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Did Alcohol Prohibition Reduce Alcohol Consumption and Crime?

Was Alcohol Prohibition the most lawful period in US history?

The assertion:  
"It was the most lawful period in US history," says
  Watters of Australia, but prohibition didn't work because, unlike heroin, alcohol was an integral part of the social fabric. 

He stresses his views are his own and not shared by all ANCD members.  But at age 67, as the son of an alcoholic and after a lifetime of helping addicts, he figures he knows what he's talking about. 

This quote, attributed to Brian Watters of Australia, comes directly from Miranda Devine's op-ed piece, "It Pays To Be Tough on Drugs".

The Short Answer:

Crime rose hugely during alcohol prohibition. Homicides skyrocketed. Corruption by police was so rampant that corrupt cops went to prison literally by the trainload. The number of Federal prison inmates soared and, by 1930, about half of all Federal prisoners were in prison because of either alcohol or narcotics charges.

The Longer Answer:

First, let me point out that Watters statement contradicts itself. If Prohibition was "the most lawful period in US history" how is it that it didn't work? 

Alcohol as integral part of the social fabric

I also find it interesting when someone argues that "prohibition didn't work because, unlike heroin, alcohol was an integral part of the social fabric." Just to give this issue some perspective, let's consider that, in the US, alcohol typically kills around 100,000 people per year, while heroin kills only a couple of thousand. On any scale of measurement of problems to society, alcohol wins hands down over heroin -- always has, always will. If heroin was killing 100,000 people per year, would Brian Watters then consider that heroin was an integral part of the social fabric and, therefore, worthy of legalization? 

But, in making such a statement, Mr. Watters inadvertently reveals the true historical reasons for drug prohibitions. What are those reasons?

It is obvious that protecting public health and safety really isn't the purpose of drug prohibition laws. If it was, then the toughest penalties would be on alcohol and tobacco which, combined, kill more people in the US every year than all the people killed by all the illegal drugs combined in about the last century. If prohibition laws were really to protect public health and safety then a good cigar should get you five years in prison.

It really isn't about morality, either. The prohibitionists talk about the degradation that comes to the lives of those addicted to illegal drugs. Heroin addiction is not pretty but in truth, it isn't any more degrading to be a heroin addict than an alcohol addict. Both addictions are a disgusting way to live and likely to cause massive problems in your life. Again, if morality was really the issue, then there would have to be tough penalties against alcohol.

So what's the issue? The issue really comes down to racism and prejudice. The drugs that are legal have always been the preferred drugs of the ruling class -- usually composed of Anglo-Saxon white males. It doesn't really have anything to do with which drugs are more dangerous -- the exemption of alcohol and tobacco from all the drug laws make that point obvious. It is because some people we don't like use those other drugs to get the same intoxication the ruling class gets from alcohol. 

Professor Charles Whitebread relates that idea in a most humorous and effective manner in his short history of the marijuana laws

My interest is in criminal prohibitions and, for my purposes, as a criminal law scholar, we could have used any prohibition -- alcohol prohibition, the prohibition against gambling that exists still in many states. How about the prohibition in England from 1840 to 1880 against the drinking of gin? Not drinking, just gin -- got it? We could have used any of these prohibitions. We didn't. We chose the marijuana prohibition because the story had never been told -- and it is an amazing story.

We could have used any of these prohibitions. We could have used the alcohol prohibition. The reason we didn't is because so much good stuff has been written about it. And are you aware of this? That every single -- you know how fashionable it is to think that scholars can never agree? -- Don't you believe that -- Every single person who has ever written seriously about the national alcohol prohibition agrees on why it collapsed. Why?

Because it violated that iron law of Prohibitions. What is the iron law of Prohibitions? Prohibitions are always enacted by US, to govern the conduct of THEM. Do you have me? Take the alcohol prohibition. Every single person who has ever written about it agrees on why it collapsed.

Large numbers of people supported the idea of prohibition who were not themselves, opposed to drinking. Do you have me? What? The right answer to that one is Huh? Want to hear it again?

