12 Bad Effects of Prohibition You Should Know

12 Bad Effects of Prohibition You Should Know March 11, 2009

Should drinking alcohol be illegal? Even asking that question today seems absurd, but only 75 years ago it was illegal to drink alcohol in the United States.

I’m talking about Prohibition, of course, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. It was a massive social experiment that failed and is a lesson for us as we think about other victimless crimes like drugs, gambling, and prostitution.

According to Peter McWilliams in his excellent Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do, there were twelve bad effects of Prohibition:

1. Prohibition created disrespect for the law.

Pullquote: Prohibition goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes crimes out of things that are not crimes.
Abraham Lincoln

If everyone breaks the law, it is disrespected. Practically everyone broke the law of Prohibition — making everyone criminals. If the law prohibited moderate consumption of something as pleasurable and harmless as alcohol, what else did it prohibit that was good?

Prohibition encouraged people to see the law as whimsical and unimportant, instead of something good and protecting. It did nothing to encourage the respect and obedience the law deserves.

2. Prohibition eroded respect for religion.

Evangelicals were the main force behind Prohibition. They saw alcohol as the “devil’s drink,” hating it so much they explained away their holy book’s favorable references to it (and still do today).

They preached God demanded total abstinence from alcohol. Much like today with homosexuality, conservatives thought drinking was responsible for many of society’s ills. If it could be made illegal, then God would bless America.

But instead of ushering in paradise, Prohibition increased alcohol consumption and immorality, created organized crime and caused massive political corruption. As they so often are, evangelicals were wrong. They made false promises and did far more harm than good. This jaded many people towards religion.

Of course, to many of us, eroding respect for religion was one of the few positive effects of Prohibition…

3. Prohibition created organized crime.

“Prohibition made the gangster not just well paid, but well liked,” McWilliams said. It took significant organization to bootleg the quantities of alcohol people desired. The result was organized crime, which didn’t differentiate between petty crimes like transporting liquor and real crimes like violence, murder, and theft.

Similarly, organized crime continues today because of the prohibition on gambling, prostitution, and drugs. Where there is demand, there will be supply.

4. Prohibition permanently corrupted law enforcement, the court system, and politics.
Organized crime was huge, and it had a lot of money and influence. Policeman and politicians were bribed and blackmailed:

If mobsters couldn’t buy or successfully threaten someone in a powerful position, they either “wiped them out” or, following more democratic principles, ran a candidate against the incumbent in the next election. They put money behind their candidate, stuffed the ballot box, or leaked some scandal about the incumbent just before the election (or all three). The important thing was winning, and more often than not, someone beholden to organized crime rose to the position of power.

It created a new class of candidates that were open to the highest bidder. Many court cases required payoffs to get a “fair” hearing. In other words, corruption abounded and the people began distrusting the government.

5. Prohibition overburdened police, courts, and the penal system.

You can’t throw everyone in jail — yet with Prohibition, even a small percentage of offenders couldn’t be locked away without overburdening the system. In 1923, for instance, the US District Attorneys spent 44% of their time on Prohibition cases. This takes time away from the real purpose of police and courts: to protect people and their possessions, not enforce a religious sect’s morality.

6. Prohibition harmed people financially, emotionally, and morally.

Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs because of Prohibition. People in the alcohol business had two options: to find lower-paying work or become criminals (that is, staying in their profession). Because of the rhetoric evangelicals were spouting, it was also hard to find a decent job coming from the “devil’s work.” This encouraged people to break the law just to support their families.

7. Prohibition caused physical harm.

Pullquote: Marijuana prohibition has done far more harm to far more people than marijuana ever could.
William F. Buckley, Jr.

Because alcohol was illegal, its purity was not regulated. While fruit, vegetable, and grain alcohol is usually safe, alcohol made from wood is not — but it is difficult to tell the difference until too late. Over 10,000 people died during Prohibition from drinking wood alcohol. Others who were not killed went permanently blind or had severe organ damage.

The same happens today with illegal drugs — most overdoses are accidental, a result from not knowing the purity or strength of the drug.

