PRESS EDITORIAL: Lessons of a century-old mistake

Americans detest the most democratic element of their democratic republic.

A 2019 Gallup poll found that 75% of Americans disapprove of the branch of the federal government that directly represents them, the U.S. Congress.

Having the two houses of Congress in the control of different political parties since 2018, far from improving the public’s opinion of the legislative branch, seems to have made it worse, giving citizens of all political views more to dislike about either the House of Representatives or the Senate.

The impeachment drama probably hasn’t helped. It has been suggested that the refusal by executive branch officials to comply with subpoenas to appear before House committees amounts to the crime of contempt of Congress. Maybe, but the fact is, it is Congress that is held in contempt by three of every four Americans.

The reasons for this are many but fuzzy, possibly related to declining confidence in government in general. Complainers, however, frequently refer to the legislative branch as the “do-nothing Congress.”

A milestone the country will reach this month is a reminder that, as far as Congress is concerned, things could be worse. A century ago, a do-nothing Congress would have been a blessing.

The milestone is the 100th anniversary of the start of Prohibition. On Jan. 17, 1920, the Volstead Act, the law enacted by Congress to enforce the 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors” in the U.S., took effect.

That was the work of a Congress that really did something—something that was perhaps the worst governing blunder in the nation’s history.

In the thrall of righteous intolerance that blessed a gross intrusion by the government into the personal liberty of its citizens, the Congress defied the veto of President Woodrow Wilson and voted to amend the nation’s sacred governing charter, the Constitution, to outlaw beer, wine and distilled liquor drinks.

Never mind that forms of alcoholic drink criminalized in the U.S. had been present at the advance of civilization over centuries, as recorded in oral and written histories, including the Bible, and even memorialized in Christian rituals.

Liberty and culture aside, Prohibition was an instant disaster that created and enriched criminals from Caponelike gangsters to hillbilly moonshiners, damaged the economy, engendered widespread corruption in government and law enforcement and exacerbated inequality—people with money got all the booze they wanted.

After 13 years, Prohibition became the only constitutional amendment ever rescinded. There has been nothing like it since, though the word “prohibition” sometimes crops up in reference to the long-standing federal law that makes the possession of marijuana a criminal act. People advocating the repeal of the federal ban point out that, like the prohibition of alcohol, it serves to enrich organized crime while filling jails and prisons with small-time consumers and sellers. Efforts to end it have gone nowhere, but a number of state governments are defying it.

Eleven states allow the sale of marijuana in various forms for recreational use; Illinois is the most recent to decriminalize its purchase and use. On New Year’s Day, the first day the weed was legal there, $3.2 million worth of marijuana was sold at approved outlets. Illinois officials predict that taxes paid on marijuana sales will bring the state government $250 million a year in revenue by next year.

In recognition of the wide acceptance of the belief that marijuana has health benefits, 33 states authorize the medical use of marijuana and its derivatives. Wisconsin, contrary to its neighbors Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois (Michigan, like Illinois, has also legalized recreational marijuana use), is not among them.    

A bipartisan group of Wisconsin legislators has proposed legalizing the medical use of marijuana, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald avers he will not let it happen.

The powerful Republican legislator thinks medical marijuana would be a slippery slope that would cause the state to slide toward approving recreational use of marijuana. He is wrong about denying Wisconsin residents access to marijuana as a doctor-prescribed medication, but he is probably right about the slippery slope—because most of the public approves of some use of marijuana.

A Marquette Law School Poll last April found that 83% of Wisconsinites support legalizing the purchase of marijuana with a doctor’s prescription. A national Pew Research Center poll taken around the same time found that 91% of Americans approve of some form of legalized marijuana, including 51% who think it should be legal for recreational use.

On the 100th anniversary of Prohibition, it’s worth remembering that this colossal mistake was corrected not because members of Congress experienced a sudden enlightenment, but because a majority of Americans demanded it.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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