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Benson: The 18th Amendment, prohibition and regulation

On Jan. 16, 1919, Nebraska’s Legislature voted to ratify the 18th Amendment that prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” Because Nebraska was the 36th state to ratify the amendment, the temperance movement had the necessary two-thirds of the state Legislatures’ approval. A year later, at midnight on Jan. 17, 1920, the amendment, and the Volstead Act to enforce it, turned the United States dry.

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Temperance officials believed that a federal law was the best solution to the liquor problem, and so they had pushed this amendment through the state Legislatures. “Prohibition represented a genuine attempt to better the lives of people,” but instead, it did them “untold harm.”

In the 19th century in America, people recognized the damage that resulted from excess alcohol consumption, and so they had formed leagues and clubs, such as Boston’s American Temperance Society. Members signed pledge cards that they would cease all consumption.

Cary Nation did far more. After she buried her alcoholic husband, she carried a hatchet into a string of saloons, and there she axed the bars and the bottles. This one-woman army commanded attention.

Now, with an amendment tacked onto the Constitution, people thought the problem solved.

“No prophet arose to foretell the awful things that were coming: the rum ships prowling off the coasts, the illicit breweries and distilleries, the bootleggers, the speakeasies, the corruption of police and judiciary, the hijackers and their machine guns, the gang wars, the murders and assassinations, the national breakdown of morals and manners, and all the rest of the long train of evils that sprang from the 18th Amendment,” wrote Herbert Asbury in his book “The Great Illusion.”

Because the law prohibited the manufacture, distribution, and sale of liquor, legitimate companies were driven out of those businesses, and so the criminals rushed in to assume their duties.

Those who wanted to drink did so. H.L. Mencken, columnist at the Baltimore Sun, stockpiled dozens of bottles in his basement prior to the amendment. Drinkers found plenty of people willing to ignore the federal law and sell them liquor, and so evasion was the rule. Federal authorities might arrest a violator, but juries failed to convict him because the gangsters would threaten and bully the jurors.

The most notorious gangster was Alphonse “Scarface” Capone, who controlled liquor distribution across Chicago. Born Jan. 17, 1899, he turned 21 the day Prohibition became the law. Gang warfare broke out between Capone’s South side Italians and the North side Irish, and so on Valentine’s Day 1929, Capone’s gang machine-gunned seven of Bugs Moran’s Irish gang.

Once Elliot Ness and his fellow revenue agents, the so-called Untouchables, understood that they could not convict Capone of alcohol distribution, nor for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, they prosecuted him for failure to pay income tax on his illegal profits. The jury found him guilty, and the judge sentenced him to 11 years in prison. He served eight, including a stint at Alcatraz.

By 1933, after 13 years, the nation’s citizens and its law enforcement agents had had enough. They recognized that the amendment had failed and that they preferred regulation to prohibition. On Dec. 5, 1933, Utah’s Legislature voted to ratify the 21st Amendment that repealed the 18th Amendment and rendered the Volstead Act unconstitutional, the 36th state Legislature to do so. The “noble experiment” ended, and once again, the nation was wet.

Public health officials tried a different tactic when they recognized that cigarette smoking resulted in lung cancer and emphysema. Instead of passing a law that made tobacco production and distribution illegal, they educated the public. Fifty years ago, on Saturday, Jan. 11, 1964, Surgeon General Luther Terry issued his 377-page “Report on Smoking and Health.” The result: smoking has subsided from 50 percent of men in 1964 to just 19 percent today, and from 33 percent of women to less than 17 percent today. Millions of people have lived longer because of that report’s dissemination and influence.

Government officials tried prohibition when they declared a war on drugs decades ago, but they did so without a Constitutional amendment. Yet, this prohibition has delivered the same: organized crime, gangs, gang warfare, massive numbers incarcerated, murders. This time, though, possession is illegal.

Now that Colorado and Washington are edging towards regulation, rather than outright prohibition, we are unsure whether that is good or bad for our citizens. A writer in The Week said, “Legalization may prove to be a mistake — or it may not. Either way, ‘it’s an experiment worth conducting.’”

I am not convinced that is true. When governments impose laws and experiment with people’s lives, we have seen that the side effects can result in a social disaster. The nation has tried prohibition, and now Colorado and Washington will try regulation.

Benson is a historian from Sterling, Colo., who writes a bi-weekly column for The Dickinson Press.