• January 26, 2021

The Romance of Prohibition: Booze to War on Drugs

 The Romance of Prohibition: Booze to War on Drugs

A November 1922 image of Prohibition Bureau agents with “The Largest Still in Captivity.” Stills would grow larger and larger during Prohibition to satiate the public’s demand for alcohol. Image via Library of Congress

It happens without fail. I’ve been lecturing about Prohibition — the booze soaked, anti-booze period in the 1920s — and leading Prohibition-themed tours around the nation’s capital since 2006. On every talk, someone in the audience asks how Prohibition compares to the War on Drugs. Did I mention that this is completely unprompted?

Few things capture the public’s romantic imagination as the Noble Experiment (1920 –1933). A decade or so ago, bar owners reimagined the speakeasy as a throwback destination complete with suspender-wearing bartenders with quirky facial hair. They became so prevalent in New York City that they became known as “speakcheesies.”

But romanticizing the past is dangerous. We forget that bootleggers weren’t some freedom fighters striking a blow for personal liberty; they were, in fact, breaking the law of the land, even though much of the American public thumbed its nose at the constitutional amendment known as Prohibition. Faced with the Great Depression, the American public put Prohibition out of its misery on Dec. 5, 1933, when Utah (yes, Utah!) ratified the 21st Amendment. H. L. Mencken dubbed it the “Thirteen Awful Years.”

Which gets me to the question I always hear: How does the War on Drugs compare to Prohibition?

The official drug war — launched some five decades ago by President Richard Nixon, which has proven utterly unwinnable — is far worse than Prohibition by magnitudes. Prohibition had a beginning and an ignoble end. The War on Drugs just goes on and on and on without end.

Unlike the national strategy to forbid, stigmatize, and criminalize popular substances by labeling them illegal, Prohibition never made the personal possession of alcohol unlawful. The leading temperance organization, the Anti-Saloon League, understood that Americans would revolt at the thought of banning alcohol that they kept in their homes. They more narrowly crafted the Eighteenth Amendment to ban the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors. The ASL naively believed that Americans would drink up what they had at home, then simply stop drinking. Instead, Americans soon developed relationships with bootleggers.

Think of it in terms of basic market economics. Efforts to tamp down on alcohol or drugs only address the supply side of the equation. Neither Prohibition nor the War on Drugs focus on the demand side: Why did people still insist on drinking alcohol in the 1920s, or today, why do people inject heroin or smoke crystal meth?

In America, the great experiment of cutting off citizens from substances they consume has never witnessed an experiment on the demand side of ‘illicit’ products. But what happens if you reduce or eliminate supply, when demand is still present? Prices go up, according to every Econ 101 class ever taught. That in turn draws in new entrants willing to take enormous risks to supply the market in the promise of making a boatload of money waiting on the other side of that gamble — that is, if they’re able to get away with avoiding the authorities long enough. 

That is exactly what has happened with the War on Drugs. Mexican and South American cartels have battled for decades over who gets to supply America’s vast and seemingly unquenchable drug habit. When states like California, Colorado, and Washington considered legalizing marijuana, the drug cartels recognized that new suppliers would diminish their profits, and they shifted toward other drugs.

One of the few congressmen who was actually dry, William Upshaw, holds his umbrella over the Capitol Building, symbolizing that Congress was now dry in word, although not in deed during Prohibition. Image via Library of Congress

This should have been no surprise. In early 1929, Congress passed the Jones Act, also known as the “Jones Five and Ten Law.” This raised the legal stakes by handing Prohibition offenders a prison sentence of up to five years and a fine of up to $10,000. Bootleggers who earlier pleaded guilty and paid their fine or served a short prison sentence now demanded trials by jury. There were so many bootlegging cases that it gummed up the legal system – and made the public ever more cynical about enforcing Prohibition.

The American legal system has likewise borne the brunt of the War on Drugs. Congress and the states dramatically scaled up the punishment not just for supplying drugs, but for possessing and using them as well. We threw the book at drug offenders, albeit unevenly.

The punishment for using cocaine was bad enough, but when the crack cocaine epidemic came along in the 1980s, which was overwhelmingly sold to Black Americans, the punishment was far worse. Our prisons filled up with low-level drug offenders — overwhelmingly people of color — who afterwards struggle to get their lives together.

And let’s not forget: Incarcerating people is soooo expensive. Treatment is a fraction of the cost of having to house, feed, guard, and provide medical care for an imprisoned addict. Only in recent years, with the opioid epidemic hitting suburbs and the country-club class, have some white people finally come to realize that addiction is a disease that should be handled with treatment, rather than incarceration.

I’m not necessarily in favor of legalizing all drugs – some truly are quite dangerous – but I am in favor of decriminalizing drug use. And based on the 2020 election results, states are taking steps to do exactly that. Fifteen states have now legalized the recreational use of marijuana, while thirty-five states have legalized medicinal marijuana. 

With the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 – the death that sparked the long overdue national conversation about racial justice – Americans have demanded that we dismantle the nation’s systemic racism. There are few things more systematically racist in this country than the War on Drugs.

By incarcerating large numbers of African Americans, especially men, the War on Drugs has helped keep part of the Black community as a permanent underclass, unable to move forward and upward, unable to participate in the American dream.

Dismantling American racism means ending mass incarceration, changing sentencing guidelines to promote treatment rather than imprisonment, restoring former felons’ right to vote, and ending the War on Drugs that turns addicts into criminals.

We are so far separated in time from Prohibition that we look back on it with rose-tinted romance. I can’t imagine we’ll ever romanticize drug use, any more than we should romanticize racism.

Garrett Peck


Garrett Peck is an author, public historian and tour guide in the nation's capital. He leads tours through The Smithsonian Associates, and his Temperance Tour of Prohibition-related sites has been featured on C-SPAN Book TV and the History Channel program "Ten Things You Didn't Know About" with punk rock legend Henry Rollins. He was featured on a two-hour documentary about Prohibition by the Smithsonian Channel. His eighth book, A Decade of Disruption: America in the New Millennium, was published in spring 2020. Peck was involved with the DC Craft Bartenders Guild in lobbying the DC City Council to have the Rickey declared Washington's native cocktail in 2011. He researched and pinpointed the Washington Brewery site at Navy Yard, and is particularly proud that Green Hat Gin is named after a character Peck wrote about in Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: congressional bootlegger George Cassiday. He has lectured at the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Smithsonian Institution, and often speaks at historical societies, literary clubs and trade associations. Peck is on the board of the Woodrow Wilson House and is a member of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of D.C. A native Californian and graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and George Washington University and U.S. Army veteran, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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