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I have heard about countless stories talking about people drinking during the Prohibition.
How was this possible? How did they get away with drinking alcohol without getting caught?

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    Corruption maybe? – andy256 Oct 16 '14 at 4:39
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    Perhaps the same way that today people "get away with" taking drugs, robbery, tax evasion, using Imperial units and programming in languages other than Ada. Regulation and criminalization is easy; enforcing stupid regulations is extremely difficult. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 16 '14 at 13:20
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    andy256's "Corruption maybe" is the key answer. Nobody has touched upon that! Prohibition is what changed smalltime 19th century gangs into hugely profitably 20th organized crime. – David Hammen Oct 17 '14 at 15:30
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    Why hasn't this question been closed for being trivial? Even the wikipedia page explained it. – user5001 Oct 18 '14 at 16:12
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    How is it not? Your question is simply a misunderstanding that it is illegal to drink, when it wasn't – user5001 Oct 18 '14 at 16:16
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Basically it was an unenforceable law, and much of law enforcement saw no need to bother trying.

There are several factors you have to consider here:

  • Prohibition was never really that popular. In fact, its likely that a majority of the country was against it when it passed.
  • Prohibition was particularly unpopular in large cities.

The above factors meant that in large cities the local power structure felt this law had been imposed on them against their will, and thus there was really no heart in enforcing it. Supporters countered this by trying to get the Federal Government involved. But there never were enough federal agents to even begin to perform serious enforcement in all the large cities in the USA.

  • There were (purposely) oodles of loopholes.

For instance, alcohol was allowed for religious purposes. So the selling of "sacramental" wine became a huge business. Alcohol purchased before prohibition was allowed. So the rich stockpiled lots of it, and held private parties. If their stockpiles got replenished somehow, well, who's to tell? So prohibition essentially didn't apply to the rich at all (and it probably would never have passed if it had). Alcohol was allowed to be sold for industrial/medicinal purposes. So there were kits available to make that alcohol potable.

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    Note: The source for most of this answer is my reading of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. That book is highly recommended for anyone even remotely interested in Prohibition. – T.E.D. Oct 16 '14 at 13:07
  • Your point on the popularity of prohibition is interesting. Were there polls or surveys on this? Could you post the results? – user5001 Oct 21 '14 at 8:57
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    @user5001 - There really wasn't any such thing as scientific polling until very late in the 1930's, and even then it tended to concentrate on presidential races. – T.E.D. Oct 21 '14 at 13:25
  • @user5001 - ...so the next logical question is the source for that assertion. About half of the book I linked is about that (the "Rise" part). So I'd suggest either picking up the book, or asking it here as a question. – T.E.D. Oct 21 '14 at 13:56
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    Done :) history.stackexchange.com/questions/16742/… – user5001 Oct 22 '14 at 10:30
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They probably got away with it because it was not illegal to drink alcohol. In fact, the Prohibition outlawed only the "manufacture, sale, or transportation" of alcoholic drinks. No mention of consumption, which remained substantial (~50-80% of "normal"), was made in the Prohibition amendment.

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

- Section 1, Amendment XVIII of the United States Constitution

In fact, the National Prohibition Act of 1919, which implemented the Prohibition, contained a ton of exceptions and loopholes. One example is making wine at home; although the law called it "nonintoxicating cider and fruit juices", it was wine [see note below].

The penalties provided in this Act against the manufacture of liquor without a permit shall not apply to a person for manufacturing nonintoxicating cider and fruit juices exclusively for use in his home, but such cider and fruit juices shall not be sold or delivered except to persons having permits to manufacture vinegar.

- Section 29, National Prohibition Act of 1919


Therefore, in practice, people could keep on drinking by:

  1. Consuming stockpiles purchased pre-Prohibition
  2. Drinking as a guest at someone else's place
  3. Making wine at home (often with ready-to-ferment "juice bricks")
  4. Purchasing drinks on a "medical prescription" à la modern medicinal marijuana
  5. Buying alcohol from organised crimes, who grew rich smuggling them in from Canada

The Prohibition also did not apply to drinks with less than 0.5% alcohol. Many breweries produced such malt beverages in order to survive the 1920s. Though, it is up to you whether to call that beer...


