was the first state to ratify it; 39 states voted, on the amendment during 1933, with 37 approving its ratification and two-North and South Carolina-voting against its ratification. The final ratification was accomplished on November 7,1933, when Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah gave their approval.

Congress officially adopted the 21st Amendment to the Constitution on December 5, 1933.

Within three weeks of taking office, President Roosevelt witnessed the first sales of 3.2 beer, following a redefinition by statute of the terms "intoxicating liquors." The more popular, higher alcohol-content beer was relegalized by Congress under the Cullen-Harrison Act. Sale of beer became legal on April 7, 1933, in the District of Columbia and the 20 states where state laws did not prohibit its sale. During the next four years the remaining states changed their laws to permit its sale, with Alabama and Kansas in 1937, as the last to join the legal sale ranks.

The job of total repeal was accomplished with the help of the determined AAPA during the succeeding year. Their lawyers assisted the states in preparing bills for conventions and release of various forms of political propaganda, thereby enacting a serious satire on the 1919 campaign launched by the Anti-Saloon League. Notwithstanding their high and enduring constitutional principles, on December 31, 1933, with repeal a reality, the AAPA ceased to exist and sent its files to the Library of Congress. "Having attained its objective . . . the Association resisted the temptation to linger on as a 'sentinel of American liberty' '', the New York Times observed in the organization's obituary (Dobyns, 1940: 132).



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