The Great Experiment Prohibition Continues

This article originally appeared in National Geographic Assignment.

There we were, a virtual mosaic sampling of the states that make up this great United States of America: One Tennessean, a Texan, an Arizonan and me, a native Pennsylvanian. Realizing that Labor Day and the end of summer was fast approaching; we crammed ourselves into an SUV, along with all of our camping gear, and headed off, out of state, for a late summer weekend.

Midway to our destination the telltale sound of an aluminum can opening called our attention to the backseat.

Our born and bred Texan brother had opened himself a can of beer. Screeching brakes was the next sound that was heard by all.

“Are you freakin crazy, you can’t drink a beer in the car,” we all screamed at him simultaneously.

He looked at us dumfounded, “You can in Texas,” he said shrugging his shoulders. Withering under our collective glare he added, with considerable less authority, “as long as you aren’t driving?”

While we all waited by the side of that lonely highway, he disposed of the rest of his beverage.

“You know,” he said bitterly in between sips. “Prohibition is over.”

Yes it is, and well, no it isn’t.

National Prohibition, also called the “Great Experiment” was brought into being by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1919, 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 was lost and the United States limped along into what would become 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the sale of beer, and ending with the 21st Amendment to the Constitution (ratified in 1933) which effectively repealed the 18th, the first and only time an amendment to the Constitution has ever been repealed.

The second part of the 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.” Language that effectively means that while National Prohibition might be repealed, state prohibition is left up to the States themselves.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 in with which you may or may not be familiar.

  • About 8 percent of this nation of ours is currently “dry”, an area encompassing about 20 million people.
  • Moore County, Tennessee is a dry county, which is odd because it is also the site of the Jack Daniel’s whiskey distillery (a nationally recognized historical place). Tourists may buy souvenir bottles, but if they drink them on the porch-like the advertisements-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 over twenty years before National Prohibition began.
  • Kentucky (the home 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, making the Pennsylvania Liquor Board one of the largest single purchasers of alcoholic beverages in the world.
  • Arizona goes another route, actually prohibiting any county or town from prohibiting alcohol.

If all of this sounds confusing, that is because it is. Which is why if you are heading out of state on a late summer weekend-and plan to imbibe-you just might want to be sure what the local laws are.

Once my friends and I had sorted out the regional legalities of our little camping trip I had time to reflect on a couple of things;

  1. Drinking and driving never, ever, mix.
  2. Texas changed their open container law on Labor Day 2001, banning all open alcoholic beverages in all motor vehicles, coerced by the withholding of federal highway funds.
  3. The Feds also used that same withholding of highway funds to encourage state governments to mandate a national 21 year old drinking age. (Maybe old dogs can indeed learn new tricks).
  4. It might just be time for me to find some new friends.