In the past few years, I’ve had more time for reading. I’ve joined a few book clubs, which has resulted in my exposure to a wider variety of books.
Recently, Bill Bryson’s, “One Summer — America 1927,” which describes some noteworthy events that year, has been on my list. One segment of this book deals with Prohibition and the negative consequences of passing the 18th Amendment, which made it illegal to produce, ship, drink or sell alcohol starting in 1920. The details of what happened in America for the 13 years this amendment was law is a clear reminder of the pitfalls of legislating human nature.
People did not stop drinking alcohol because the government said it was illegal. History shows alcohol has been consumed since 7000 B.C. Fruits, rice and grains ferment over time, and humans discovered the enjoyable aspects of this. By A.D. 1600, a global trade in alcohol products existed.
Bryson’s book gave credit to Ohioan Wayne Bidwell Wheeler, a man I’d never heard of, as the driving force to make America alcohol-free. He formed the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) in 1893, and he “never deviated from a single purpose, which was to drive from office any politician who didn’t wholeheartedly support Prohibition and viewed blackmail as an entirely legitimate means to achieve his desired ends.” Some aspects of politics are unwavering!
While the goals of Prohibition were to keep the country stable, the opposite occurred. The author reports that the national murder rate increased almost 33% and gangs (think Al Capone) unleashed death on those in their way. Two billion dollars a year went from legitimate businesses into illegal ones. Wayne Wheeler knew that there was leakage in keeping America dry, so he insisted that industrial alcohol for antifreeze, antiseptics, etc. be denatured. Therefore, strychnine and mercury were added to alcohol, reportedly killing almost 12,000 people in 1927.
Brady Stevens, writing in the West Virginia Explorer Magazine in 2022, noted that in 1914, before Prohibition, West Virginia put the Yost Law into effect, which made alcohol illegal and closed 1,200 saloons. Does anyone think West Virginians gave up alcohol?
Mind-altering drugs have been used for ages. Now state governments, which previously sent millions of marijuana users to prison, have decided that it is to their advantage to sell marijuana products and collect taxes on them. Taxfoundation.org suggests West Virginia could make more than $38 million if recreational marijuana were legalized. Colorado’s 2020 revenue from such sales were over $307 million. This winter the Huntington Area Development Council sold a 100,000-square foot shell building in Lesage to Trulieve, a medical cannabis company.
Same-sex relationships, part of human nature and a concern in biblical times, have been accepted and rejected at various times and places. In 2015, same-sex marriage became legal in America. Today, those identifying as LGBTQ+ are receiving increased negative political pressure. Oscar Wilde, the famed Irish author, was jailed in Britain in 1895 for homosexual acts. It was fascinating to visit Dublin a few years ago and see how people now pay homage to his statue.
Governments come and go; some are forward-thinking and others controlling. Whatever their motivations, it behooves them to understand the pitfalls of legislating human nature. Prohibition should have taught us this.
Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch Opinion page. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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