pre-prohibition like current drug war?

An assertion was made on a post at SI, in a thread entitled “Some thoughts on beverage alcohol” that I think is just not true:

From what I have observed over the years, the liquor industry and culture Sunday, Jones, et al. faced bares little resemblance to the same industry we face today. If we were to look for a modern parallel, the modern equivalent might be the hard drug market. It was in this milieu the evangelists of old thundered forth against liquor for close to a hundred years and continued on after the repeal of Prohibition.

The first sentence is true enough as far as it goes. Things are different now. But that’s where the accuracy of the statement ends.

To say the hard drug market of today is in any way a parallel with the environment of pre-prohibition temperance preaching is an amazing misunderstanding of history and an incredibly inappropriate comparison (of the proverbial “apples to oranges” variety).

For some resources, I would like to point to you two sites found on this search: “history of drug laws”.

  1. History of Drug Laws (notes provided by a psychology prof at the University of Minnesota, Morris)
  2. Drug Law Timeline (notes at the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy, prepared originally for a class taken at the University of Missouri, St. Louis)

An examination of these documents, as well as other resources, shows significant differences between the pre-prohibition environment and the current hard drug market.

  • First: alcohol was completely legal prior to prohibition. Hard drugs are illegal today.
  • Second: hard drugs were legal then too – we live in a state of total prohibition of hard drugs today.

The context in which preachers and temperance workers of the past “thundered” against alcohol was a context of complete legality and freedom of use, exactly the same context for alcohol as we have today.

For a good look at what life was like pre-prohibition, I would recommend a book by James H. Gray, Booze. It is out of print, I believe, but you can get used copies. It’s focus is primarily the state of affairs in Western Canada, so it will not reflect the city life of the east as well, but it will give you a general idea what life was like for those impacted by the drunkenness of the culture of the day in more rural climes. You will also understand why the preachers and temperance workers thundered against the stuff.

One other thing that amazes me about the post I link to is that no one in the subsequent discussion thinks to challenge the author’s basic premise. It is incredible to think that the current illegal drug trade is in any way comparable to the pre-Prohibition legal alcohol trade.

BTW, alcohol consumption dropped considerably through Prohibtion and did not reach pre-Prohibition proportions until after WWII. It seems to me that the current legal alcohol market is exactly the same as the one the pre-Prohibition preachers thundered against.



  1. What’s interesting is that during the late 1800s, drug addiction (especially morphine) was encouraged by doctors as an alternative to alcoholism. Drunks might beat their wives and children, but druggies seldom did! You could still buy morphine and needles from the Sears and Roebuck catalog in the early 1900s.

    People who are going to argue from history really should know what they’re talking about.