The 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, better known as the Prohibition Act, was ratified in 1919 and came into effect on January 16, 1920. The passage of this Act not only prohibited the consumption of any alcoholic or intoxicating beverage but also the possession, sale, or even transportation of it.
The result? Alcohol was more readily available to the public during prohibition then before or after it. There were over 300 speakeasies in Chicago by 1927, more than twice the number of saloons in Chicago before 1920. The law was flagrantly violated and ignored by the American people. The profits to be made from illegal alcohol contributed significantly to the rise of organized crime, and the networks built upon its distribution and consumption gave these gangs a lasting relationship with otherwise law-biding citizens that persisted long past the booze ban.
Prohibition supporter John D Rockefeller summed up the failure of the “Noble Experiment”, saying,
“When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”
It’s been nearly 80 years since prohibition was repealed. The 21st amendment to the Constitution, which ended the dry era, largely left implementation and enforcement of laws regulation the booze industry to the States, resulting in a patchwork quilt of laws.
In recent years, the legal status of alcohol has become more uniform, driven by market forces (the liquor lobby) and a movement of civic activists concerned about the societal costs associated with drinking. The result, from a consumer’s point of view, has been a rather bi-polar relationship with drinking.
On the one hand, we are subjected to massive amounts of marketing telling us in a million different ways that our self-image will be enhanced by consuming various brands of alcohol. It’s just like what the tobacco companies did for many years, even after their particular products were proven to be a serious health risk.
As the Rolling Stones put it:
When I’m watchin’ my TV and a man comes on and tell me
How white my shirts can be
But, he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me… (Jaggar/Richards, 1965)
On the other hand, states and municipalities have enacted a plethora of laws designed to criminalize alcohol consumption. It’s become a major source of revenue for the criminal justice system. Have two drinks with dinner and you’re flirting with a DUI conviction should you drive. Open a beer on the beach and you have a good chance of some unpleasant personal experiences with the gendarmes. However, you’re welcome to have a drink in any of the dozens of bars in the business districts adjoining those beaches.
While prohibition failed as a government sponsored social experiment, there is widespread evidence that the human species has failed to learn to cope with its genetic and market driven urges that can lead to the overuse and abuse of alcohol. With our most fundamental needs (nutrition, shelter, procreation, etc.) largely met through the social and technological advances (also known as civilization) of the past 50,000 years, our brains/consciousness have not had time to make the evolutionary adjustments to the challenges that our “brave new world” presents us with.
Therefore, our other drives, like the ones that lead us to experiment and to need social acceptance, have been given an unrestricted opportunity to express themselves. Put another way, genetically speaking we’re still hunter-gatherers as far as the way our bodies and minds operate while our environment has changed to offer a whole set of challenges. Nowhere is this more evident than the rash of health issues we now face based on the modern day diet.
It’s pretty clear that alcohol is the driving force behind much of the acts of violence that we human beings inflict upon each other. The extent that alcohol is a factor in violence is much greater than most people realize: there is a tangible connection between drinking and 60% of all homicides and 50% of all sexual assaults. According to a 2002 Justice Department report, two-thirds of victims of domestic violence reported than alcohol played a role. While it’s true that there are numerous other factors involved in violent crimes, at the same time there can be no denying that alcohol is a significant factor.
This general lack of recognition/perception of the negative impacts of drinking is evident at every level of society. Many in the professional sports would were seemingly shocked when former player Chris Carter told ESPN, “The number one problem in the NFL isn’t steroids, it’s alcohol.” And, of course, there haven’t been any Congressional hearings on that subject. The $100 million that beer companies spend annually on NFL sponsorships makes that a taboo subject. The industry is quite generous when it comes to supporting politicians as well, with its PACs coming in the top five in recent election cycles. Perhaps that’s why underage drinking was eliminated from the government’s anti-drug programs during the Bush administration.
Our legal intoxicants like alcohol are something that we as a society would just as soon not talk about. Like every subject or experience that we ignore, there is a certain amount of guilt that associated with it, and THIS is the psychological underpinning for the “not another vice” argument that voters use to reject marijuana legalization initiatives, even when they know intellectually that government sponsored prohibition has failed. Surveys show that nearly half the population believes that near one half the adult population in the United States consider marijuana to be as or more dangerous than alcohol.
In the book Marijuana is Safer, So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (2009, Chelsea Green Publishing), the authors posit two approaches than can be taken to overcome this perception:
The first option is to demonstrate—in a far more powerful and convincing manner than they have so far—that the harms associated with the criminal prohibition of marijuana far outweigh the harms of marijuana itself. The second option… is to persuade the American people that the use of cannabis is not only less harmful than they currently believe, but that making it available to adults would actually reduce the use of a more harmful substance.
The difficulties here lie in that much of the actual research into intoxicant use/abuse/long term use is filtered through the lens of biases that favor the status quo. More importantly, we’re STILL avoiding a much needed conversation as a society about, as the Beatles once put it, fixing “a hole where the rain gets in and stops his mind from wandering.”
So, where is all this leading us?
I’ll be going down that road in my next, and (probably) final essay, “The Future Stoner”, to be published after the weekend.