Back Door to Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking

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December 2003 marks the 70th anniversaryof the Twenty-First Amendment, which repealedalcohol prohibition in the United States. The 13years between the passage of the Eighteenth andTwenty-First Amendments saw the alcohol tradego underground, bringing with it all the ancillarycrime that comes with a black market. Alcoholabuse in the United States went up, not down,and civil liberties and tax dollars were sacrificedto what amounted to a grand, failed experimentin state-enforced morality.

One would think that, given the failure ofProhibition, Americans wouldn't need to worryabout its return. That may not be the case. A well-fundedmovement of neoprohibitionists is afoot,with advocates in media, academia, and government.The movement sponsors a variety ofresearch organizations, which publish dozens ofstudies each year alleging the corruptive effectsof alcohol. Those studies are taken at face valueby well-intentioned policymakers at the local,state, and federal level. New laws are enacted thatcurb Americans' access to alcohol.

Some of those laws aim to make alcohol lessavailable through taxation schemes, othersthrough strict licensing or zoning requirements,still others by censoring alcohol advertisements.State and federal government officials have alsosought to curb alcohol abuse from the demandside, but such efforts ultimately prove misguided.The 2000 federal law that encouraged localofficials to lower the legal threshold for drunkendriving, for example, will have little effect onpublic safety. Instead, it shifts law enforcementresources away from catching heavily intoxicateddrunk drivers, who pose a risk, to harassingresponsible social drinkers, who don't.

Taken together, the well-organized efforts ofactivists, law enforcement, and policymakers portendan approaching "back-door prohibition"--aneffort to curb what some of them call the "environmentof alcoholism"--instead of holding individualdrinkers responsible for their actions.Policymakers should be wary of attempts torestrict choice when it comes to alcohol. Suchpolicies place the external costs attributable to asmall number of alcohol abusers on the large percentageof people who consume alcohol responsibly.Those efforts didn't work when enacted as awide-scale, federal prohibition, and they are alsoineffective and counterproductive when implementedincrementally.

Radley Balko

Radley Balko is the editor of and a columnist for