The Age of Prohibition: Bring Your Questions for Daniel Okrent


For 14 years in the early 20th century, the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States.”

Daniel Okrent‘s Last Call provides a fascinating narrative history of Prohibition. He explains, among other things, how people managed to drink so much despite the weight of a constitutional amendment:?”much of it was sanctioned by the Volstead Act, in the form of ‘medicinal liquor’ (doctors sold prescriptions for three bucks each), ‘sacramental wine’ (which, in some instances, was stretched to include sacramental brandy and Champagne), and ‘preserved fruit’ (aka hard cider and applejack).”

Okrent explores how “a freedom-loving people decide[d] to give up a private right that had been freely exercised by millions upon millions,” and explains how Prohibition affected trade, boat design, and the English language. Oh yes: it also led to the creation of “the first nationwide criminal syndicate, the idea of home dinner parties, the deep engagement of women in political issues other than suffrage, and the creation of Las Vegas.” He even probes the effects of Prohibition’s on abortion and the doomed Equal Rights Amendment.

Okrent is the author of several earlier books, the creator of Rotisserie League Baseball, was the N.Y. Times‘s inaugural public editor, and the founding editor of the long-gone but still-beloved New England Monthly magazine. He has agreed to answer your questions about his new book, so fire away in the comments section below. As always, we’ll post his answers in due time.

Update: Okrent responds to your questions here.

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  1. Greg says:

    Utah cast the deciding vote in favor of repealing prohibition, and in response the LDS Church leadership chided the members of the state for reneging on their covenants (Mormons don’t drink alcohol, of course).

    What role did Utah, and Mormons in particular, play in the repeal of prohibition? Was the prevalence of bootlegging in Las Vegas (also a Mormon settlement) and Salt Lake City mere hypocrisy, or was there something else going on?

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  2. Mark Clark says:

    Morning Daniel,
    As an ardent believer in the legalization of marijuana, as well as most other currently illegal drugs, I’d be curious to know if you find any corollaries between the current ‘War on Drugs’ (which we’re losing and will continue to waste time and money on) and prohibition?

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  3. Jim S says:

    Why did it require a constitutional amendment to prohibit the sale of alcohol but prohibitions against other drugs, e.g. marijuana, require no special amendments?

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  4. Luke says:

    I’ve heard that Prohibition actually increased American drinking. Do you have any statistics on average alcohol consumption before, during and after Prohibition?

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  5. PaulD says:

    Here in California we have a proposition on the Fall ballot to legalize marijuana. A lot of people are hoping that if marijuana is legalized, the gangs that currently profit from it will become less powerful. Is that a reasonable expectation based on what you know about what happened when Prohibition was repealed?

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  6. Stephen says:

    What parallels do you see between Prohibition and the current ban on marijuana? For example, what were the similarities and differences in tactics used by those seeking to ban the particular substances? How were the reactions to the bans different, both in terms of subverting the bans, and in terms of arguing for repeal?

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  7. Robin says:

    Have you studied the psychology behind the type of person who considers them-self to be a strong believer in individual rights, yet is more than willing to support stripping individual citizens of their rights to consume intoxicants? I, like many others here, am interested in modern day prohibitions, but I assume the same phenomena would be in play during the prohibition of alcohol.

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  8. Ian Kemmish says:

    Whenever I hear “legalise everything” arguments about today’s prohibited drugs, I always start wondering what the traffickers would do next. After all, criminals generally don’t have pension plans and can’t afford to retire early.

    Can the Prohibition era teach us anything here? As you mention, it helped get organised crime established in the US, but after it was repealed, how many of the smaller crooks decided to go straight? How many moved on to other criminal endeavours?

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