Why Did Prohibition Fail
Why did prohibition fail? There was a national amendment. A large number of Americans became lawbreakers. There are some similarities to those who use illegal drugs today.
Prohibition failed because the demand for alcoholic beverages among large sectors of the American public continued unabated despite ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States on January 16, 1919. Article I of the Amendment read as follows:
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.
Noticeably, the 18th Amendment did not outlaw the consumption of alcoholic beverages, although enforcement of the prohibition on its sale invariably affected those who merely purchased and consumed such drinks. In any event, ratification of the amendment served merely to drive the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages underground, where innovative outlaws, particularly those who successfully organized criminals into structured groups with hierarchies, profited from the considerable demand among the public for such beverages. Thus, the era of bootlegging was born, and the enormous profits derived from the illicit manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol was used to expand into new territories and various metropolises. Ratification of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution on December 5, 1933 repealed the 18th Amendment, effectively ending the era of Prohibition on a national level. Some counties across the country, especially in the South, continued to maintain a prohibition on alcohol following passage of the 21st Amendment.
Similarities between the era of Prohibition and today’s “war on drugs” are striking. The demand for narcotics, like those derived from poppy plants (morphine and heroin), and synthetic drugs remains very high despite criminal statutes prohibiting their manufacture, sale, and use. The question arises, therefore, as to whether the criminalization of certain drugs has been successful on any level and whether that criminalization has merely fed the growth of organized crime. Certainly, the tens of billions of dollars spent to destroy drug-related crops in South Asia and Latin America and to enforce laws prohibiting the importation of drugs into the United States has proven to be of questionable efficacy. The demand for such drugs has generally remained steady (for example, demand for heroin had been in decline but has recently experienced a significant resurgence).
To a large degree, whether the failure of Prohibition should serve as a precedent for the current "war on drugs" is largely up to the individual. In contrast to the issues of legalizing of marijuana and addressing alcohol abuse, the issue of narcotics and drugs like heroin, methamphetamines, and other currently banned substances is a little more complicated. Alcohol can be consumed responsibly in moderation. Heroin and other drugs, however, represent an absolute evil in terms of their highly pernicious effects on users. These health effects also require society to provide expensive medical care to those users. There is no such thing as moderate heroin use, given the level of its addictive properties. One would be hard-pressed, therefore, to suggest that the failure of Prohibition in the early 1930s should serve as a model for the failure of expensive efforts at stemming the flow of cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines into the United States.
Prohibition failed for a variety of reasons. Let us examine some of the most important of these.
One reason Prohibition failed is that it did not have enough support in the public. Not enough people thought it was wrong for them to drink. It is true that an amendment was passed, but the fact that the amendment passed did not necessarily mean that all Americans, or even most Americans, believed that drinking was wrong. Many Americans did believe that all drinking was wrong. However, many others believed, for example, that other people’s drinking was bad while their own was benign. In other words, they might have believed that the immigrant workers who drank in saloons had problems but that it was okay if they themselves had a drink or two with dinner at a restaurant. Because many Americans did not believe that their own drinking was wrong, they did not stop. Alcohol consumption is believed to have dropped to about 30% of what it had been before Prohibition, but it did not entirely stop.
Another reason Prohibition failed is that it hurt governments economically. Governments had gotten a lot of their money from taxes on alcohol. After Prohibition, this source of revenue was gone. This weakened support for Prohibition among political leaders.
A third reason Prohibition failed is that it was not well-enforced. There were very few federal Prohibition agents, not enough to effectively patrol the whole country. Police officers were also not well-paid during this time and were relatively easy to bribe. The people running illegal alcohol operations had plenty of money with which to pay such bribes. Because there were few federal agents, and because local police were often easily bribed, the law was not enforced very strongly.
Finally, Prohibition failed because it gave rise to tremendous amounts of organized crime. With alcohol illegal, but still in demand, organized crime gangs arose to get alcohol to the people who wanted it. The most prominent of these gangsters became very rich, and there was a great deal of gang violence in the streets. This worried Americans and they came to believe that Prohibition was not worth it if it resulted in this rise of organized crime.
For all of these reasons, Prohibition failed even though there had been enough votes to pass the 18th Amendment.