This Day In History: Lessons From The Prohibition Era

On this day 96 years ago, Americans across the country gathered to enjoy one final gulp of legal alcohol before the 18th Amendment — a federal prohibition on the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors — went into effect. From January 16, 1920 onward, the United States would become "flesh and bone dry," as the New York Times then poetically put it, until 1933, when lawmakers finally reversed the ban, shuttered the speakeasies, and brought the bars back.  

Ever since, Prohibition has largely been remembered as a failed experiment. Initially, advocates of the 18th Amendment had hoped that turning off the taps would improve public health, jolt national productivity, and boost community standards. Instead, a host of unintended consequences poured out. Federal alcohol prohibition quashed multiple industries, led to thousands of hospitalizations and deaths, and inspired a new era of gangsters, mobsters, and organized crime.  

Barrels of alcohol were discovered and destroyed frequently throughout the Prohibition Era, like this photograph from 1921 depicts.

Barrels of alcohol were discovered and destroyed frequently throughout the Prohibition Era, like this photograph from 1921 depicts.

Sound familiar? The so-called "noble experiment" may be nearly a century behind us, but its spirit unfortunately endures through its modern-day equivalent: the war on drugs. While there are some key differences between the two policies, their similarities are astounding. Read on to review some of the biggest policy problems that Prohibition created — then see how those issues eerily echo the problems with cannabis prohibition today.  

Prohibition made everyday Americans criminals.  

Prohibition made buying and selling alcohol illegal, but the 18th Amendment didn't stop Americans from actually wanting to drink. Instead, they flocked to underground speakeasies and bought (frequently tainted) alcohol from bootleggers. The spike in criminal activity meant a spike in incarceration. By 1932, the United States' federal prison population had increased 366 percent.

TODAY: According to the American Civil Liberties Union, arrests involving cannabis "now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States." Meanwhile, the polling organization Gallup has found that a majority of Americans support legal cannabis use.   

Prohibition enabled crime to flourish.  

Supporters of Prohibition had hoped the 18th Amendment would reduce social disorder. Instead, Prohibition emboldened organized crime and allowed powerful gangsters like Al Capone to roost in major cities. Outlawing alcohol replaced healthy competition between businesses with turfs wars between mobsters and gangs. During the 1920s, the homicide rate in the United States increased 78 percent in part due to black market violence.

TODAY: The war on drugs has enabled violence worldwide perpetrated by cartels and other criminal groups. In Mexico, drug war violence is so severe that some experts have called it a public health crisis.  

Prohibition killed American business.  

Most industries aren't equipped to weather a decade-long hiatus. Prohibition meant winemakers, brewers, distillers, and other liquor manufacturers quickly found themselves out of work. In some cases, they were even required to destroy equipment and company information: an institutional memory loss that weighed down the industry long after Prohibition was repealed.  

Meanwhile, bartenders, bar owners, saloon proprietors, and other similar professionals also became unemployed. Businesses that benefitted from the sale of alcohol, like restaurants and theaters, experienced a sharp decline in sales.  

TODAY: Innovative cannabis companies are poised to develop business and technology solutions that could resonate outside the industry. Cannabis prohibition, however, limits their ability to share those solutions with the world. 

But here's the good news: Eventually, Prohibition ended.  

Prohibition may have proved itself to be a failed experiment, but the silver lining is that ultimately Prohibition remained experimental. Lawmakers saw the evidence, realized their mistake, swallowed their pride, and passed the 21st Amendment, which reversed the federal ban on alcohol and its ill effects.  

TODAY: Fans of freedom should be encouraged by the events of the past several years. More and more, everyday people and policymakers are realizing that cannabis prohibition is just as misguided as alcohol prohibition was back in the 1920s. Already, nearly half of U.S. states allow for some form of legal cannabis, and similar laws are starting to change in countries around the world. Like the prohibition of alcohol that came before it, cannabis prohibition is running on borrowed time. Maybe our own 21st Amendment isn't too far off.