And who knows how many people died because of organized crime, or due to corrupt or overburdened police. When the police spend much of their time arresting and investigating crimes that cause no harm to others, the crimes that do cause harm increase and real criminals are more likely to go free.

8. Prohibition changed the drinking habits of our country — for the worse.

Pullquote: Prohibition is better than no liquor at all.
Will Rogers

Instead of going out to drink, people began drinking mostly at home. When they did go out to drink, it was often to get drunk — you couldn’t been seen with a bottle, so it was best to finish it. Hard liquor became popular because it was more concentrated and thus cheaper to smuggle. To make hard liquor more palatable, cocktails were created.

Ironically, Prohibition also increased the amount people drank. Drinking has never again returned to pre-Prohibition levels.

9. Prohibition made cigarette smoking a national habit.

Cigarettes were also prohibited in many states, which seemed to make them irresistible. By 1930, cigarettes were legal everywhere and consumption nearly tripled. Smoking became fashionable and a sign of rebellion. It was also far more harmful and addictive than alcohol.

10. Prohibition prevented the treatment of drinking problems.

It’s a lot harder to say you have a problem when it could land you in jail. Legally, you were either sober or a criminal — both occasional drinkers and drunks were lumped into the same category. You couldn’t go to your pastor or counselor for help — you might end up in jail.

11. Prohibition caused “immorality.”

Evangelicals were expecting a New Jerusalem of Sobriety, but what they got was an explosion of immorality. Men and women began drinking together — they were partners in crime, and they became partners in bed. Unmarried sexual activity increased and the decade became known as the “roaring 20’s.”

12. Prohibition was phenomenally expensive.

Some estimate the total cost was about a billion dollars in a time when a Ford factory worker made $5 a day. The government also lost a significant amount of tax revenue because alcohol sales went underground. This made the price of alcohol artificially inflated, and people spent a lot for a little liquor.

* * *

Prohibition was a massively failed attempt at legislating morality. The government’s role is to protect citizens and their property — not legislate what people are allowed to do for recreation, who they can love, or what kind of sex they can have.

We spend billions of dollars a year on “the war on drugs” and have only defeat to show for it. Meanwhile, the police and courts are tied up with people whose only crime was enjoying or selling a recreational drug. They were hurting no one, except possibly themselves. And what business of the government’s is that?

[digg=http://digg.com/political_opinion/12_Bad_Effects_of_Prohibition_You_Should_Know]”It is time we realized,” said Sam Harris, that “crimes without victims are like debts without creditors.” As we think about the role of government in victimless “crimes” like gambling, prostitution, drugs, pre-martial sex, and homosexual marriage, let us remember the failure of Prohibition.

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  • vorjack

    “7. Prohibition caused physical harm.”

    Here’s an odd one: Jake Leg.

  • reckoner71


    I would argue that in states where abortion is illegal (that life begins at conception), that one should be legally entitled to imbibe alcohol 20 years, 3 months after exiting the womb.

  • DB

    2. Prohibition eroded respect for religion.

    I am not sure that was so bad ;-)

    @reckoner71 – People in those states should also be allowed to claim babies in the womb on their taxes if they are pregnant in Dec and carry into the next year!

  • Valis

    …pre-martial sex

    I prefer fighting *before* sex, makeup-sex is the best ;-)

  • Confused

    Is “victimless crimes” a euphemism? Given alcohol kills more people in my country than cancer, I’m a bit skeptical about that term.

    Of course, it’s nothing compared to motorcars, but at least use of a motorcar is officially regulated.

  • a post just in time for St. Patrick’s Day ;-)

  • Elemenope

    The funny part is that nearly everyone recognizes the damage that alcohol prohibition did to all of those areas you describe.

    But point out that drug prohibition is currently doing exactly the same thing, and watch many of those people’s heads spin around like a top spitting pea-soup puke everywhere.

    And alcohol is objectively much worse for you than many of those. The logical tension just kills me.

