Pandemic alcohol stockpile run. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
Pandemic alcohol stockpile run. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

The Volstead Act, which outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, came into force in the US a century ago. The move, which ushered in Prohibition, was ostensibly done for good reasons — to minimise the harm alcohol abuse was doing to society — but in the end all it did was strengthen the choke-hold violent criminal organisations had on American cities.

Prohibition outlawed the production, sale and consumption of booze in the US but, rather than stopping people drinking, it merely enriched criminals, drove the industry underground, removed safeguards and quality controls, and robbed the fiscus of taxes and excise duties. The hangover from this is still being felt today.

According to American historian Michael Lerner, the proponents of Prohibition expected, on top of the social good they believed banning booze would do, “sales of clothing and household goods to skyrocket. Real estate developers and landlords expected rents to rise as saloons closed and neighbourhoods improved. Chewing gum, grape juice, and soft drink companies all expected growth. Theatre producers expected new crowds as Americans looked for new ways to entertain themselves without alcohol”.

None of this came to pass. Instead, amusement and entertainment industries declined across the board; restaurants failed as they could no longer make a profit without legal liquor sales; theatre revenues fell rather than increased; and few of the other economic benefits predicted were seen.

Thousands of jobs were lost as breweries, distilleries and saloons shut while upstream and downstream industries shed workers.

Prohibition gouged a hole in tax revenues and government spending, costing the federal government $11bn in lost tax revenue (more than $140bn in today’s money) and more than $300m (now nearly $4bn) to enforce. It also saw laws being twisted as businesses explored loopholes to get around the ban.

Bootleggers bought pharmacies, because whiskey could be dispensed as medicine for a wide range of ailments, and there was a mushrooming in the number of religious leaders who were allowed to buy wine for their rituals. Fruit juices were sold with explicit lists of what “not” to do if you didn’t want to convert it into alcohol, and plans for homemade stills became readily available.

Everywhere it has been tried, criminals have taken over and, because the laws are so self-defeating, they do not get seen as the bad guys

It is estimated that 1,000 people a year died from drinking unsafe alcohol. It was, as should have been predicted, an abject failure.

The problem with prohibition is that it tries to deal with the supply side of the equation, which, as history has repeatedly proved, is far less powerful than demand. From being able to buy booze during 1920s America; Levi’s jeans behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War; cocaine during the global war on drugs; US dollars in Zimbabwe in the 2000s; and cigarettes and alcohol during SA’s lockdown now, it is clear that if people want something, somebody will supply it. Albeit at a premium and without quality control and other consumer protections.

Some people have pointed to the purported successes of the first period of the booze ban in SA as proof that it works. But this is patently nonsense. All the early numbers show is that the supply lines for illicit booze weren’t yet in place in SA. Cigarettes, which were banned at the same time, already had well-established and lucrative illegal supply lines and, although some people quit as a result of the ban, most just switched to illegal, more expensive and less safe suppliers.

Survey data contradicting this should be treated with caution as it has been shown that people are not comfortable admitting that they break the law.

It is only a matter of time before alternative supply lines for alcohol are established in SA and take over from where the legal, regulated and, very importantly, taxpaying industry was forced to leave off. SA policymakers would do well to study the aftermath of banning stuff in other jurisdictions before committing themselves to such a ruinous move in the long term.

Everywhere it has been tried, criminals have taken over and, because the laws are so self-defeating, they do not get seen as the bad guys. Rather, the cops who try to enforce the rules are demonised — if, that is, they do not integrate themselves into these new supply lines, as has happened throughout history.

Criminals will use the profits to try to remake society in their own image, and attempt to corrupt all levels of government, the judiciary and the media so they can carry on making their obscene profits.

As the rise of the Mafia in the US and the narco cartels in Central and South America has proved so starkly, enforced abstinence doesn’t work. It merely criminalises users and deprives them of protection.

• Wray, a former executive editor at BDFM in Johannesburg, is a freelance writer based in the UK.

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