The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution that instituted Prohibition was proposed by Congress in December 1917, ratified by the requisite number of states in January 1919, and took effect in January 1920.
The first and relevant section of the Amendment reads:
After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
The Eighteenth Amendment didn’t ban the consumption or possession of alcohol, just its “manufacture, sale, or transportation.” Nevertheless, it effectively curtailed the legal use of alcoholic beverages in the United States.
The “appropriate legislation” mentioned in section two of the Eighteenth Amendment that was passed by Congress (over President Wilson’s veto) to formally institute Prohibition was the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act. It stated that “no person shall on or after the date when the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States goes into effect, manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess any intoxicating liquor except as authorized in this Act.” It defined “intoxicating liquor” as any beverage containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume, granted exceptions and exemptions for medical and religious purposes, and provided penalties for the law’s violation. It also practically criminalized the possession of alcoholic beverages, because “the possession of liquors by any person not legally permitted under this title to possess liquor shall be prima facie evidence that such liquor is kept for the purpose of being sold, bartered, exchanged, given away, furnished, or otherwise disposed of in violation of the provisions of this title.”
Although the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment (proposed, ratified, and effective all in 1933), prohibition is alive and well in the twenty-first century.
On the federal level, the unauthorized production of distilled spirits by individuals is still a crime. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (a division of the U.S. Treasury Department),
There are numerous requirements that must be met that also make it impractical to produce spirits for personal or beverage use. Some of these requirements are filing an extensive application, filing a bond, providing adequate equipment to measure spirits, providing suitable tanks and pipelines, providing a separate building (other than a dwelling) and maintaining detailed records, and filing reports.
Although one may produce beer and wine at home, only an amount up to 100 gallons per calendar year (200 gallons if two or more adults reside in the home) is allowed without having to pay federal excise tax on it, and none of it may ever be sold.
Most alcoholic beverage laws in the United States are on the state and local level. They vary considerably by state, and within each state, by county and city.
In Louisiana, the sale of alcoholic beverages of any kind is permitted in supermarkets, drug stores, gas stations, and convenience stores. But things are quite different in most other states. In Pennsylvania, wine and distilled spirits may be purchased only in state-run liquor stores. Beer may be purchased at licensed beverage outlets, but not supermarkets. In Texas, breweries may not sell to-go beer to customers. In Utah, only beer containing 3.2 percent alcohol or less may be sold at grocery and convenience stores, restaurants must buy liquor from state stores at retail prices, no alcohol may be served in restaurants without the purchase of food, and sales of kegs of beer are prohibited. In Colorado, stores licensed to sell liquor are permitted to have just one location. Under a new law that initially takes effect next year, Colorado grocers will be permitted to sell alcoholic beverages at each of their stores in the state, but the law allows for an increase only to five locations immediately, twenty locations in 2032, and all locations in 2037.
The states of Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee are “dry” states: counties in those states must specifically authorize alcohol sales. Each of those states has dry counties. In Tennessee, that includes the county where the Jack Daniel’s distillery is located. Only in seventeen states are local jurisdictions prohibited from enacting alcohol laws that conflict with state law. Many other states also contain some dry counties, cities, or towns — especially Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Texas. In some of these areas, it is just the retail sale of distilled spirits that is prohibited. It has been estimated that about 18,000,000 people live in the 10 percent of the area of the United States that is dry.
Sunday sales of alcoholic beverages are heavily regulated in most states. In many states and counties, no alcoholic beverages of any kind can be sold before a certain time on Sunday. In some states and counties, no alcohol can be sold for off-premise consumption. In other states and counties, it is just distilled spirits that cannot be sold for off-premise consumption. Until only recently, some states banned alcohol sales on election day.
But even when it is generally acceptable for Americans to purchase and drink beer, wine, and liquor, the governments of all fifty states are united in prohibiting legal adults who have not reached the age of twenty-one from purchasing or drinking them. Even though it is perfectly legal for anyone in the United States who has reached the age of eighteen to vote, run for office, marry, adopt children, join the military, sign contracts, and purchase pornography, it is still illegal for those not yet twenty-one to sip a cocktail in a bar, order a glass of wine in a restaurant, or drink a beer while watching a football game in the privacy of their own home. The United States is one of only three developed countries in the world with a nationwide drinking age over 18. Why? Contrary to what many foreigners might think, the U.S. drinking age is not exactly the result of a federal law to that effect. Every state sets its own drinking age. However, the federal government has basically bribed the states into raising their drinking ages. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which was enacted with no measurable opposition in either House of Congress, mandated that the states raise their drinking ages to twenty-one or their federal highway funding would be cut.
There is neither rhyme nor reason to these laws. How can something be immoral or impious at one time, but perfectly acceptable a minute later? How can something be addictive or risky in one county, but perfectly fine across the county line? How can something be dangerous or unhealthy the day before someone turns twenty-one, but perfectly okay on his twenty-first birthday?
But even worse, prohibition laws are the backbone of the nanny state. A nanny state has a government that majors in micro-managing the behavior of its citizens.
Americans can sing all they want about living in “the land of the free,” but it doesn’t change the fact that a society where the government prohibits consenting adults from buying or selling alcoholic beverages or legal adults from consuming alcoholic beverages is an authoritarian society, not a free society.
It is an illegitimate function of government to discourage anyone from drinking alcoholic beverages, prohibit commerce in alcoholic beverages, make someone obtain a license to sell or serve alcoholic beverages, restrict when or where alcoholic beverages can be sold or consumed, or set a minimum age to purchase, possess, or drink alcoholic beverages.
All laws at the federal, state, and local levels that in any way concern alcoholic beverages in any form should be repealed, and repealed immediately. All such laws are inimical to liberty and property.
Future of Freedom Foundation, an associated scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and a columnist, blogger, and book reviewer at LewRockwell.com. He is also the author of Social Insecurity and The War on Drugs Is a War on Freedom. His newest books are War, Christianity, and the State: Essays on the Follies of Christian Militarism and War, Empire, and the Military: Essays on the Follies of War and U.S. Foreign Policy. Visit his website: www.vancepublications.com. Send him e-mail.
This article was published by The Future of Freedom Foundation.