'After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited' (Constitutional Amendment XVIII). The amendment passed and one year later prohibition came into effect. While admittedly many supported this move, others still wanted to enjoy the intoxicating drink. The prohibition of alcohol led to a situation in which organized crime was used to obtain the outlawed product. Organized crime grew and thrived during this time and has had a lasting effect on illicit substance distribution.


In the years preceding prohibition drinking had become a problem, according to the Prohibition Party as well as others. Groups were formed to start a movement that would eventually lead to a disastrous law. These groups included the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League, and the Prohibition Party. The Women's Christian Temperance Union was one of the strongest groups (Barry 4). Another proponent of prohibition was the Anti-Saloon League, which did not identify with any political party in particular. This move hurt the cause of the Prohibition Party; however it only delayed its progress. According to Barry, 'one agent of the league, William E. Johnson, better known as 'Pussyfoot' Johnson, wrote that he had lied, bribed, and drunk in order to put over prohibition' (7). The Prohibition Party, which still exists today,, along with the Anti-Saloon League started gaining support in congress through elections.

In years preceding prohibition, drinking was actually low, especially toward 1914 to 1916. When World War I came along, prohibition supporters tried sneaking in restrictions on beer production. Their argument was that in order to conserve food, like the President wanted, grain alcohol should not be produced. President Wilson allowed a cut in production, but by no means was it an all out prohibition (Thornton).

Saloons were everywhere. Barry states that 'the American brewers at the time financed eighty percent of them through mortgages. They owned many outright, leased others, and owned fixtures still in more' (Barry 9). Nine out of ten drinks sold were beer. Every saloon offered beer, but to truly compete other advantages and services were needed. Closing times were often ignored, prostitutes were hired, and the saloons were seldom cleaned. By using these tactics, a saloon could become very profitable.

The Anti-Saloon League had been hard at work drumming up political support. Indeed, it was paying off. They worked hard to elect congressmen who supported or at least somewhat favored prohibition. Resolutions calling for prohibition were made and prohibition was in sight.

The prohibitionists decided to try their strength, and in late 1914 pressed for the constitutional amendment that would bring prohibition. The results were a moral victory but a practical failure: the vote was 197 to 190 in favor for the amendment, but a two thirds vote was needed to pass it and send it on to the states for ratification. In 1916 another congress was elected and the Anti-Saloon League was in the fight hotter and harder than ever. After the election they were certain they had enough seats to win the next trial. But when that Congress first met in 1917, it had more pressing business; President Woodrow Wilson called it into a special session to declare a state of war with Germany – and the United States was in World War I (Barry 13).
Any progress for the amendment was immediately halted. Years passed and again the vote was brought to congress. This time it passed and in January of 1919 it was ratified. All but two of the states ratified the amendment, those being Connecticut and Rhode Island (Barry 14). The prohibition would go into effect one year later.

Organized crime at this time did exist. However, not to the extent that would soon follow. Sure, there were bank robberies and homicides, but for the most part organized crime was in its infancy. There was no mafia.


January 17, 1920 was the first day of prohibition. People slowed drinking if not stopping all together. Prohibition was working - but not for long. Breweries were allowed to produce something called near beer, which had an alcohol content of one half of one percent (Thornton). However, some blatantly ignored the law and continued producing their old products and selling them to gangsters, but that will be discussed later. Before prohibition, saloons were the place to drink. But they closed down and speakeasies sprung up. Speakeasies were well-hidden places, usually in basements, where alcoholic beverages would be served. A move to harder liquors occurred due to economic factors. On an ironic note, one of the best speakeasies was Bridge Whist Club, which was owned and operated by the United States government. Supposedly the place was bugged so that incriminating evidence could be collected. However, this worked only a few times and actually showed that some prohibitionists were hypocrites.

Although alcohol was illegal, it was widely available. The large supply of alcohol was both smuggled in from Canada and made here in America. Rum-runners was the name given to the smugglers, although they transported more than just rum. One such person was, Captain William McCoy. Barry states 'he refused to water down the liquor he brought in or mix it with the chemicals used to cut smuggled alcohol. As a result of this, good imported whiskey was described as 'the real McCoy'' (24). Rum-running was dangerous. The liquor would be shipped from Canada across the Great Lakes, and when arriving in the United States anything could happen. For one, the coast guard could catch the smuggler. He might also be robbed of his liquor, or he could be killed for his liquor as well by his 'customer'.

Domestic alcohol was another story. Moonshinning became popular. Most of the participants however had no earthly idea as to what they were doing. Thus many created poisonous alcohol. Many people also did this for personal use; it was not only for the gangsters. The near beer mentioned earlier was manufactured and take to speakeasies. There the bartender would add more alcohol to the mix. Sometimes though, this was wood alcohol. Death is one of the serious side effects of wood alcohol. In Chicago, John Torrio partnered with several breweries and distributed to the city. In approximately four years that partnership generated fifty million dollars (Barry 26). Torrio divided Chicago into districts and gave different gangsters control of them. He claimed that all of them working together would be better than working against each other and he was right. Torrio's reign came to an end when he was arrested. Soon thereafter Al Capone took over the empire. The sale of illegal liquor became a multimillion-dollar a year business for many gangs across the United States. They were the only ones to profit from prohibition.

