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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Alcohol prohibition in the US: crime is what the state says it is?


At midnight on January 16, 1920, alcohol was criminalised in the United States of America. The Volstead Act, the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, made it unlawful to manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess any intoxicating liquor. The Act set out specific exemptions, for example industrial alcohol, sacramental wine, doctors’ prescriptions and “near-beer” with a maximum 0.5 alcohol content.

The Volstead Act made liquor advertising illegal and also stated that any room, house, building, boat, vehicle, structure or place where intoxicating liquor is manufactured, sold, kept or bartered was declared a common nuisance.

Prohibition lasted until 1933. It is generally accepted that its main effect was the encouragement of organised crime to evade the law and that the legacy of gangsterism developed by the Volstead Act continues to the present day.

The contemporary socialist analysis of Prohibition was that it was a deliberate attempt by the dominant bourgeoisie to avoid the real issues of poverty and exploitation. The ideals of the Prohibitionists – sobriety and hard work – meant that industrial workers would work more efficiently.

This analysis is supported by the activities of Henry Ford. He had required his employees to abstain from alcohol. He used a private police force for surveillance and anyone buying liquor a second time was dismissed. Ford’s only concern was efficiency. Alcohol consumption slowed the Ford assembly lines and caused accidents.

The circumstances in which Prohibition was repealed also support the contemporary socialist analysis. Edward Behr states the view that the reasons for the end of Prohibition were essentially economic. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Depression which followed it led to an increasing awareness on the part of industrialists that one of the effects of Prohibition had been to cut off tax revenues from the sale of alcohol. The Du Pont family, owners of munitions factories, stated that if America adopted Britain’s alcohol tax system, income tax could be abolished. John D Rockefeller, previously a strong advocate of Prohibition, argued strongly for its repeal in 1932.

Behr estimates that 500,000 people were convicted of offences under the Volstead Act. In some states, mandatory sentences were imposed for a fourth violation. In Michigan, two persons were sentenced to life imprisonment for possession of a pint of gin. These half a million people were generally those who lacked political or financial influence. Throughout the Prohibition era, politicians, enforcement officials and professional criminals dealt in alcohol with impunity. Bribery and corruption were endemic.

If traditional criminological questions are applied to the half million, some interesting answers emerge. Why did these people commit crime? Was it a genetic disorder? The shape of their heads? Peer pressure? Social deprivation? Inherited characteristics? Alcoholism? Psycho-sexual disorders? Did they suddenly cease to be subject to these factors on December 5, 1933, when the Eighteenth Amendment was declared void? Or is the truth that they were victims of a system which decided, for partly altruistic but essentially political and economic reasons, to criminalise them?

Prohibition is a clear example of the proposition that criminal law is what the state declares it to be. The half million Prohibition criminals were criminals because the state made them so. The state then decriminalised them thirteen years later when economic considerations prevailed. They ceased to be involved in criminal behaviour, and traditional criminological analyses became irrelevant.

Prohibition also provides a very clear example of class justice operating in an advanced capitalist society. Millions of citizens were criminalized, without their consent, by a combination of forces including corrupt politicians, puritans and the raging xenophobia unleashed by the US’s entry into World War I as it was nearing its end. The owners of the means of production were also instrumental in the enactment of the Volstead Act because they believed that sober workers meant larger profits.

Once enacted, the enforcement of Prohibition impacted most severely on the poor and disadvantaged. Those responsible for the Volstead Act took the naïve view that the law would be obeyed purely and simply because it was the law. The opposite was true. The huge profits to be made from illicit liquor sales led to massive corruption in government and an explosion of organised crime. The greatest profiteers were not prosecuted because that were the greatest profiteers and could bribe their way to immunity. The enforcement of Prohibition was at its most successful against small-time operators, the poor and the inadequate, who could not afford lawyers and who had no influence with politicians. If this is not class justice, then what is?

Alcohol prohibition in the United States is a clear example of the relativity of criminal law and makes nonsense of many theories of the causes of crime. The only sensible definition of criminal behaviour is that which the state, from time to time, declares to be a criminal offence. There are many examples of this, including the prohibition of alcohol in Muslim countries, different ages in different countries for sexual consent, and the reported illegality of Red Bull in France.

Why do people in France break the criminal law by drinking Red Bull? Why are prosecutions brought for possession of marijuana in some countries but not in others? How do we explain this criminality? Social deprivation? A genetic disposition to break the law? The shape of their heads? The reality is that the state has created this criminality in otherwise law-abiding citizens. No other explanation is meaningful or necessary.

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