Large numbers of people supported the idea of prohibition who were not themselves, opposed to drinking. Want to see it?

Let me give you an example, 1919. You are a Republican in upstate New York. Whether you drink, or you don't, you are for the alcohol prohibition because it will close the licensed saloons in the City of New York which you view to be the corrupt patronage and power base of the Democratic Party in New York. So almost every Republican in New York was in favor of national alcohol prohibition. And, as soon as it passed, what do you think they said? "Well, what do you know? Success. Let's have a drink." That's what they thought, "let's have a drink." "Let's drink to this." A great success, you see.

Do you understand me? Huge numbers of people in this country were in favor of national alcohol prohibition who were not themselves opposed to drinking.

I just want to go back to the prohibition against the drinking of gin. How could a country prohibit just the drinking of gin, not the drinking of anything else for forty years? Answer: The rich people drank whiskey and the poor people drank what? -- gin. Do you see it?

Let's try the gambling prohibition. You know when I came to Virginia, this was a very lively issue, the gambling prohibition. By the way, I think it's a lively issue in California. Are you ready for it?

Have you ever seen the rhetoric that goes around the gambling prohibition? You know what it is. Look, we have had a good time. We have been together yesterday, we have been together today, I have known a lot of you guys for ages. How about after the talk, we have a minute or two, let's go on up to your room and we will play a little nickel, dime, quarter poker. Want to play some poker this afternoon? Why not? It's a nice thing to do.

Would we be outraged if the California State Police came barreling through the door and arrested us for violation of California's prohibition on gambling? Of course we would. Because, who is not supposed to gamble? Oh, you know who is not supposed to gamble -- them poor people, that's who. My God, they will spend the milk money. They don't know how to control it. They can't handle it. But us? We know what we are doing.

That's it. Every criminal prohibition has that same touch to it, doesn't it? It is enacted by US and it always regulates the conduct of THEM. And so, if you understand that is the name of the game, you don't have to ask me, or any of the other people which prohibitions will be abolished and which ones won't because you will always know. The iron law of prohibitions -- all of them -- is that they are passed by an identifiable US to control the conduct of an identifiable THEM.

We can see this issue over and over in the reasons for the original passage of these laws. For example, the first laws against opium in the US were really attempts to discriminate against Chinese immigrants who smoked opium. (Chapter 6 - Opium smoking is outlawed, Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, 1972)  Cocaine was outlawed largely because of fears that superhuman Negro Cocaine Fiends would go on a violent rampage and rape white women and shoot white men. ("Negro Cocaine Fiends, New Southern Menace", NY Times, Feb. 8, 1914) Marijuana was outlawed because "All Mexicans are crazy and marijuana is what makes them crazy." History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the US, by Professor Charles Whitebread. 

 For a good summary of that history, I always recommend The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs   

We have already seen above that homicides, prisoners, Volstead Act prosecutions, illegal production of alcohol by ordinary citizens, arrests for drunkenness, and a host of other crimes increased dramatically during Prohibition. But that is far from the end of the story.

Here are just a few more of the references already in the online library that address the subject. You be the judge.

Widespread Disregard

It should first be noted that by 1923, authors were already noting that Prohibition was treated with "widespread disregard". "Chapter XXXVII - Prohibition" from The American Government By Frederic J. Haskin, 1923. If the prohibition law itself was treated with widespread disregard, then it is unlikely that it had any beneficial effect on other crime.

Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform

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" 

"The History of Alcohol Prohibition"   from Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, Commissioned by President Richard M. Nixon, March, 1972

Police Corruption

"As to corruption it is sufficient to refer to the reported decisions of the courts during the past decade in all parts of the country, which reveal a succession of prosecutions for conspiracies, sometimes involving the police, prosecuting and administrative organizations of whole communities; to the flagrant corruption disclosed in connection with diversions of industrial alcohol and unlawful production of beer; to the record of federal prohibition administration as to which cases of corruption have been continuous and corruption has appeared in services which in the past had been above suspicion; to the records of state police organizations; to the revelations as to police corruption in every type of municipality, large and small, throughout the decade; to the conditions as to prosecution revealed in surveys of criminal justice in many parts of the land; to the evidence of connection between corrupt local politics and gangs and the organized unlawful liquor traffic, and of systematic collection of tribute from that traffic for corrupt political purposes. There have been other eras of corruption. Indeed, such eras are likely to follow wars. Also there was much corruption in connection with the regulation of the liquor traffic before prohibition. But the present regime of corruption in connection with the liquor traffic is operating in a new and larger field and is more extensive.

