Prohibition and the lessons of Repeal Day

Last month the Cato Institute hosted a panel celebrating Repeal Day
with me, alcohol policy expert Michelle Minton of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Stacia Cosner of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and Cato Digital Marketing Manager Kat Murti as moderator.

On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, supposedly ending our nation’s failed experiment with prohibitionism. Yet, 81 years later, modern-day prohibitionists continue to deny the laws of supply and demand, attempting to control what individuals can choose to put into their own bodies….

Some links related to the discussion:

  • All the panelists quoted from Daniel Okrent’s excellent history of Prohibition, Last Call. You can find out more about the book at the author’s site.
  • I quote from a speech by the late Christopher Hitchens delivered ten years almost to the day before our panel. It is excerpted in this David Boaz post.
  • Radley Balko wrote a 2003 Cato Policy Analysis, “Back Door to Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking“. More: The federal Centers for Disease Control, as I noted, has been an agency of choice for public health campaigners because of its legacy of scientific credibility, yet this credibility is itself put increasingly at risk as the CDC lends its name to propaganda. Jacob Sullum provides examples from the agency’s elastic application of the term “binge drinking” to the trouble it seems to have acknowledging that minor alcohol consumption does not seem to correlate with poor health outcomes;
  • As I mention, the Prohibition episode was important in eroding constitutional protections against various law-enforcement tools, especially search and seizure, the law being inherently aimed at contraband goods. The same is true of the nascent Drug War undertaken following the Harrison narcotics act of 1914. You can read about one of the resulting Supreme Court cases here.
  • The role of exorbitant cigarette taxes in contributing to New York’s giant black market in cigarettes came to wider public notice following the police custody death of Eric Garner on Staten Island; more here, here, etc. The New York Post reported that Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the city law department to refrain from filing an intended press release over a would-be landmark suit filed over untaxed cigarettes the week of the Garner grand jury decision, because it interfered with City Hall’s efforts to downplay the role of the tobacco black market.


  • Eric Garner wasn’t shot.

  • Hitchens On “Mayor Bloomberg’s Nanny State” (And Nannying In General)

    “I often take the train from Washington, D.C., to New York and back…”

  • Thanks, of course he wasn’t, not sure how that crept in. Fixed now.

  • I don’t recall whether it was this website or another that pointed me to Okrent’s book, but it was utterly fascinating.

    I think my favorite part was how the primary motivation for women’s suffrage was Prohibition, and one of their greatest supporters was the KKK, who saw Prohibition as a tool to suppress the social mobility of blacks and Jews. Y’know, people talk about how history books gloss over America’s history of racist oppression, but I don’t recall those people mentioning how suffrage came directly from a plan to further that oppression!

  • As an ironic aside to prohibition, my late father’s best man was an assistant US Attorney in Southern District of NY. In recognition of his position he didn’t drink a drop of illegal alcohol during his tenure. However, and sadly, once it became legal, he became a hopeless alcoholic, and died from the drink.