The Prohibition Era
phidrina's award for the most notoriously unsuccessful and counter-productive attempt at banning any drug in the twentieth century goes to the U.S. Government's remarkably long-lived Volstead Act, the legislation at the heart of the Great Prohibition.

Prohibition (capital P) had its roots way back in the temperance movements of the nineteenth century. The cultural climate in the U.S. at that time was apt to accept such an idea, which was compatible with popular contemporary notions of personal perfection. The first prohibition law was passed in Maine in 1851, and some twelve states followed suit. Eighteen years later, the National Prohibition Party was formed, which won its first seat in the House of Representatives in 1890. Another three years, and the Anti-Saloon League, a powerful political force in later years, was formed. Throughout the second half of the century, various anti-alcohol measures were enforced in states all over the Union.

By 1906, the movement was well under way, fueled by anti-alien and anti-Roman Catholic sentiments among the Protestant middle classes. The conflict between rural and urban lifestyles was becoming more apparent with the growth of the cities, which were percieved by country-dwellers as hotbeds of crime and vice. Employers were concerned, as they always had been, about the effects of alcohol on the efficiency of their workforce. These factors, combined with a temporary Wartime Prohibition Act, introduced in World War I to save grain for food, led to total Prohibition in 33 states by 1920.

The laws were enforced easily in rural communities where the population was most sympathetic. But in the cities, an enormous industry grew up around the production, transportation and sale of contraband beer and liquor. The bootleggers (named after the practice adopted by travellers in the Midwest in the 1880's, who concealed liquor in their boots when trading with Indians) began by importing booze over the Mexican and Canadian borders, and from the Caribbean.

Smuggling became harder when customs officials got wise and bought some faster boats. The gangsters then resorted to other means to acquire their liquor. "Medicinal" whiskey was still available in drug-stores, on real or forged prescriptions. Denatured alcohol, legally used in other industries and treated with noxious chemicals to render it undrinkable, was "washed" of its poisonous additives and diluted with tapwater. Worse still, illegal corn liquor stills were used to produce frequently toxic "rotgut". Coroners reports for the first five months of 1923 reveal that a hundred people had perished from drinking contaminated hooch. Officials at the time believed the figure to be much higher.

The damage was not limited to public health. Because of the complexity of the operations, the bootleggers quickly organized themselves into alliances and cartels that could control their activities. Law and order began to break down as corruption spread virus-like into public life. In a famous trial in Indiana in 1923, it was revealed that protection monies were paid to:
"the mayor, the sheriff, a judge of the city court, the prosecuting attorney for the county, a former sheriff, a former prosecuting attorney, a deputy sergeant, a justice of the peace, an influential lawyer, and former deputy sheriffs, detectives, policemen, petty lawyers, bartenders, caberet singers and notorious women."
In other words, just about everybody.

As the cartels grew, and gang rivalry diminished, so the power and profits were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Al Capone's annual earnings were estimated at the time of his arrest to be $60 million. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, an elaborate syndicate of organized crime, built on the multi-million dollar bootlegging industry, had survived. The American Mafia branched out into narcotics, gambling, prostitution, loan sharking and extortion, concerns they still control today. How much power and influence, financial or political, this phenomenal industry now wields is unthinkable, and unknowable, except by those in charge.

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