. . .

But of even more significance is the margin of profit in smuggling liquor, in diversion of industrial alcohol, in illicit distilling and brewing, in bootlegging, and in the manufacture and sale of products of which the bulk goes into illicit or doubtfully lawful making of liquor. This profit makes possible systematic and organized violation of the National Prohibition Act on a large scale and offers rewards on a par with the most important legitimate industries. It makes lavish expenditure in corruption possible. It puts heavy temptation in the way of everyone engaged in enforcement or administration of the law. It affords a financial basis for organized crime.

The operation of the National Prohibition Act has also thrown a greatly increased burden upon the federal penal institutions which seems bound to increase with any effective increase in enforcement. The reports of the Department of Justice show that the total federal long term prison population, i. e., prisoners serving sentences of more than a year, has risen from not more than 5,268 on June 30, 1921 to 14,115 on June 30, 1930. The number of long term prisoners confined in the five leading federal institutions on June 30, 1930 for violation of the National Prohibition Act and other national liquor laws was 4,296 out of a total of 12,332. The percentage of long term violators of the National Prohibition Act and other national liquor laws to total federal prisoners confined in the five leading federal institutions on June 30, 1930 was therefore something over one-third. This constituted by far the largest class of long term federal prisoners so confined, the next largest classes being made up of those sentenced for violation of the Dyer Act (the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act) and the Narcotic Acts, the percentage of whom on June 30, 1930 were, respectively, 13.2% and 22% of the total.

 Bad Features of the Present Situation and Difficulties in the Way of Enforcement from Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States by the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (Wickersham Commission Report on Alcohol Prohibition)

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 History of Alcohol Prohibition"   from Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, Commissioned by President Richard M. Nixon, March, 1972

One of the most imposing promises made by the friends of prohibition before the eighteenth amendment was that by abolishing drink crime would be decreased to a minimum. That promise has not been fulfilled. Crime has increased in such amazing proportion that it has become the dominant consideration of most of the State and municipal governments of the Nation. A national crime commission of distinguished men from every section of the country, has been formed, and a bill is now pending in the New York Legislature which has to do with the appointment of a joint committee, to be joined by citizens to determine the came and possible remedies to reduce the tremendous wave of crime that is sweeping not only the country but New York as well.

I need not quote statistics to this committee, I am sure, to demonstrate that this is the most lawless country on the face of the earth. I go a step further. I assert that prohibition is one of the largest contributing factors to that disgraceful condition, by reason of the conceded, failure or inability of Federal and State authorities to enforce the law; it has created a disrespect for law which, starting with prohibition, has gone all along the line.

Statement of Judge Alfred J. Talley, Judge of the Court of General Sessions of the State of New York, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  

"Federal judges have told me, and their names I can supply if required, that the whole atmosphere of the Federal Building was one of pollution, that the air of corruption had even descended into the civil parts of the court, and reports were made to the senior United States judge of attempts to bribe jurymen even in the toilets of the building." 

Testimony of Hon. Emory R. Buckner, United States Attorney, Southern District of New York, "The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"

The corrupt prohibition agent or policeman is just as much a part of the bootleg industry as the bootlegger himself. Last year it took two Pullman cars to transfer to Atlanta the convicted policemen and prohibition agents corralled in a single round-up in Ohio. In May, 1925, a special grand jury in Morris County, N. J., was reported in the press as returning at one time 28 indictments against county officers and others for violations of the Volstead Act. About the same time, the Rev. Marna S. Poulson, superintendent of the New Jersey Anti -Saloon League, was reported in the New York Times as saying, in an address at a prohibition rally at Atlantic City, "I don't know of anyone who can make a dollar go further than policemen and dry agents. By frugality, after a year in the service, they acquire automobiles and diamonds."