  • Confused

    Also, the assertion that prohibition made people drink more is a little bit disingenuous; the UK never had prohibition, and while it may partially explain some differences between our drinking cultures (Americans tend to drink fast and then pass out, while Brits tend to drink slowly, but solidly and over a long period of time) you can’t really say that the UK doesn’t also have a major problem with alcohol abuse.

  • Boy, I have been singing this tune since the mid 90s. The government will NEVER stop the use of drugs. Legalize them, legislate them and tax them for prevention and cure.

  • Responsible drinking is something parents should teach their children. I’m grateful for my father for giving me, when I was 14 and very curious about alcoholic beverages, a ridiculously potent dark ale which made me so violently sick I was put off beer until I was 19.

    It’s not the government’s role to regulate what we can and can’t do in our spare time. Like with alcohol, it’s a parent’s duty to teach children about the risks of drugs, gambling and sex. The government should stay the hell out of it.

    Unfortunately, even here in the Netherlands where a lot of this stuff is semi-legal, the government is moving into the exact opposite direction: more regulation, stricter laws, stricter enforcement. It’s a pathway to certain failure.

  • mirshafie

    Great summary of how drug prohibition has always failed.

    I would also like to point out that alcohol prohibition has been around for a long time in the middle east. Islam prohibited alcohol, in a time when cannabis and opium were widely used. What reasons can there be for that?

    It could be that alcohol was relatively new on the market, and it was easy to point at it and call it devil’s drink, whereas opium and cannabis were more accepted parts of the culture and everyone knew that you could use these drugs responsibly.

    It could also be that alcohol is one of those drugs that may actually cause a lot of harm to others than just the drinker. Opioids, cannabis, and many synthetic drugs are not directly related to violent crime, but there is a strong correlation between alcohol consumption and violence.

    Alcohol is one of the worst drugs with regard to violence, accidents, personal health, mental health and dependence. I don’t think prohibition works for any drug, but it is very strange that alcohol should be legal when psychedelics, cannabis, ecstasy and the like can get you into prison.

  • Barry

    I finally found a post where I agree 100% with you Daniel, lol.

    As an evangelical I know I’m in the minority, and I use almost all the exact same arguments listed above and I get looks like I’m crazy.

    I’ve never used illegal drugs and my alcohol experience is very light weight compared to most I know. But I’ve come to a few conclusions:

    1. If as believers we are supposed to follow the Bible, then there are as many positive as negative mentions of alcohol in the Bible.

    2. Jesus didn’t preach against it, and wasn’t involved in politics either, the main way we try to regulate such activities.

    3. The history of the Church has not been prohibitionist until the last 150 years. As C.S. Lewis pointed out Islam is the faith of Prohibition, not Christianity.

    My only concern would be the dangers of some drugs such as meth, where the negative impact is so great. The pot heads I know are at worst lazy, but some of the people I know that do meth, are destroying their bodies and can become very irrational. The money made off of taxing drugs would probably pay for the treatments though.

    For those that would disagree, Daniel’s points have been illustrated very well in the last few weeks with the escalation of violence in Mexico by the drug cartels.

  • Interesting stuff. “both occasional drinkers and drunks were lumped into the same category” kinda reminds me how a murderer is lumped into the same category as a loving, productive atheist- both are condemned to hell.

  • Humans are funny. The more someone tells us not to do something, the more we want to do it. By nature people get a thrill out of “getting away” with something.

    People use drugs and alcohol just like religion. It helps them escape from reality.

  • “People use drugs and alcohol just like religion. It helps them escape from reality.”

    mark: I agree although I dont know about legalizing cocain and other hard drugs. Although I am of the opinion that if they made liquor illegal on friday by monday morning folks would have homade brew available.

    Liquor isnt very hard to make and people have proved in most cultures that I know that they will get drunk/f#cked up/intoxicated/blasted or whatever name you want to call it.

  • Rynoos

    @ daniel,
    So do you really believe there are no victims with gambling, prostitution and drugs?

  • claidheamh mor

    In my wine-tasting classes in 1992, there were wine producers in California’s Sonoma and Napa Valleys who remembered the devastating effects of Prohibition’s broad brush on their crops and livelihood.

