Circumventing the Law

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"Gave Revenue Officers Tip," 1919 newspaper article. Courtesy of the Morrison County Historical Society, Little Falls, Minnesota.

The 18th amendment prohibited the manufacture, transport and sale of alcohol in the United States, but did not specify how the ban was to be enforced. The Volstead Act identified penalties, defined “intoxicating liquors” and specified exceptions, such as medical use. Enforcement was difficult due to a number of factors. A significant proportion of the public had been accustomed to (legally) drinking alcohol and viewed the new law as unnecessary or an imposition of someone else’s moral code.

As a result, many defied the ban or supported those who defied it. Organized crime gangs grew wealthy supporting illegal alcohol trade, and could pay off poorly-paid enforcers. Finally, the degree of opposition to prohibition was underestimated and the resources provided for enforcement were insufficient.