Tucson Progressive

Pamela Powers, a progressive voice for Arizona

Alcohol and marijuana: The xenophobic origins of prohibition

Prohibition of alcohol by adoption of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920 was a xenophobic measure, as much as a temperance movement, according to Last Call, a book by Daniel Okrent.

In Prohibition Life: Politics, Loopholes, and Bathtub Gin, National Public Radio’s Terry Gross interviews Okrent. This is a fascinating story, and both the transcript and the audio are available on the link.

According to Okrent, xenophobic conservatives wanted to control the blacks and the Irish by stopping the flow of alcohol. At the same time, the prohibitionists pumped up anti-immigrant sentiments against the German beer brewers (eg, Pabst, Strohs, Schmidts) as the US entered World War I and used Prohibition as a wedge issue. (Does this sound familiar?)

“[Prohibition] largely had to do with a xenophobic, largely anti-immigration feeling that arose in the American Middle West, that arose among white, native-born Protestants. It also had a strong racist element to it. Prohibition was a tool that the white South could use to keep down the black population. In fact, they used Prohibition to keep liquor away from black people but not from white people. So you could find a number of ways that people could come into whatever issue they wanted to use and use Prohibition as their tool. The clearest one, probably, was women’s suffrage. Oddly, the suffrage movement and the Prohibition movement were almost one and the same — and you found organizations like the Ku Klux Klan supporting women’s suffrage because they believed women would vote on behalf of Prohibition.”

“This was the final thing that enabled the ratification of the Prohibition amendment. You needed 36 states to approve it, and this was happening just as the U.S. was entering World War I. And the great enemy was Germany — and the brewers were seen by the Prohibitionists as tools of the Kaiser. [Or] if they weren’t actually seen as them [by the Prohibitionists], they were used for that purpose to make their political point. So you have a rising tide of strong anti-German feelings sweeping across the country, [and] the brewers got swept away with it.”

And, just as there is now, some politicians played both sides of the fence. (When you read this think of the conservative Republicans who railed against gay marriage and then turned out to be gay!)

“The wet-drys were people who had no problem perceiving themselves as moral in a public arena and less so in the private arena — or maybe they didn’t see it as a moral issue at all. So you had many, many scores of [representatives] and senators who very openly appreciated their alcohol and continued to drink their alcohol but voted against [alcohol consumption]. [Wayne Bidwell] Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League said, ‘I don’t care how a man drinks; I care how he votes and how he prays.’ That was the way that he kind of put the shine on people who may have been not so appealing. Warren Harding was a great example of it. Warren Harding loved his scotch and soda. He owned stock in a brewery. He also valued his political survival and he made a deal with the Anti-Saloon League that he would vote to support their cause if they would vote to support him when he ran for office. That’s how he got elected to the Senate.”

These excerpts are just a small part of what is available on the NPR website. Being German-Irish-English (yes, I’m a WASP), I was shocked to learn that Prohibition was a xenophobic tool used to keep my ancestors down! I posted this story today as an answer to some of the comments that popped up on the 2 medical marijuana stories posted on Sunday– my pro-Prop 203 post and Mark Evans’ anti-Prop 203 Post.

The blog comments raised the issue that marijuana prohibition was initially a xenophobic stance to keep blacks and Hispanics down. If you listen to the racy jazz songs from the 1920s and 1930s, it’s no wonder the midwestern Bible-thumpers were scared. (Sarcasm here.) As one example, check out I’m Feelin’ High and Happy by the Gene Kruppa Band, 1938.

As Okrent pointed out in his interview, there are many parallels between alcohol and marijuana prohibition: 1) both were xenophobic moves by religious conservative nativists; 2) both led to huge black markets, gangs, and violence on our cities’ streets; 3) neither prohibition stopped people from buying and using these recreational drugs; and 4) economics was the reason alcohol prohibition ended and may be the reason marijuana “decriminalization” comes to the US.

The 21st Amendment to the US Constitution (repeal of the 18th) was passed in the midst of the Depression. This led to regulation and taxation of alcohol and the rise of name brands. This stopped the black market and related mob violence and gave the US economy an economic boost. (Hmmm… this sounds familiar also, doesn’t it?)

5 comments on “Alcohol and marijuana: The xenophobic origins of prohibition

  1. fraser007
    October 11, 2010

    So how are you any different than the other left wing bloggers that reside in this electronic fishwrap?


  2. Jim Hannley
    October 11, 2010

    Well done, Pamela. You have done a great community service with this article that brings to readers excerpts from an authoritative book which draws important parallels between alcohol prohibition and marijuana prohibition and the ties to xenophobia and racism. The police-state in our midst led by Barbara LaWall would like to keep marijuana in the criminal sphere to continue to bloat their budgets. That their bloated budgets serve to repress thousands in our community is of little concern to them except to the extent that it is applied unevenly (that is on the West and South sides) to their delight.


  3. Tony Venuti
    October 14, 2010

    Pamela, are the Media VirtuePhobes?  We take so much time to uncover, discover, awaken our phobias, that it seems to be the ridicule dejour of the day…..but do tell..
    Does the Media, posses and celebrate Virtue?  If so…give me two examples.  Take your time.  No answer tells me everything I need to know…from there anything is a plus


  4. Pingback: America: Do you want the ‘people’s budget’ or the military-industrial complex’s budget? - Tucson Progressive

  5. Pingback: High Marijuana Arrests: Signs of Racism & Over-Policing | Tucson Progressive

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This entry was posted on October 11, 2010 by in 2010 elections, Arizona, Drugs, medical marijuana, music, Politics, racism, reform, Republican Party, taxes and tagged .
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The Tucson Progressive: Pamela J. Powers

I stand on the side of Love. I believe in kindness to all creatures on Earth and the inherent self-worth of all individuals–not just people who agree with me or look like me.

Widespread economic and social injustice prompted me to become a candidate for the Arizona House, representing Legislative District 9 in the 2016 election.

My platform focused on economic reforms to grow Arizona’s economy, establish a state-based public bank, fix our infrastructure, fully fund public education, grow local small businesses and community banks, and put people back to work at good-paying jobs.

In the Arizona House, I was a strong voice for fiscal responsibility a moratorium on corporate tax breaks until the schools were fully funded, increased cash assistance to the poor, expansion of maternal healthcare benefits, equal rights, choice, unions, education at all levels and protecting our water supply.

After three terms, I retired from the Arizona Legislature in January 2023 but will continue to blog and produce my podcast “A View from the Left Side.”

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