Arts & Culture

Void Where Prohibited: 75 Years of Legalized Hooch

The most unusual drink I ever took is a mouthful of hot moonshine whiskey, right out of a handsome copper still. I can’t provide any further details about this incident, though, moonshine being the natural enemy of recall. The fact … Read More

By / December 5, 2008

The most unusual drink I ever took is a mouthful of hot moonshine whiskey, right out of a handsome copper still. I can’t provide any further details about this incident, though, moonshine being the natural enemy of recall. The fact is that however marvelous it may have been, and probably was, I’m thankful I don’t have to drink it every day. After all, variety is the eau de vie.

Seventy-five years ago, the loathsome Eighteenth Amendment yielded to the Twenty-first Amendment, and there was much rejoicing throughout the land as Prohibition took its rightful place in the urinal cake of history. This deserves to be celebrated, like Guy Fawkes Day, with the burning of effigies: May I suggest Carrie Nation? This woman, like some ugly, gargantuan grandmother (she stood nearly six feet tall), was a perfect physical embodiment of the nanny state, and might as well have been the model for Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched.

Here’s the Yale Law Review, Vol. 11, No. 3 (January 1902) on Nation’s infamous “hatchetations”:


NUISANCE—COMMON NUISANCE—ABATEMENT.—STATE V. STARK, 66 Pac. 243 (Kan.).—On Feb. 17, 1901, in the city of Topeka, the appellant, with Carrie Nation and six others, broke into and injured a billiard hall in connection with which intoxicating liquors were sold. By statute, all places where intoxicating liquors are sold or kept for sale are declared to be common nuisances. The court held, however, that this fact does not justify their abatement by any person or persons without process of law.


Of course, the “process of law” frequently results in outcomes every bit as intrusive and infantilizing as Carrie Nation’s barroom smash-ups—hence Prohibition. The Temperance crusader eventually took to calling herself Carry A. Nation, going so far as to trademark the name for use as a slogan, and it couldn’t have been more telling. The present-day nanny state presumes to carry a nation like a snugly swaddled infant. We are free to drink alcohol, but not without being scolded for it at every turn; we are not free, as plenty will remind us today, to use a host of other substances.

Even the Wall Street Journal, hardly a “Legalize It” mouthpiece on the order of High Times magazine, has provided a forum for the inevitable Repeal Day arguments. Ethan A. Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, writes today that “[t]he Americans who voted in 1933 to repeal prohibition differed greatly in their reasons for overturning the system. But almost all agreed that the evils of failed suppression far outweighed the evils of alcohol consumption.” He goes on to write:

Consider the consequences of drug prohibition today: 500,000 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails for nonviolent drug-law violations; 1.8 million drug arrests last year; tens of billions of taxpayer dollars expended annually to fund a drug war that 76% of Americans say has failed; millions now marked for life as former drug felons; many thousands dying each year from drug overdoses that have more to do with prohibitionist policies than the drugs themselves, and tens of thousands more needlessly infected with AIDS and Hepatitis C because those same policies undermine and block responsible public-health policies.

The obvious objection to this cost-benefit analysis is that it’s a cost-benefit analysis: If a behavior is wrong, it’s wrong regardless of the challenges of prevention. But it’s difficult to argue against a behavior when its attendant problems, the ones that make it seem wrong, are already covered by laws against larceny, child neglect or abuse, domestic violence, and so forth.

Nevertheless, a liberatarian argument for the legalization of, for example, heroin, however persuasive philosophically, is bound to run into trouble with the public. Best for the time being to stick with softer drugs—that is, those which do not produce physical dependency, or death from overdose. Alcohol, which is already legal, can convincingly be grouped with hard drugs. So why doesn’t it seem like one?

The real distinction should be clear to anyone with the intellect of a barnacle. There are substances thought throughout history to produce conversation and camaraderie, and those known to result in nothing but stupefaction. We associate alcohol with speakeasies and flappers and, forgive me, literary types, marijuana with noisy dorms and babbling philosophy majors, and heroin with human amoebas crapping themselves in doorways. One is useful, in its own way; one is relatively harmless; one is patently destructive. It seems to me this might be a better guide to legislation, which is concerned to some degree with social cohesion, than all the medical knowledge in the world.

The Deipnosophistae of Athanaeus, an ancient Greece compilation of gastronomic lore, quotes a certain Astydamas thusly: “If someone constantly fills himself with wine, he grows/ careless; but if he drinks only a little, he grows quite thoughtful.” We’ve all seen this in practice, but it isn’t just the moderation that counts—it’s the substance being abused. Some things just aren’t fit for human consumption, and you will know them by their works: William S. Burroughs, Sid Vicious, and countless other sleepy mediocrities. Bartlett’s is full of the wisdom of wine—less so of weed, I suppose—but I can’t think of too many junkies, crackheads, or speed freaks who had anything memorable to say.

The softest drugs, by my definition, are not only great looseners of tongues but also great equalizers: They keep us humble and remind us that we’re human beings, prone to doing and saying foolish, though not necessarily terrible, things. The opposite of pride is shame, not humility, and the small dose of shame that intoxication yields is more of an inoculation than a poison, if “enjoyed responsibly,” as the saying goes. No wonder the teetotalers are so often megalomaniacs. They wage war not against social ills but against the freedom to acknowledge the fact that we are, in the final analysis, at least as small and absurd as we seem to be.