Note: this isn't actually on topic (consumption != manufacturing), but some comments were questioning the legality of making wine or cider at home. When the government tried to enforce the law, accused homebrewers invariably claimed their wine was not "intoxicating". While obviously not true, courts and judges a number of orders. The result was that the prosecution had to prove the home-brewed wine in question was "intoxicating in fact", a nebulous and undefined term.

We are forced to the conclusion that Congress ... required that, before a person can be convicted under the act for manufacturing such vinegar and fruit juices, same must be proved by the government to be in fact intoxicating.

We therefore hold that in all such cases it is necessary to prove that such vinegar and fruit juices are in fact intoxicating before a conviction can be had.

- Isner v. United States, 8 F.2d 487 (4th Cir. 1925)

A famous case was that of three term Maryland Representative John Hill, a bitter opponent of the Prohibition who decided to make some wine and cider and reported himself.

[H]e hung fruit on the fence, gathered it a short time later, pressed it and permitted it to ferment, and telephoned prohibition agents that 'his wine and cider were breaking the law.' The arrested him and he was tried before a Federal jury. The juice was found to contain twelve per cent alcohol but the jury tasted it and stated that it was not 'intoxicating in fact' and released Hill.

- Maryland, a Guide to the Old Line State, Maryland Writers' Project, University of Maryland, 1940

Thus it was legal to homebrew cider or wine as long as it was "not intoxicating in fact". The burden of proving it otherwise was placed on the Bureau of Prohibition, who decided to simply ignore homebrewers. This effectively legalised homebrewing in general.

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    hmm, that clause was probably there to prevent people breaking the law by accidentally letting fruit juice ferment into most (pre-wine). I doubt it was intended to make the manufacture of wine legal. – jwenting Oct 16 '14 at 10:35
  • I agree with @jwenting: wine is clearly not nonintoxicating. – Max Oct 17 '14 at 7:53
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    @Max And clearly I did not claim wine was "nonintoxicating". The obvious (or so I thought) point is that people made wine under the pretense that it was "nonintoxicating", as permitted by a government ruling of the clause. That the law probably didn't intend this, as jwenting commented, is not relevant. – Semaphore Oct 17 '14 at 8:18
  • They may have done so "under the pretence", as you say, but that is still breaking the law (if I smoke marijuana, it's illegal even if I call it tobacco). People may have used that clause to avoid enforcement (do you have a source for that?) but it seems clear that they were breaking the law. – Max Oct 17 '14 at 8:23
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    @Max Then you should have just asked about it. Homebrewing isn't even relevant to alcohol consumption being legal, there was no reason for this offtopic drivel. – Semaphore Oct 17 '14 at 10:11
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A high demand for alcohol provided an economic incentive to those willing to break or circumvent the laws. The only problem was somehow breaking or circumventing the laws. The wikipedia article on alcohol during and after prohibition cites portable stills as going on sale within a week after prohibition went into effect and California grape growers as increasing production by a factor of seven as means to circumvent the laws.

Circumventing the law didn't satisfy the huge taste for alcoholic beverages. Most Americans who drank during Prohibition didn't drink homebrew. They instead drank illegal brew, illegal wine, and illegal spirits. They broke the laws by buying those illegal beverages. Others broke the laws by manufacturing, smuggling, transporting, and selling those illegal beverages.

What were smallish criminal gangs stepped in to fill that void. Those gangs made lots of money, and in the process changed from being small local gangs to huge organized criminal organizations. This meant they had to pay lots of bribes to keep law enforcement at bay, and even larger bribes and "campaign contributions" to keep law enforcement's elected superiors at bay. Al Capone (perhaps the most notorious mobster in American history) and William Hale Thompson (perhaps the most corrupt official in American history) figured prominently in this regard, but their story repeated itself across the nation. Every large city had a good number of speakeasies, and keeping those speakeasies open required lots of bribes. Lots and lots of bribes.

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