Lessons Remain on the 80th Anniversary of Prohibition’s Repeal | Commentary
On Dec. 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, Prohibition was repealed, and states were granted primary authority over alcohol.
Due to alcohol industry abuses and the powerful “Dry” movement, the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919 and banned the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcohol for all. The National Prohibition Act, commonly referred to as the Volstead Act, followed, which set the regulations for how the amendment was supposed to apply in practice. However, this legislative and regulatory overreaction made things worse. It drove production, distribution, sales and consumption underground, fueled the rise of organized crime and tax evasion, and decreased respect for the rule of law. Many elites ignored the law while the less well-off were targeted by law enforcement, fined or jailed.
Members of Congress reportedly had access to alcohol, sold to them daily from inside House and Senate office buildings by a bootlegger named George Cassiday, dubbed “the man in the green hat.” In the House, Cassiday told the Washington Post, “I dealt directly with most of my customers,” while “most of the senators would order their liquor through their secretaries.”
Double standards operated across the U.S. and unintended consequences took their toll on society. Prohibition was a failure, and its end was inevitable. After 13 years as an unsuccessful legislative experiment, the House and Senate passed — and then 36 states ratified — the 21st Amendment, and at 7 p.m. on Dec. 5, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a proclamation ending Prohibition. The 21st Amendment not only repealed the 18th Amendment, it granted power to the states to regulate the importation and transportation of alcohol within their respective borders.
Congress understood that alcohol is unlike any other consumer product, and a federal, all-purpose approach just did not work. Regulation at the state level allows states to consider the social mores and prevailing attitudes of their populations when setting rules through their locally elected leaders. After all, people in Nevada feel very differently about alcohol than those in neighboring Utah, and the 21st Amendment allows each state to enact laws appropriate for their own communities.
Today, American consumers are reaping the benefits of a thriving alcohol distribution system. Beer distributors work with brewers of all sizes to provide the infrastructure they need to bring their products to market and reach a wide network of retailers. From Alaska to Florida, from California to Maine, brewers, distributors and retailers all work together to introduce new beer brands and labels of beer for consumers to enjoy.
A transparent and accountable distribution system enables consumers to safely enjoy a bottle or can at home or a beer on tap. While many other nations have problems with counterfeit alcohol and tax evasion, America’s state-based system ensures tainted or untaxed alcohol does not infiltrate the U.S. marketplace. This state-based system of alcohol production, distribution and sales stands as the gold standard around the globe.
Today’s thriving beer industry also puts America to work. According to Beer Serves America — an economic study commissioned jointly by the National Beer Wholesalers Association and the Beer Institute — distributors and retailers directly and indirectly contribute nearly $250 billion to the U.S. economy each year. The beer industry directly employs nearly 1.1 million men and women who work in every congressional district in America, providing quality jobs with solid wages and benefits. Beer also contributes $49 billion annually in the form of business, personal and consumption taxes.
Eighty years ago, Congress recognized that not all problems can be solved in Washington, D.C. Today, Congress and federal agencies would do well to remember the lessons of Prohibition and avoid undermining states’ authority to regulate alcohol under the 21st Amendment and oppose proposals that would weaken America’s effective system of independent alcohol distribution.
This holiday season, join me in raising a legal glass to responsibly celebrate the 21st Amendment and today’s effective system of alcohol distribution. Cheers!
Craig Purser is CEO of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, which represents the interests of America’s 3,300 licensed independent beer distribution facilities.