  • John C

    Prohibition is a lot like religion. It attempts to address an internal matter by an external solution, and so it inevitably fails. This is the heart of Jesus’ many faults and struggles with the “religious” leaders of the day. This is why Jesus called them “white washed tombs” cuz they looked good on the outside, but inside they were dead. He knew where they were leading the people would only cause more pain, more oppression.

    Only when the solution springs from within one’s own being is true liberty experienced. It’s a new nature within (His) that brings the liberating freedom and transforms us into the “Himself” kind.

    Religion…its a terrible bondage. But Christ IN you, the hope of glory is what its all about. Its an inside job.

  • I disagree that prostitution is a victimless crime, but that’s probably better suited to a separate post entirely.

  • flood

    What did Catholics use during their weird ceremonies when prohibition was in effect?

    I know the priests have super-powers and can make the actual, real blood of their christ, but it has to start off as wine, doesn’t it?

  • RobotzAreAwesome

    Oh well, at least we still have Salvia!

  • John C

    All outward human activity and behavior has an inner origin. A man (or woman) will always behave like the person they think they are. This begs the question, who do you think you are?

    When we act apart from our true origin and nature in God, we act contrary to our true nature and this brings about confusion and bondage to Self which was inherited from Adam in the fall. Ironically, this same Self was crucified with Christ and is now dead. So, when we act our of a “dead” humanity we only get a “dead” life.

    Christ offers us a new and resurrected life, His. Why would we want to live from a dead thing when we can identify with a living…life?

    The true offer & message of Christ is not understood. When someone “gets it” they are liberated from an old, dead way of living and their life becomes…alive in Him.

    Life…thats the offer.

  • Darkmatter

    They are a shadow of things to come. When you are in heaven, you got to drink the real blood of Jesus and get drunk with the Spirit.

    Remember Jesus showed doubting Thomas His pierced wound with His newly ressurrected bodily appearance. Guess that is where you suck and drink the real blood and get drunk with the Holy Spirit. You get to eat his body as well, on earth is bread.

    Maybe there are fishes to eat from the river of life and fruits from the tree of life. If you hate raw food, you can prepare lambchop, meat comes for the ressurrected Lamb of God with tongues of fire.

    Guess it’s not that bad in heaven.

  • Brian

    I lived in Colombia most of my life, and I have seen and lived many horrible consequences of the drug trafficking (drug lord wars, kidnapping, killing, unemployment, bad economy, corruption, deterioration of the society at many levels, guerrilla war increase, poor people getting poorer, etc). Many of us have left for the sake of our children.

    US sends to Colombia million of dollars a year for the war on drugs, most of it in military help. I can tell you, none of the problems have diminished. Drug production has even increased. The president has made a few positives changes, but the bottom line is still there. We are paying a high social price. The war on drugs fails.

    I have seen enough programs in National Geographic about drugs and their effect on users that really breaks my heart thinking on all the people on both sides of the equation that are suffering.

    As an atheist-humanist with young children I am not sure where to stand in this issue. I have seen that making that stuff illegal does not make it disappear, it worsens everything.

    I wonder what the creationists have to say about God making the plants that produce drugs. Why did He make them? Didn’t he foresee that we were going to abuse it?

  • Darkmatter

    “I wonder what the creationists have to say about God making the plants that produce drugs. Why did He make them? Didn’t he foresee that we were going to abuse it?”

    Christian evengelical leaders blame it on the original sin. Adam and Eve eat of the tree of knowing what is good and evil and God no and you and any decendants have to die because the become like God.

    Before that amybe as they argue, humans are immune to these evil drugs, or certain plants evolved to be dangerous to humans consumption, because of the original curse, their arguments.

  • Also…

    The one single economic rule that everyone forgets that can go a long way to make decisions is:

    Focus on incentives, not intentions.

    You can intend something good to happen through government action, but it’s guaranteed to fail if the incentives are not aligned.

