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Prohibition: the 18th Amendment

By ajaber Sep 15, 2013 2120 Words

The 18th Amendment, ratified on January 16th 1919, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, export, import and transportation of alcoholic beverages, happened because of the Temperance Movement. It was believed at the time that alcohol was the main problem in society and that it needed to be removed. This moral issue divided people up between those who were “dry” and those who were “wet”. Either way, it was eventually repealed because of the problems that came from it. While that was at the beginning of the 19th century, today we are facing a similar moral issue: the war on drugs.

There were several parties that wanted to prohibit the use of alcohol. One of them involved in the matter was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who did all it could to elect any candidate that was on the “dry” side, meaning anyone who opposed alcohol (WCTU). President Wilson was stuck in the middle of this situation. He believed in moderation not in complete prohibition, but since there were more people on the “dry” side than the “wet” side, the bill passed. The only problem was that even though the 18th Amendment said that “intoxicating” beverages were prohibited, it did not say what that meant and there was no way to enforce it. That is why the Volstead Act was passed, to give a definition of “intoxicating”. That meant any drink that had over 0.5 percent alcohol, and it gave the government the legal right to enforce the law (Hanson). These two parts made up the Prohibition. So on January 16th 1920, the 18th Amendment became effective.

Those who were in favor of alcohol proposed to only get rid of the hard liquor. They believed that beer was the working man’s beverage and to prohibit that was a stab at the workers, while the wealthy got to keep their expensive wine and hard liquor. Those who were against alcohol voiced their opinion that it led to corruption, prostitution, spousal abuse and other criminal activities (WCTU). The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Anti-Saloon League (the other party), both worked toward prohibiting the use of alcohol due to moral reasons. Either they believed that it was a sin and it turned people away from God, or they believed that it had a destructive effect on individuals (Online Highway). There were many factors that led them to succeed in their goal. One of the main factors was that this happened around the time of World War I. Not only did the President have other things on his mind and couldn’t give too much importance to this issue, but it was argued that producing alcohol drinks diverted the grain needed for the war, and that it affected the productivity of the workers. That fact alone angered people and turned them against the idea of alcohol. Another factor was that alcohol consumption was on the rise, and saloons were opening up almost on every corner. People saw saloons as unrespectable, and dirty. To entice people to come in, saloon owners allowed gambling and prostitution, which led people to oppose them (Weiser).

A few years before the Amendment was passed, many people including the President saw this issue as a social and moral issue, which had nothing to do with politics and the government. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were written exactly for the purpose of allowing people the freedom to do what they want with their lives, as long as they stay within the law. The same way a certain religion can’t be imposed on society, so should the prohibition of alcohol be off limits. Everyone has their own view of morality and they shouldn’t impose their view on others. Unfortunately, social and moral issues began to be open for debate once the US declared war on Germany. It was finally politically alright to discuss such issues. The brewing industry became a target because most of the brewers were of German origin. A “dry” magazine at that time decided to publish a quote that made a correlation between the alcohol consumed and the war that was going on, to further excite the people. The quote said “German brewers in this country have rendered thousands of men inefficient and are thus crippling the Republic in its war on Prussian militarism…” (American Issue, 3 August 1917). This implied that the German-Americans were sabotaging the war effort, so that their country would have the upper hand. People caught on and started protesting against breweries and alcohol in general, just for the idea that it would take the jobs away from the German-Americans.

During the 13 years that this Amendment was in place, until its repeal in 1933, terrible consequences arose. The Prohibition ended up being a failure for many reasons. Even though many states did their best to enforce the law, alcohol consumption never ceased during those years. The market of alcohol was open to criminals and gangs. Gangs were competing against each other for market control, which created a lot of violence and even murders. Al Capone ended up making millions of dollars selling alcohol in the speakeasies (establishments that illegally sold alcoholic beverages) (Albany). The problem was that since alcohol was illegal, people needed to go on the black market to buy it. Not only did they have to pay more but it hurt the country as well because taxes weren’t collected on the alcohol, so the revenue stopped coming in. Millions of workers lost their jobs, which created a state of panic. That was one of the main reasons why the government had to repeal the Amendment, since it needed to generate additional tax revenue in the wake of the Great Depression (Albany).

