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Prohibition - What Happened Next . . .

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Prohibition did not curb America's desire to drink alcoholic beverages, but it did create a crime wave including dramatic growth in organized crime. Gangs operated their own alcohol distilleries and paid off local police and politicians to look the other way. In addition, gangsters smuggled (bootlegged) liquor into the United States from Canada and Mexico. With so much bribery and corruption, there was a significant decrease in the respect for law enforcement.

By the late 1920s gangsters had become well established and wealthy. Some gang leaders became millionaires as the cost of drinks rose significantly. The number of saloons increased from some 16,000 before Prohibition to 33,000 speakeasies (illegal drinking places) following the passage of Prohibition.

Overall, Prohibition was a disaster causing many unexpected problems. Besides leading to widespread disrespect for the criminal justice system and creating extremely wealthy criminals, Prohibition cost the lives of many police officers in shootouts with criminals, the deaths of citizens drinking bootlegged alcohol containing poisonous chemicals, thousands of lost jobs in breweries and the wine industry, and massive law enforcement expenses.

By 1930 various organizations opposed to Prohibition joined together to form the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. Their common goal was to repeal Prohibition. They drafted the Twenty-first Amendment and submitted it to Congress in February 1933 to begin the ratification process.

With the arrival of the Democratic Party to the White House in March 1933 led by Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45), the failed experiment in Prohibition officially ended. Roosevelt immediately cut government funds for Prohibition enforcement and pressed Congress to pass a bill raising the permissible alcohol content for beverages to begin beer production. The beer act was passed on April 7, 1933. Some two hundred breweries began operation.

A woman places a tire cover promoting the appeal of the Eighteenth Amendment over a spare tire. The Eighteenth Amendment made all alcoholic beverages illegal and created more social problems than it was intended to prevent. (The Library of Congress)


The Twenty-first Amendment was ratified on December 5, 1933, and added to the Constitution repealing the Eighteenth Amendment. Caught in the grips of the Great Depression (1929–41), the government desperately needed the tax revenues it could earn from alcohol production and sales, the creation of jobs, and the decreased costs of law enforcement.

Organized crime leaders had to find a new means of making money. They turned to loan-sharking (charging very high interest rates on loans), labor racketeering, and drug trafficking. By the end of the twentieth century drug trafficking, a natural extension of Prohibition, was organized crime's biggest business.


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