Since the organization of the prohibition service to February 1, 1926, 875 persons have been separated from the Prohibition Unit mostly for official faithlessness or downright rascality. Nor does the total that I have given include delinquents not dismissed but only allowed to resign. Neither has the Coast Guard, that nursing mother of brave and devoted men, military as its discipline is, by any means escaped the contamination of prohibition. Since the duty was assigned to it of preventing the smuggling of liquor from the sea into the United States, 7 temporary warrant officers, 11 permanent enlisted men, and 25 temporary enlisted men have been convicted of yielding, in one form or another, to the seductions of money or liquor in connection with prohibition work. I am unable to say how many members of the force have been arrested but not convicted. On December 10, 1925, a United Press dispatch reported that the entire crews of two Coast Guard patrol boats which had been assigned to patrol duty off the coast of Florida had been court-martialed for conniving with bootleggers. On March 8, 1926, a dispatch to the New York Times from Providence, R. I., announced that Capt. Eli Sprague, who had been for 12 years the commander of the New Shoreham (Block Island) Coast Guard station, and had shared in the rescue of more than 500 persons, had been held for trial on two secret conspiracy indictments. On or about February 18, 1926, the Washington Daily News reported that Boatswain's Mate Joseph Libby, who had walked barefoot through ice and snow to obtain succor for his comrades whom he had left unconscious from extreme cold on patrol boat 126, had been dishonorably discharged from the Coast Guard for bootlegging.

In view of what I have said, it is not surprising that Dr. Horace Taft, head master of the Taft School at Watertown and brother of Chief Justice Taft, should have said a few days ago at a law-enforcement meeting at Yale, "The United States is threatened with the rotting of her moral foundations and of her political and social structure as a direct result of prohibition."

"Statement by Hon. William Cabell Bruce, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"



That the law is unenforceable; that it has created more crime than there ever was prior to prohibition; that the morals of our Nation are worse by far than prior to prohibition; that it has forcibly illustrated that you can not change habits of centuries by laws without creating contempt for that particular law and also for all laws in general; that the average working man feels that the Volstead Act only benefits two classes–––

1. The fanatic who wants to reform and regulate everything by law.

2. The second beneficiary is the bootlegger.

. . .

The Volstead Act has been the direct result of creating more crime in the State of New Jersey than there ever has been before.

It has endangered the life and limb of those using the public streets, through autos being operated by drunken drivers; it may be that there were just as many auto drivers that drank before prohibition, but what they drank did not affect their ability to run an automobile with safety. To-day one or two drinks create a menace to life and limb to those who use our streets and highways.

Statistics have shown that drivers of automobiles arrested for drunkenness have increased 100 per cent in the last few years. Some one may ask where do they get it?

If some one would ask the question: Where can't you get it? It would be more difficult to answer.

Testimony of Henry Hilfers, President, New Jersey State Federation of Labor, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"

Nothing is and nothing could be more certain, from all the evidence, than that prohibition is an unqualified failure and a colossal calamity to the Nation.

Whatever promotes drunkenness and drug addiction and all forms of intemperance also promotes crime of every kind.

We have the unimpeachable evidence of our senses that certainly more than half the crimes and misdemeanors perpetrated throughout the land and sensationally featured and headlined in the newspapers are crimes which are the result of prohibition.

Prohibition is a double-headed hydra of lawlessness, for we have on the one hand the crimes that infract the law of prohibition, and crimes that result from alcohol and drug intemperance that follow in the wake Of prohibition; and on the other hand we have the crimes of attempted enforcement of prohibition and the crimes of punishment, which are no less crimes because they have the sanction of expediency of prohibition law enforcement.

Testimony of Hiram Maxim, Inventor of the Maxim Machine Gun, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"


If you want to comment, or if you think you have some online references that tell the story better, please send me an e-mail at cliff_schaffer@yahoo.com.

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