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America's War On Drugs: Prohibition

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The term "war on drugs" was coined in 1971 by President Richard Nixon when he called drug abuse "public enemy number one in the United States." However, America's desire to try to control private use of intoxicating substances had begun a century earlier with Susan B. Anthony et al, who argued for women's suffrage, for freeing slaves and against public saloons (the temperance movement).

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution is perhaps the best-known legislative ban of an intoxicating substance, resulting in the period 1920-1933 being known as "Prohibition."

The prohibition movement began before the Civil War, with states regulating the manufacture and sale of "intoxicating beverages" -- measures upheld by the Supreme Court. In 1947, Chief Justice Taney wrote (emphasis added):
    "And if any State deems the retail and internal traffic in ardent spirits injurious to its citizens, and calculated to produce idleness, vice, or debauchery, I see nothing, in the constitution of the United States to prevent it from regulating and restraining the traffic, or from prohibiting, it altogether, if it thinks proper."


States then moved from regulating manufacture and consumption to prohibiting private consumption. In 1906, only three states banned the possession of alcohol for private consumption: Maine (1884), Kansas (1880) and North Dakota (1889). [Such states are called "dry" states.] In 1906, Oklahoma's constitution, ratified as part of its admission to statehood, included a provision banning alcohol.

The Supreme Court ruled that a dry state could not prohibit shipments of alcohol from wet states. In response, in 1913 Congress passed the Webb-Kenyon Act, which allowed dry states to enforce their prohibition laws. After all, in 1913, half of the population and almost three-quarters of the area of the US was blanketed by a law prohibiting alcohol consumption.

In 1917, in Crane v Campbell, the Court ruled that there is no "right to own" an intoxicating substance, because the state can prohibit its manufacture. The Court ignored a 1904 ruling on police power as related to private conduct when it wrote (emphasis added):

    [It] clearly follows from our numerous decisions upholding prohibition legislation that the right to hold intoxicating liquors for personal use is not one of those fundamental privileges of a citizen of the United States which no State may abridge. A contrary view would be incompatible with the undoubted power to prevent manufacture, gift, sale, purchase or transportation of such articles-the only feasible ways of getting them. An assured right of possession would necessarily imply some adequate method to obtain not subject to destruction at the will of the State.
Thus in 1919, the 18th Amendment (passed by Congress two years earlier) and the Volstead Act combined to make it a federal crime to possess alcohol, even if the consumption was private and in one's own home.

People, of course, continued to drink, despite millions of dollars in state and federal compliance efforts. And federal revenues fell, because the government was no longer collecting liquor taxes. In fact, prior to implementing the income tax in 1913, about a third of the federal treasury came from liquor taxes. But by 1920, the income tax funded about two-thirds of federal revenue.

However, starting in 1930, the Great Depression put a serious crimp in the federal budget. From 1930 to 1931, income tax revenue dropped 15 percent. In 1932, income tax revenue was a little more than half the 1930 level. And by 1933, income tax revenue was only 40 percent of the 1930 receipts.

The year 1932 was a presidential election year, and prohibition was on the ballot, so to speak.
  • The Prohibition Party opposed any repeal of the 18th Amendment.
  • Conversely, the Democratic Party included a provision to repeal the 18th Amendment in its party platform.
  • The Republican Party platform of 1932 was wishy-washy, but it opposed repeal ("for the American nation never in its history has gone backward") while suggesting a replacement that would delegate prohibitory power to the states (as this was the state of the union before the 18th Amendment, it's difficult to see why this isn't a repeal).
The 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed prohibition, was ratified by the 36th state on 5 December 1933.

Some artifacts of that era include Blue Laws, dry counties, and limitations on the sale and shipping of wine from state-to-state.

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