This article is about the prohibition of alcoholic beverages; separate articles on the prohibition of drugs in general and writs of prohibition are also available.
Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol.
Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol.

Prohibition was any of several periods during which the manufacture, transportation, import, export, and sale of alcoholic beverages were restricted or illegal. The first half of the 20th century saw periods of Prohibition in several countries:

The word prohibition may refer to any law banning the sale and consumption of alcohol, in particular, local laws that have the same effect. Lexicologically, the prohibition of something is the banning of something, whether it be alcohol, drugs, or any other item.


United States

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"Prohibition enforced," as illustrated by a USPS stamp.

In the United States, this was done by means of the Eighteenth Amendment (ratified January 16, 1919) and the Volstead Act (passed October 28, 1919). Prohibition began on January 16, 1920 when the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. The Volstead Act was amended to allow "3.2 beer" (3.2 percent alcohol by weight) by passage of the Blaine Act on February 17, 1933. The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed later in 1933 with ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment. Prohibition also referred to that part of the Temperance movement which wanted alcohol made illegal. Prohibitionists had some success even before national prohibition; in 1905 three American states had already outlawed alcohol, by 1912 it was up to nine states, and by 1916, legal prohibition was already in effect in 26 of the 48 states.

The Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed nationwide prohibition, explicitly gives states the right to restrict or ban the purchase and sale of alcohol; this has led to a patchwork of laws, in which alcohol may be legally sold in some but not all towns or counties within a state. After the repeal of the national law some states continued to enforce prohibition laws; Oklahoma, Kansas, and Mississippi were still "dry" in 1948. Mississippi, which had made alcohol illegal in 1907, was the last state to repeal prohibition, in 1966. While there are still some dry counties and communities in the United States (mainly in the South), in practice this now means little more than that people wishing to buy alcohol must drive some distance to do so and bars are not allowed in the jurisdiction.

National Prohibition reduced the consumption of alcoholic beverages by Americans by 50 percent, and thus reduced cirrhosis of the liver by 63 percent, mental hospital admissions for alcohol psychosis by 60 percent and arrests for drunk and disorderly behavior by 50 percent.

However, alcoholic drinks were still widely available at speakeasies and other underground drinking establishments. The disreputable speakeasies gained their name from the fact that a patron had to "speak easy" and convince the doorman to let them in. His job was to keep out anyone that looked like they were dry agents; agents had no forced-entry rights at all, and so could not break into a joint if the doorman refused them entry. Many people also kept private bars to serve their guests. Large quantities of alcohol were smuggled in from Canada and the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. Legal and illegal home brewing was popular during Prohibition. Limited amounts of wine and hard cider were permitted to be made at home. Some wine was still produced in the U.S. but was only available through government warehouses for use in religious ceremonies, particularly for communion in Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches and in some Jewish ceremonies. "Malt and hop" stores popped up across the country and some former breweries turned to selling malt extract syrup, ostensibly for baking and "beverage" purposes.

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A "Medicinal Alcohol" form

Whiskey was available by prescription from medical doctors. The labels clearly warned that it was strictly for medicinal purposes and any other uses were illegal, but even so doctors freely wrote prescriptions and druggists filled them without question, and the number of "patients" soared. Authorities never tried to restrict this practice, which was the way many people got their booze: Over a million gallons were consumed per year through freely given prescriptions.

Even prominent citizens and politicians later admitted to having used alcohol during Prohibition. This discrepancy between legality and actual practice led to widespread disdain for authority. Some Prohibition agents took bribes to overlook the illegal brewing activities of gangsters. Many problems arose. It had been estimated that six million dollars would be needed to enforce prohibition laws. Over time, however, people drank illegally and money ended up in gangsters' pockets. Gangsters would then bribe officials to ignore their illegal activities. The cost of enforcing prohibition laws thus increased. In some cases, the money likely ended up in corrupt Prohibition agencies.

