Showalter

If you had too much to drink on New Year’s Eve or one too many brews watching college bowl games, you probably were not aware that you were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1920 Volstead Act.

After the approval of the 18th Amendment, Congress had the unenviable task of writing a law to enforce Prohibition, the most disastrous social experiment in American history.

Most Americans were under the impression that Congress would outlaw hard liquor like whiskey and gin. They assumed that beer and wine would not fall under the definition of “intoxicating liquors” stated in the Amendment.

When the Anti-Saloon League bullied Congress into outlawing the manufacture of all alcoholic beverages, beer and wine included, resistance was guaranteed.

The Volstead Act failed for a variety of other reasons too.  

Possessing and consuming alcohol was actually legal. Only the manufacture, transportation, and sale were forbidden. Congress outlawed the supply but was powerless to stop the demand.

Congress only appropriated enough money to hire a few thousand Prohibition agents to police the entire country. The pay was so low that agents took bribes and payoffs from bootleggers to look the other way.

Religions that served wine on holy days were exempt from the law. Congregations of all faiths that doled out out small sips of wine on Saturday or Sunday dramatically increased consumption, no doubt to celebrate the greater glory of God.

In New York, many Irish-Catholics decided to become Jews, since Rabbis were allowed to buy more wine than other faiths.

Another exception was made for medicine. Alcohol was an ingredient in many prescription drugs in those days, so doctors cheerfully wrote thousands of new prescriptions for scores of newfound aches and ailments.  

Liquor flowed freely in the White House.  President Harding liked to throw a good party, and the First Lady was known in quieter circles to be a pretty good bartender. Not to be outdone, the halls of Congress were amply supplied with hooch.

The astonishing level of hypocrisy and lawlessness is comical in retrospect, but it also brought to the nation a level of organized crime and violence never seen before.  

Aside from the history lesson, the war on booze tells us a lot about our own failed war on drugs, specifically marijuana.

Similar to the 1920s, current American attitudes towards illegal drugs vary. Hefty majorities of Americans believe that the possession of small amounts of marijuana should be legal, but hardly anyone thinks that heroin, meth, and crack should be legal.  

That is why most states now allow pot to be sold in one capacity or another. Some allow it for medical reasons, while others allow possession of small recreational amounts.  A few states have kept it illegal but have decriminalized it, sort of like paying a traffic ticket.

For its part, Texas allows very limited use of marijuana for a few clearly defined medical conditions.  It is one of the most restrictive states in the country.  

In the last legislative session, there was support in the Texas House of Representatives to reduce the criminal penalties associated with pot, but Lt. Governor Dan Patrick quashed it in the Texas Senate.

Laws only work for two reasons.  People fear that they will get caught, or the law is supported by long standing habits baked in by custom, history, or religion.

Marijuana no longer meets either of those criteria.  Most people don’t think it is all that bad, and the likelihood of prosecution is slim.

Dr. Steve Showalter is a government professor at Lee College in Baytown.

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