During prohibition, prices of alcohol increased. Prices that increased most were of beer. The reason behind this is clear: beer takes up a good amount of volume. People were mainly drinking to become drunk, thus it would require a large quantity of beer to do this. Drinks with higher proof and lower prices quickly became popular. Whiskey, gin, and rum were all good sellers (Thornton). Not only did prohibition not make great economic sense, it was unhealthy. Granted any drinking in excess is unhealthy, most alcohol during prohibition was not pure and often poisonous. Therefore even consuming responsible amounts of alcohol could be deadly.

Post Prohibition

In 1933 the twenty-first amendment came into effect, ending an era of prohibition. Prohibition was an absolute failure. Not only did it make criminals out of the common man and woman, it hurt the economy by legally cutting off trade of alcohol. Prices of alcohol rose, more people consumed alcohol, more alcohol was consumed per person, alcohol was often poisonous, and organized crime was able to find a market and thrive (Poholek). There were truly no pros to prohibition, it simply did not work.

On December 5, 1933 the twenty-first amendment was ratified. After prohibition, commercial alcohol production was slow to gain momentum, at least for hard liquor. The breweries did it fairly quickly. This is because when President Roosevelt took office he modified the rules of prohibition, allowing the sale of beer with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent. This is almost the level of today"s beer. Makers of hard liquor took a little longer to produce their products.

As mentioned earlier, organized crime was a direct result of prohibition. Toward the end of prohibition the gangsters realized they would soon be without a market. In 1931 what is now known as the Mafia cam into existence. 'About the time prohibition ended, a national 'Commission' was formed to coordinate gangland operations throughout the country, to arbitrate disputes between gangs, and at times to step in and set right a badly run local organization or to appoint a local leader' (Barry 79).

A modern day comparison must be made. Today, as during prohibition, many people feel that certain illicit substances should be legal. The arguments for this are clear and prohibition provides a great example. In fact all of the same arguments that applied for prohibition apply for the drug wars.

From the economic points of view if the drugs were legal prices would not be inflated and competition could drive them down. One would be able to go to a 'drug store', much like one goes to a liquor store. This would mean lower prices for the consumer and a legal business for the storeowner. Aside from offering greater choice to the individual it would help the state. Tax revenue from alcohol was seriously missed during the prohibition era. The tax money generated from any other drug would help with the national expenses.

It would also be healthier. As pointed out earlier alcohol was often mixed and cut with chemicals, sometimes with deadly effects. Deaths from alcohol increased during prohibition. Would deaths from other drugs decrease if they were legal? With prohibition as an example it would seem likely.

Crime would go down. Admittedly people would still be committing the same acts, but they would be legal. During prohibition the average person that wanted a drink became an outlaw. This just does not make sense. Not only did prohibition cause an increase in criminal behavior by normal people, it increased the state"s expense from prosecuting these people. Much money was wasted that could have gone to something so much better. Today, the same thing is occurring with the current drug prosecutions. People largely ignore these laws much like prohibition was ignored.

Crime is not only specific to ordinary citizens. Organized crime thrives when a product is wanted by everyone yet few posses it. In these situations huge organization control the distribution of whatever substance is the hot item. Whether it was alcohol during prohibition or other drugs of today, some organized force drives its sale. Drug cartels are run much like the gangs of the prohibition era were run. They have no problem with killing people, bribing officials, and breaking any other laws necessary to distribute a product and generate millions of dollars in revenue. If legitimate businesses could sell drugs, then profit would go into a community instead of out of it.


The era of prohibition led to a situation in which organized crime was used to obtain the outlawed product. Organized crime grew and thrived during this time and has had a lasting effect on illicit substance distribution. There were no lasting positive effects of prohibition. However there were many disadvantages to this experiment, such as poisoned products, crime rings, and corruption of most any one involved. Thornton sums it up best, 'No measurable gains were made in productivity or reduced absenteeism. Prohibition removed a significant source of tax revenue and greatly increased government spending' (1). Prohibition was a failure. Nearly the same things occur today with the modern drug war and organized crime.


Allen, Frederick Lewis. Since Yesterday. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Barry, James P. Noble Experiment, the. New York: Franklin Watts, INC, 1972.

History of Alcohol Prohibition. 12 Mar. 2004

Katz, William Loren. Constitutional Amendments. New York: Franklin Watts, INC, 1974.

Organized Crime. 12 Mar. 2004

Poholek, Catherine H. Prohibition in theh 1920s. 6 May 1998. 12 Mar. 2004

"Prohibition Era." Fact Monster. Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. 12 Mar. 2004

Prohibition Party. 25 Mar. 2004

Thornton, Mark. "Alcohol Prohibition Was A Failure." Cato Institute. Cato Institute. 12 Mar. 2004

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