It’s been 100 years since Prohibition took effect. On Jan. 17, 1920, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution outlawed on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages, a ban would last until it was repealed in 1933.
Often described as a failed “noble experiment,” Prohibition taught society to be cautious about bans, says public health and law expert Lawrence O. Gostin, JD, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown. In an editorial published in the journal Science, Gostin describes Prohibition as a “blunt tool” in preventing harm, particularly for dual-use products “causing harm to some consumers, while safeguarding others.” He likens banning alcohol to the current conundrum on another dual-use product, e-cigarettes.
As Patrick Riccards, the chief communications and strategy officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, NJ, notes in an opinion piece published on The Hill, historians view Prohibition as a flop because people kept drinking. It also created an underground economy that led to the rise of gangsters such as Al Capone, she writes. “Law-abiding Americans found themselves becoming entrenched in the criminal world just because they wanted to drink beer.”
Perhaps the best thing about Prohibition is that it demonstrated how our system of government can work, Riccards explains. Concerned citizens and groups effectively petitioned the government to end the alcohol ban after its failures were recognized.
“In retrospect, historians, activists and public policy experts are more aware of the unintended consequences that can result from well-meaning legislation that’s unrealistic,” she writes. “It’s essential that all of us understand the power of the Constitution—for this anniversary and beyond.”
We’ll drink to that—cheers!