By Niko Vorobjov
Alcohol is one of the world’s most popular ways of experiencing different states of consciousness. It makes everything a bit funny, a bit wavy, and makes it more likely you will wake up in some alleyway with a traffic cone on your head, wearing a sign that says, “I am a lamp.” And not only humans—chimpanzees have also been known to get buzzed on fermented fruit juice.
So when drinking was forbidden in the United States during the era we now call Prohibition, that was kind of a Big Deal. Of course, that wasn’t the first time someone tried to ban this inebriating elixir—the early Muslim caliphates of the Middle East declared drunkenness, though not necessarily drinking, haram (forbidden), while France and other countries banned absinthe—but it’s the best case study of it happening in the Western world.
And the ridiculous contrast between intended results and reality has many more modern parallels.
Temperance and Temptation
Starting in the 19th century, the Temperance Movement—in which people with pragmatic concerns about health and crime teamed up with Bible-basher types—had sought to outlaw drinking in America. Drinking was seen as the great social disease which needed to be cured, and the movement grew in popularity, with some states implementing their own anti-drinking laws. Saloons, those classic, all-American symbols of the Western and Manifest Destiny, shut down across Kansas in 1881, making it the first “dry” state.
But it was World War I that proved the tipping point. