Prohibition's Awful Aftertaste

We're still suffering from the effects of prohibition

Women turn out in large numbers, some carrying placards reading "We want beer," for the anti prohibition parade and demonstration in Newark, N.J., Oct. 28, 1932. More than 20,000 people took part in the mass demad for the repeal of the 18th Ammendment.

Women protesting against Prohibition in Newark, N.J., on Oct. 28, 1932.

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One of the delicious ironies of the history of Prohibition is that it was the teetotaling state of Utah that drove the final stake into the heart of the 18th Amendment. At 5:32 p.m. EST on Monday, Dec. 5, 1933, the Beehive State became the 36th state – the third that day, after Pennsylvania and Ohio – to ratify the 21st Amendment, reaching the threshold to enshrine it in the Constitution and to end the national ban on alcohol.

It had taken the temperance movement nearly nine decades to enact Prohibition, but it took only 13 unhappy years for the country to sour on the idea. It was killed by a combination of unenforceability, rising lawlessness and a staggering economy that needed the boost in jobs and tax revenues from a revived liquor industry.

This week marked the repeal's 80th anniversary, but eight decades on we're still haunted by the spirit of Prohibition. As Maureen Ogle, author of "Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer," notes, "We could repeal the amendment, but not the culture attached to it."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Repeal, after all, didn't mark a straight break of temperance's grip. Prohibition may have been repealed, but alcohol was still portrayed as a merely tolerated evil. "I ask the wholehearted cooperation of all our citizens to the end that this return of individual freedom shall not be accompanied by the repugnant conditions that obtained prior to the adoption of the 18th Amendment," President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed on Repeal Day, adding an exhortation against "the return of the saloon either in its old form or in some modern guise." (For the record, FDR was an enthusiastic mixologist in his own right and was known to include absinthe in his martinis.)

The end of Prohibition didn't open the liquor spigot, but it did open the regulatory one. The 21st Amendment left liquor regulations to the states, and much of the architecture which was put into place remains with us today, carrying forward the now-outmoded temperance notions of the booze as an evil. "Effectively, we're dealing still with 1934 laws," says Garrett Peck, author of "The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America From Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet."

To some extent, time has chipped away at that regime – Mississippi, became the last state to officially go "wet" in 1966, for example. But much of it is still extant.

[Read Jason Stverak: Taxes Are Not a Sober Response to Alcohol Abuse]

So the "three-tier system" of liquor distribution, which separates alcohol makers from wholesalers from retailers (each tier "was meant then to knock the price up a little bit so cheap alcohol didn't exist," says Peck) for the most part is still in place. And there are 17 states (as well as a couple of counties in Maryland) where the state itself still controls the sales and/or distribution of liquor. So, if I want to buy a bottle of scotch in Virginia (where I live), I have to do so from a state-run store. The original idea was to "protect the public" by eliminating the "economic incentives for maximum sales," according to the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association's website, but when Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell tried to privatize the commonwealth's liquor stores two years ago his plan died at least in part because state lawmakers didn't want to lose the revenue.

Or consider "blue laws." A dozen states still prohibit the sale of liquor on Sundays, and Indiana still bans sale of any kind of alcohol on that day, while hundreds of U.S. counties remain partially or fully dry, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. (South Carolina forbids the sale of alcohol on federal and state election days; this in contrast to the practice of George Washington — yes, that George Washington — who plied voters with beer and wine on Election Day when he was running for the House of Burgesses.)

And then there's the drinking age, which did not gain widespread adherence until after Prohibition was repealed. "Effectively, with the 21 drinking age, we have created a prohibition culture among college students," says Peck. Alcohol, denied to teens, becomes a forbidden fruit that they partake of in secret and without supervision, learning both their limits and how not to reach them the hard way. Is it any wonder so many teens and young adults binge drink? "We continue to demonize alcohol and infantilize drinking and that really breeds a very unhealthy drinking culture," Ogle says. "We teach them how to drive a car, we teach them how to shoot guns, but we don't teach them how to drink."