Today is the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition (yes, I’m drinking a cocktail). In case you’d forgotten, starting in 1920 and for thirteen years following, it was illegal to manufacture or sell beverage alcohol in the United States. After a decade or so of bootlegger crime and a few years of economic depression, on December 5th, 1933, Prohibition was repealed. Here are the top five things we learned about ourselves from the Prohibition experience.
1. We are deeply ambivalent about intoxicants. At the beginning of the last century, we began the process of making both drugs and alcohol illegal. Eventually, we reversed ourselves in regards to booze, and we are now contemplating legalizing drugs like marijuana. (In the last election, Massachusetts decriminalized personal possession.) Three-quarters of state legislatures agreed to an amendment to the Constitution to enact Prohibition. What were we thinking? That alcohol was uncontrollable; that it caused sin and crime; that all people should be teetotalers.
2. Prohibition was a culture war; drinking still is. A national groundswell against beverage alcohol led to Prohibition. But its roots were “red state.” The Temperance movement was strong in the Bible Belt — the South, the Plains states, and the rural Midwest, while the West, the East Coast, and the industrial Midwest were resistant. Many counties in the South continue to ban alcohol, while Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri maintained state prohibition after Repeal. To this day,states vary remarkably in their drinking - around two-thirds of New Englanders drink while around a third of those in the South do.
3. AA is Temperance and Prohibition repackaged. It is no accident that within two years of Repeal, Alcoholics Anonymous was created (in 1935). AA simply reframed the demon rum argument to apply only to a specific group of people – those who were born alcoholic. AA’s disease concepts of loss of control, progression, irreversibility, the absolute need for abstinence, and its modus operandi of public confession, commitment to God, and making amends, were all taken over directly from the nineteenth century Temperance movement and Protestant revivalism.
4. We confuse morality with health. Boosters like Billy Sunday claimed Prohibition would eliminate disease, as well as sin. It did neither – indeed, alcohol poisonings and crime increased. Abstinence was thought to be healthy – as it is still often conceived to be in our society. Yet alcohol is now recognized by the U.S. government (in its Dietary Guidelines), every major alcohol epidemiologist, and all cardiologists who are paying attention, to actually extend life. That American public health misconstrues irrefutable evidence to the contrary is simply an expression of most Americans’ belief that drinking is bad – or too good to be good for you. (We are equally ambivalent about sex.)
5. Public policy is not science. Prohibition was passed due to a national craze; it was repealed due to national depression. The illegality of drugs depends primarily on gut anti-drug sentiment. We can persist for decades, centuries, in mistaken beliefs, but turn on a dime when it suits us. Remember, the same three-quarters of states were required to pass a new Constitutional amendment to repeal Prohibition as passed Prohibition (the last state to put Repeal over was Utah – the state with the highest abstinence rate in the country, now and then). Stay tuned to see which way we go over the next decades with alcohol and drugs!