By David Crary, Associated Press
(AP) — In this era of bottomless mimosas, craft beers and ever-present happy hours, it’s striking to recall that 100 years ago the United States imposed a nationwide ban on the production and sale of all types of alcohol.
The Prohibition Era, which lasted from Jan. 17, 1920, until December 1933, is now viewed as a failed experiment that glamorized illegal drinking, but there are several intriguing parallels in current times.
Americans are consuming more alcohol per capita now than in the time leading up to Prohibition, when alcohol opponents successfully made the case that excessive drinking was ruining family life. More states are also moving to decriminalize marijuana, with legalization backers frequently citing Prohibition’s failures.
”Prohibition had a lot of unintended consequences that backfired on the people who worked so hard to establish the law,” said Harvard history professor Lisa McGirr. “It helped to activate and enfranchise men and women who had not been part of the political process earlier. That was not the intention of Prohibition supporters.”
While some Prohibition supporters predicted it would boost the economy, instead it proved harmful. Thousands of jobs were lost due to closures of distilleries, breweries and saloons. Federal, state and local governments lost billions in revenue as liquor taxes disappeared. One major consequence: Increasing reliance on income taxes to sustain government spending.
One of the pithiest summaries of Prohibition came earlier — a scathing assessment from journalist H.L. Mencken in 1925.
Five years of Prohibition “completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists,” he wrote. “There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”
Prohibition’s centennial comes as the United States is incrementally ending the criminalization of marijuana. Recreational use of pot is now legal in 11 states. More than 30 allow its use for medical purposes.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, believes most Americans now view the anti-marijuana crusades of America’s “War on Drugs” as misguided in ways that evoke Prohibition.
“Even some of the older generation are saying, ‘We went too far. That was a mistake,’” he said.
W.A. Sprinkle/McSorley’s Old Ale House via AP