As the above video discusses, we’re at a point where talking about “The Great Experiment” is in vogue, and running parallels between the 1920′s alcohol ban and today’s ban on marijuana. This is all well and good, as it leads (and has led) to discourse about personal freedoms, personal responsibility, and how they relate to our role as citizens. This is a conversation that needs to happen, as those who profit off of prohibition often do far more damage to our cultural fabric than those who overindulge.
The thing to remember when talking about Prohibition, whether we are talking about alcohol or marijuana, is that they are both policies, and both are reactive results of political pressures instituted prior to when the policy was implemented. Prohibition of alcohol has a long history, one that has generations of discussion and influence before it’s implementation in 1920.
The Prohibition of alcohol was helped primarily by two movements in the 1800′s. One, we have the women learning to use their collective voice for political purposes. Here, temperance was thought to be a way to keep men less lazy and less angry and violent.
Secondly, there was an anti-immigrant sentiment. Immigrants often congregated in taverns and saloons, where folks who didn’t know anyone in their new land could meet people from the old country, network, gain work, and eventually create political machines both small and large. There were many in the Temperance movement who, afraid of change or non-WASPs, figured out that the best way from keeping immigrants from organizing was shut down the places where the newly arrived could meet.
Sure, sure, there are those who honestly felt that the word of God was the primary reason to justify the temperance movement, and undoubtedly there were plenty of “true believers”. And there were many of those from Churches (both Protestant and Catholic) who felt that government had no business codifying morality. But mostly? Mostly there were ulterior motives in the movement, ones that many a politician exploited for their own benefit.
In fact, World War I provided political cover for the Dry party, when those of German heritage (and who happened to own breweries and saloons) had their patriotism brought into question. A vote for drinking was a vote for the Kaiser, and the temperance movement soon had their biggest victory by appealing to nothing more equating drinking with supporting the enemy.
So yes, exploring the Prohibition era is important, as it gives, primarily, an excellent lesson in economics. But the era before Prohibition is just as important, as it shows that many of those involved in the movement weren’t doing so out of a sense of moral obligation, but that of political power.