Prohibition is over, well almost

THE YOUNG MAN was acting peculiarly from the moment he walked into the bar. There was no slurring of speech, no stumbling or falling or any of the many “obvious signs of intoxication” that the state liquor board recognizes. He was just peculiar.

“You’re so judgmental,” some people may say.

And they are right. Bartenders have to be judgmental; it is part of the job. Every time we serve someone an alcoholic drink we have two decisions to make about that person.

• Are they of legal age to drink alcohol?

• Are they obviously intoxicated?

If we make one mistake, we will not only lose our job, but we also might face criminal prosecution. It can be difficult sometimes.

“I just don’t feel comfortable serving you,” I said after he showed me his I.D.

“Because you are acting sort of weird,” I responded after his requisite question.

“Oh,” he said, knowingly nodding his head. “That’s because I just smoked a joint outside.”

“Now I really do have a reason not to serve you,” I said, satisfied with my instincts.

California liquor laws states that, “Licensees may not knowingly permit illegal sales, negotiations, or use of narcotics or dangerous drugs on the licensed premises.”

And, as of now, marijuana qualifies as such, which I explained to him.

“Prohibition is almost over,” he said bitterly.

Oftentimes, people equate the situation regarding marijuana legalization with national Prohibition. And this week should be no different because we will be celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Prohibition’s repeal. On Dec. 5, 1933, Congress finally ratified the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment and ended Prohibition.

Sort of.

National Prohibition, also called the “Great Experiment,” was brought into being in 1919, and the so-called Volstead Act, which in combination with other laws, prohibited “the manufacture, sale or transportation” of “intoxicating liquors” in the United States.

As a result crime soared, tax revenue plummeted and the United States limped along into what became the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt won the 1932 presidential election based in large part on his promise to repeal the 18th Amendment. He did so incrementally, beginning by legalizing the sale of beer, and ending with the 21st Amendment, the first and only time an amendment to the Constitution has ever been repealed.

The second part of that 21st Amendment reads: “The transportation or importation into any State, Territory or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.” (Italics added.) Language that effectively means that while National Prohibition might have been repealed, State Prohibition was left up to the states themselves.

As a result the laws governing liquor vary greatly from state to state. Sometimes even town to town within a state. Here are some particular oddities:

• 8 percent of this nation is “dry,” an area encompassing about 20 million people.

• Moore County, Tenn., is a dry county, odd because it is also the site of the Jack Daniel’s distillery (a nationally recognized historical place). Tourists may buy souvenir bottles, but if they drink them on the porch they will be breaking the law.

• Almost half of Mississippi is “dry” prohibiting the production, advertising, sale, distribution or transportation of alcohol completely. Many of those counties have been dry since 1907, which is more than 20 years before National Prohibition began.

• Kentucky, the birthplace of Bourbon whiskey, lists 55 of its 120 counties as completely “dry,” including many that made up the original Bourbon County (although not the much smaller county that now bears that name).

• In Pennsylvania (the birthplace of rye whiskey) the only entity allowed to wholesale alcohol is the state itself, making the Pennsylvania Liquor Board one of the largest single purchasers of alcoholic beverages in the world.

• Arizona prohibits any county or town from prohibiting alcohol.

If all of this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. One can only speculate on how much more confusing things will get if more states allow the recreational use of marijuana, as Colorado and Washington have done.

But if we hold history as the judge, crime rates might just go down and tax revenue might just go up. So what if a few bartenders’ jobs get a little more difficult? I call that a fair swap.