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The United States Prohibition of Alcohol - 1920-1933

The 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act


Old cave used by brewery to store kegs of beer during prohibition

Old cave used by brewery to store kegs of beer during prohibition

Beth Perkins / The Image Bank / Getty Images

The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by 36 states on January 16, 1919, and took affect one year later, beginning the era of prohibition.

The first 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 territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.”

Essentially, the 18th Amendment took the business licenses away from every brewer, distiller, vintner, wholesaler and retailer of alcoholic beverages in the United States in an attempt to reform an “unrespectable” segment of the population. Three months before it was to take effect, the Volstead Act, otherwise known as the National Prohibition Act of 1919, was passed and gave power to the “Commissioner of Internal Revenue, his assistants, agents, and inspectors” to enforce the 18th Amendment. The 18th Amendment is the only constitutional amendment that was repealed by another amendment (the 21st Amendment).

While it was illegal to manufacture or distribute “beer, wine, or other intoxicating malt or vinous liquors” it was not illegal to possess it for personal use. The provision allowed Americans to possess alcohol in their homes and partake with family and guests as long as it stayed inside and was not distributed, traded or even given away to anyone outside the home.

Another interesting provision to prohibition was that alcohol was available via a physician’s prescription. For centuries liquor had been used for medicinal purposes, in fact many of the liqueurs we know today were first developed as miracle cures for various ailments. Despite the fact that in 1916 whiskey and brandy were removed from The Pharmacopeia of the United States of America and in 1917 the American Medical Association stated that alcohol “…use in therapeutics as a tonic or stimulant or for food has no scientific value…” and voted in support of prohibition, there was still a belief in liquor's medicinal benefits among many.

Because of this established belief that liquor could cure and prevent a variety of ailments, doctors were still able to prescribe liquor to patients on a specially designed government prescription form that could be filled at any pharmacy. When medicinal whiskey stocks were low the government would increase its production. A significant amount of the prescription alcohol supplies were diverted from their intended destinations by bootleggers and corrupt individuals during prohibition.

Churches and clergy had a provision as well, which allowed them to receive wine for sacrament. This also led to corruption, as there are many accounts of people certifying themselves as ministers and rabbis in order to obtain and distribute large quantities of sacramental wine.

The Effects of Prohibition >>

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