Mockery took many forms. There were exceptions to this public scorn, such as the activities of Eliot Ness and his elite team of Treasury Agents nicknamed The Untouchables, and the New York City prohibition agent team of Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith, known together as simply Izzy and Moe. For these exceptions, Ness' honesty and flair for public relations and Izzy and Moe's more eccentric, but highly effective, methods with disguises attracted considerable media attention.

Prohibition also presented lucrative opportunities for organized crime to take over the importation ("bootlegging"), manufacture, and distribution of alcoholic beverages. Al Capone, one of the most famous bootleggers of them all, built his criminal empire largely on profits from illegal alcohol.

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Houston prohibition officers Claude Beverly and Carl Greene with captured stills.

With alcohol production largely in the hands of criminals and unregulated clandestine home manufacturers, the quality of the product varied widely. There were many cases of people going blind or suffering from brain damage after drinking "bathtub gin" made with industrial alcohol or various poisonous chemicals. One particular notorious incident involved the patent medicine Jamaica ginger, known by its users as "Jake." It had a very high alcohol content and was known to be consumed by those desiring to circumvent the ban on alcohol. The Treasury Department mandated changes in the formulation to make it undrinkable. Unscrupulous vendors then adulterated their Jake with an industrial plasticizer in an attempt to fool government testing. As a result, tens of thousands of victims suffered paralysis of their feet and hands - usually, this paralysis was permanent. Amateur distillation of liquor could be dangerous to the producer as well, since poorly built stills sometimes exploded in flames.

There were also many alcoholic products that fell just under the legal limit, and yet, with a bit of work, could become the real thing. One particular beverage was called "near beer," because it fell under the 0.5-percent ban, being virtually non-alcoholic. It gave detailed, step-by-step instructions on what the buyer should not (under any circumstances) do with it, for then he would have alcohol, and that was illegal. So drinkers could simply use the easy-to-follow instructions to make a refreshing alcoholic beer!

In the 1890s, ethanol (grain alcohol) was the first fuel used in American automobiles. Alcohol powered engines were used in farm machines, train locomotives, and cars in Europe and the United States. In 1919, Prohibition police destroyed corn-alcohol stills which many farmers made their low cost ethanol fuel with. Prohibition taxes slowed the use of ethanol as a fuel. This increased farmers' expenses and forced them to rely on oil, which was cheap then.

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Carl Greene was killed shortly after this picture was taken by a bootlegger.

Many social problems have been attributed to the Prohibition era. A profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol flourished. Racketeering happened when powerful gangs corrupted law-enforcement agencies. Stronger liquor surged in popularity because its potency made it more profitable to smuggle. The cost of enforcing prohibition was high, and the lack of tax revenues on alcohol (some $500 million annually nationwide) affected government coffers. When Prohibition ended, organized crime lost nearly all their black market alcohol profits, due to competition with low priced alcohol sales at legal liquor stores. Organized crime later adjusted by selling illegal drugs instead. The black market thrives on the sale of any illegal product. On such points as these, the modern "War on Drugs" has been compared to Prohibition. There is disagreement on the validity of this argument.

Prohibition had a notable effect on the brewing industry in the United States. When Prohibition ended, only half the number of breweries reopened as had existed before. Many small breweries were out of business for good. Because mainly the largest breweries had survived, American beer came to be chided as a characterless, mass-produced commodity. Beer connoisseurs lamented the decreased quality and variety. It was only in the 1980s that craft brewing finally recovered. Fritz Maytag has been credited with jumpstarting the microbrew revolution that awoke brewing from its post-Prohibition doldrums.


Canadian prohibition was enforced by a set of provincial laws that were passed by the various provinces during the first twenty years of the 1900s. Prince Edward Island was the first in 1901. Alberta passed her laws in 1916. Quebec was the last in 1919. The provinces then repealed their prohibition laws mostly during the twenties. Quebec was first to repeal in 1920, giving it the shortest amount of time with prohibition enforced; Prince Edward Island was last in 1948. Alberta repealed in 1924, along with Saskatchewan, after the unmanageable illegal liquor trade.

See also

External links

es:Ley seca fr:Prohibition he:תקופת היובש nl:Drooglegging fi:Kieltolaki sv:Frbudstiden


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