At the beginning of the Prohibition, statistics show that more people died of alcohol consumption, than they did before it was illegal. The reason is because the people who were selling the alcohol illegally were making it stronger and they were producing it in non-professional ways, such as in their own bathtubs. This made Americans become addicted to hard liquor, instead of the weaker beer beverage. Sometimes the alcohol contained creosote, lead toxins and even embalming fluid, so the consumers sometimes suffered paralysis, blindness and painful death (Hanson). It would be easy to say that only the citizens were affected by this, but the government felt the effects as well. Since there was more crime on the streets, more force needed to be put on the ground. Most people refused to go by the new law and there weren’t enough police officers to enforce it. Because of the depression they were in, the government could only afford to send out 1,500 agents, which was nothing compared to the tens of thousands of people who were consuming alcohol illegally. The government ended up paying more than a hundred times then they had thought it would. A governmental study found that two-thirds of all federal expenditures on law enforcement involved Prohibition (Hanson). Many officers were accepting bribes, which didn’t help with the enforcement of the law. Corruption was all around, not just with the police officers, but with mayors and city commissioners also (Hanson). All these factors combined reached a conclusion on December 5th 1933. The 21st Amendment eventually repealed the 18th Amendment once it was clear that the Prohibition wasn’t bringing positive results for the country.

Today, there is a similar problem happening when it comes to the war on drugs. The government is spending a lot of money on enforcing the law against drugs, but people are still finding ways of acquiring them. There are no positive benefits to this. The same thing happened with the Prohibition. Many people believed it would be a success, so they never thought of the problems that might arise if alcohol became illegal. Once the Great Depression hit, it was apparent that alcohol needed to be legalized again so that money would flow back into the country. Today, the country is in a similar situation when it comes to the state of the economy. There are many things the government can do to bring in revenue and reduce the deficit, and one of those things is legalizing marijuana. By punishing those who use marijuana, the government is taking away billions of revenue dollars and instead is using tax payer’s money to pay for enforcement. A report states that by legalizing marijuana, it would save the government $2.4 billion dollars a year on the federal level, and $5.3 billion at the state and local level (Miron).

When it comes to social issues such as these, morality shouldn’t be a factor. It’s important to be objective instead of emotional. The Prohibition happened because of certain groups pushing for it due to moral reasons. There is an ongoing debate about legalizing marijuana because certain people believe that marijuana causes harm to the user and the community. The same argument was used against alcohol. The fact of the matter is that drinking alcohol or smoking a cigarette can be more dangerous for a person than smoking marijuana. The public health burden of marijuana use is less compared to alcohol, tobacco, and other illicit drugs (Marijuana). Abuse of any substance creates harm, but if done in moderation, then there should be no problem (Messerli). Personal harm shouldn’t even be in the discussion because each individual has the freedom to do what he wants with his body. Also, many critics would say that if marijuana is legalized, then it could fall in the hands of children, but even with the law being there, teenagers still smoke and drink. In 2010, it was estimated that about 3.4 million young people used marijuana monthly (Marijuana). There will always be a way around the law.

During the Prohibition, the gangster Al Capone made his millions, while now there are gangs such as the Los Zetas who are benefitting from marijuana being illegal. Los Zetas is a drug cartel in Mexico that does illegal drug trading with about a thousand American cities. It is extremely profitable, making about $6,000 for a pound of marijuana, when it only costs $75 to produce (Stamper). With those kinds of profits, violence and murder can be predicted as well. By legalizing marijuana, organized crime will be wiped off, because it will take violence out of the market. Not only that, but it would generate $2.4 billion in tax revenue if marijuana would be taxed like all other goods. If it would be taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco, then $6.2 billion would be generated (Miron). Another problem, other than not getting this revenue, is that it costs a lot of money to put people in jail for a minor crime such as marijuana possession. For example, in 2000, it cost the police $1.71 billion to arrest people for marijuana violations and $2.94 billion for the judicial processes. Legalizing marijuana would let the police and the justice department concentrate on more important things like terrorism, harder drugs, rape, murder, and so on.

There are many costs associated with prohibiting marijuana. It seems that there are more pros than cons to legalizing it. Prohibiting marijuana has not stopped the widespread use of it, and it probably never will, in the same way that the Prohibition in 1920 did not stop the consumption of alcohol. It might be easier to control marijuana by regulating it in a legal market than to control the illegal consumption of it under prohibition.

Sources “Organized Crime and Prohibition”. Web Site. “”. Accessed October 24th 2011.

Hanson, J. David, Ph.D. “The Eighteenth Amendment ”. Web Site. “” 1997-2011. Accessed October 24th 2011.

“Marijuana” Web site “” Accessed October 24th 2011.

Messerli, Joe. “Should Marijuana be Legalized under any Circumstances” Web site “” August 2011. Accessed October 25th 2011.

Miron, Jeffrey. “The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition”. Website “” June 2005. Accessed October 25th 2011.

Online Highways LLC. “The Temperance Movement”. Web Site. “”. Accessed October 24th 2011

Stamper, Norm. “Prohibition: A parallel to modern war on drugs”. Seattle Times. Web site “” October 4th 2011. Accessed October 25th 2011.

“Women’s Christian Temperance Union” Web site “”. October 20th 2011. Accessed October 25th 2011.

Weiser, Kathy. “Speakeasies of the Prohibition Era”. Web site “”. March 2010. Accessed October 25th 2011.

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