  • Darkmatter

    “Of course I’m also an atheist. The idea that I don’t believe in god in order to be a lying criminal is in complete contrast to how I live my life. How do believers account for people like me?”

    Of your kind and for the sake of humanity, has a moral right to demand christianity, you humans who use moral to degrade non believers to the level of brute beasts, that they repent to their God and apologize to the world, for they blatantly of their sinful nature use their bible for their own gain.

    Has not their God in their Book says that God cause the sun to rise on the righteous and unrighteous? They behave as if they are God, but are gorvern by unreasonable fear of …

  • cooledskin

    “[Drinking,] drugs, gambling, and prostitution.”

    …Those all have the POSSIBILITY of being victimless crimes, but at the moment they AREN’T victimless crimes. Most of them involve collateral damage inflicted on the families of those who become addicted (prostitution, par contre, is a desperate step that often leaves women at the mercy of violent and ruthless pimps). And yeah, addiction is different than simply partaking in them casually, but the problem is that it’s hard to make laws about addiction. I understand where the people who wanted to outlaw prohibition were coming from. After all, most men who beat their wives do so drunk.

    I’m just saying that you shouldn’t dismiss these with a wave of the hand, because they are social ills for more reasons than Christian/religious puritanism, and that they are most certainly NOT victimless.

  • Maestro

    Yeah, I agree with a lot of other people here.

    As someone in the health profession, I continually say things like “I wish alcohol and smoking could be made illegal”, knowing full well that things like this have been tried, and have failed, and will continue to fail, because they’re so ubiquitous and people think they’re a right not a privilege.

    As for other drugs, they are not “victimless” at all. Families are torn apart, lives are ruined, an entire gang culture hangs on the financial security of drug-peddling, leading to other crimes like robbery and murder. Not to mention the on-going health effects, even of “harmless” drugs like marijuana. So, they should never be legal, and I cheer every time I hear about drug busts and arrests. I know the fight will never be over, but small victories are nice.

    As for pre-marital sex, homosexuality and so on … well yeah. I think we can all agree these really are victimless. I mean, as long as people are responsible and reasonable about them, these things really have no basis for being banned …

    Anyway, there’s my 2 1/2 cents.

  • Jim

    I’m so glad you have read this book Daniel! It’s been one of my favorites for years. I was mildly acquainted with Peter McWilliams, and the story of his death (which few people know) is quite ironic in light of this book.

    Peter had AIDS, and needed to use marijuana to help him with the nausea caused by his medication. DEA agents raided his home when they learned of this, and told him they would take away his home if he tested positive on a drug test, which they could randomly subject him to.

    So, Peter stopped smoking pot, and his medicine caused him to choke to death on his own vomit.

    I tried to obtain the movie rights to his story about 10 years ago, but another group purchased them, and has done nothing with it. :(

  • Prohibition is just another method used to tame the infidels. It makes me angry. I live in Utah the closest state in the nation to retaining prohibition. We have to buy our liquor at state stores, buy lower alcohol beer at the supermarket and pay fees to go to a club.

    Recently our state house passed a law repealing mandatory club fees and it is expected to pass the sentate, the trade off? They will now scan your drivers license at the door and bounce it off the DMV data base, who know what will happen with those records…. Oh and in tandem with this their were some people upset because they could see alcohol when they went into a restraunt so now restraunts have to hide their alcohol from view and must make drinks behind a wall.

    My state is repugnant in so many ways if not the natural beauty of it I would have left long ago.

  • Matthew Angle

    You should mention how far back it set the craftbrew scene in America. It wasn’t until the 1970s-1980s that homebrewing finally took off and then even then good beer wasn’t being made in America until the 90s. Think about the varieties of American beer that were lost because of prohibition. It makes me want to cry thinking that Bud has been the definitive “American Beer”.

    The only good I can see coming out of this is that American craftbrewing has exploded and we now have a lot more craftbrewers than almost any other country in the world. Prohibition created a vacuum that has been filled with some really great American beer companies (Dogfish Head, Rouge, even Sam Adams and about 1,400 other local and craft breweries). If prohibition hadn’t happened our beer market might have been dominated by bigger companies that had been established before prohibition.

