In the spring of 1920, spirits in America ran surprisingly high. Despite being in the midst of a temporary economic contraction, the forces that brought about our nation’s infamous booze ban — a blend of progressive elites, religious groups and anti-immigrant advocates — were ecstatic.

In addition to celebrating their political victory in the 18th Amendment, they were already applauding Prohibition for curing many of society’s worst ills. News coverage was often gushing. In January 1921, The Times-Picayune inNew Orleans felt confident enough to (dubiously) assert that Prohibition had created “more money for the poor, more money for the businessman, more money for the workman, more money in the banks.”

But the longer Prohibition wore on, the worse its impact became. Similar to other alcohol-banning experiments throughout human history, the higher the government raised the barriers to obtaining legal alcohol, the riskier the steps people took to get hooch. Black markets ran wild, followed by highly organized — and violent — criminal syndicates that turned booze smuggling into a lucrative business. Americans grew weary of the never-ending enforcement raids and expensive prosecutions.

Spirit of Prohibition is still with us

In 1933, barely a decade after it took effect, Prohibition was relegated to the dust bin of history. Well, at least that’s the popular version of the story. In reality, the 21st Amendment, which officially ushered in Prohibition’s repeal,granted state and local governments vast powers over alcohol. In the immediate aftermath of Prohibition, regulators used this newfound power to enact rules that severely limited access to booze.

Most producers were forced to sell their products through middlemen wholesalers, rather than being able to sell directly to customers. Some states took over wholesaling and retail markets for alcohol entirely. A complicated — and often expensive — licensing system arose that created substantial compliance headaches and a host of difficult to understand retailing rules.

As these laws ossified over time, protectionist forces resisted any attempts to modernize them. Licensees in one sector of the industry, such as restaurants, were often reluctant to allow other types of licensees to encroach on their territory. Powerful wholesalers continued to resist producers being granted the right to sell directly to the public.

Now, a century later, the COVID-19 crisis has triggered — virtually overnight — a mass rethinking of this sclerotic industry. Once the virus hit and government officials were forced to prioritize public health above all else, it became painfully apparent that many of our nation’s alcohol rules were not related to health or safety at all.

Many locales had long forbidden restaurants from selling to-go cocktails, but reform-minded officials started asking: Why? Finding no good answer, places like New York, Texas and Washington, D.C., promptly scrapped these restrictions and allowed carry-out drinks.

Likewise, breweries and distilleries have traditionally been prohibited from delivering beer and spirits in many states, but again, was there any real reason for this? Numerous states decided there was not: Kentucky passed landmark legislation allowing producers of all types of alcohol to ship products directly to in-state customers, while Virginia permanently granted distilleries the right to hand deliver spirits.

Restrictions aren’t always safe

At the same time, states like Pennsylvania conveniently demonstrated how a prohibitionist mentality toward alcohol was not only unrelated to health and safety but sometimes actively antithetical to it.

When COVID hit, Pennsylvania shuttered its system of government-run Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores, which led to residents flooding across the border to liquor stores in neighboring states like Ohio, West Virginia and New Jersey. If anything, Pennsylvania’s response jeopardized public health by incentivizing residents to travel far distances rather than sheltering in place.

To be sure, there are legitimate state interests around health, safety and welfare when it comes to alcohol. Government has important and laudable goals such as preventing the sale and service of alcohol to minors and intoxicated individuals, limiting negative consequences like drunken driving, and establishing basic rules to stop fraudulent or dangerous products from reaching the market.

At the end of the day, however, alcohol products are not substantially different from many other types of products we regulate in a more modern way. For instance, at the same time many states were restricting alcohol delivery, they were allowing home delivery of pharmaceutical products. 

It’s unfortunate that it has taken an international pandemic to force America to reconsider its outdated and protectionist system of alcohol rules. But for the first time in a century, we may finally be turning the page on our prohibitionist past.

Image credit:  Oleksandra Naumenko