  • faemorpheus

    The concept of alcoholism as a disease also came out of prohibition. The government had been calling alcohol the devils drink…..and when prohibition wasn’t going so well (organized crime and such) they needed a way to remedy it. Saying that alcoholism was a disease that only some people got was that way for them. As small as disease vs disorder may seem….the institution of AA has been using it ever since. Much to (I think) our detriment. You don’t have the power to control the disease, you have to give yourself over to a “higher power”. There are much better behavioral/cognitive systems of therapy but AA has such a DAMN hold….

    I don’t mean any offense to anyone who has gotten help from AA, I do understand that alcoholism is a problem. I just don’t like AA. Seems to me like it breeds codependency. I know I pretty much grew up around those groups most of my life living with an alcoholic mother.

    Anyways….Prohibition=bad. Alcoholism=Disorder not disease

  • #2 for the most part is true but I am a forever changed man since I journeyed out of the US. I am a evangelical who has and will be a missionary in Europe again soon. I drink wine quite often.

    Leaving religion out of it I would say getting wasted is bad for all sorts of reasons. People have bad judgement which can lead to wreckless driving, running one’s mouth, fighting, verbally and physically abusing one’s family.

    The key is to enjoy alcohol in moderation. I drink wine for taste.

    Now bringing religion into it I would say to my evangelical family that it is time to wake up and read about our freedom we have in Christ. Also Christ more than likely drank wine (can’t recall and too lazy to find out if he did at the moment). Evangelicals from Europe drink wine in moderation. God is not going to get us if we drink a glass of wine for dinner or even lunch for that matter ;)

    I will leave you with a quote from the movie Braveheart, Freeeeedom!”

  • There’s been a lot said about prohibition here. But when a left-wing rag [/sarcasm] such as the all-free-market-all-the-time Economist (from whom this editorial is cribbed) reccomends legalizing drugs as the “least-bad alternative” it should give one pause for thought.

    Just as the approach to terrorism should be multifaceted, compounding foreign policy and crime measures rather than simplisticly declaring “war” upon it, the approach to drugs and the terrible damage of addictions should be primarily a health policy problem rather than a police problem.

    Of course, in some places that might make things worse, at least until they adopt some model of single-payer health care …

  • bigjohn756

    It seems to me that all religiously motivated laws remove or restrict individual rights. Prohibition, Prop 8, war on drugs and blue laws are all examples. If only the religious could contain their hubris then we would all benefit. Unfortunately, I hold little hope for that since religious people have a desperate need to continually reinforce their faith in any way that they can. Forcing others to conform to religious ideas is one way to do that.

  • For some reason, John, this doesn’t surprise me. Your writing as a psychedelic feel to me… ;)

    Like I said in another thread, many people turn to Jesus as a replacement addiction. For people who need that to break a bad addiction, then I’m happy they can find a pleasant replacement. Going to church a few times a week, reading a boring old book, and giving 10% of your income to the church is a small price to pay. I know, I know, that’s evil religion, not letting Jesus into your heart…

  • zach

    It’s quite interesting actually- a lot of “Born again” (that’s the term for becoming christian later aka 20s+ right?) christians I’ve met are ex-druggies.

  • Ty

    Reason 13:

    Really good tequila.

    Nuff said.

  • No, what prohibition did was bring all this to the surface.
    Don’t ever presume that rules and laws and change create people’s selfishness and disrespect and honor for authority.
    If that were the case then just let your kids do whatever they want. And I’m not talking about your 3 year old. Let you 16 year old do whatever they way. I’d hate for your rules “morality” to interfere with “rights” and “feelings.” If you create rules then it could lead to so many other things.

    The curfew created: lack of respect for parents, lying, lack of respect for police, rebellion in general, excuses, lack of communication between parents and kids, and so much more.
    Let’s just get rid of the curfew.

    Prohibition showed the true color of the people – selfishness, greed, lack of respect. It didn’t create this crap.

    Horribly thought out post.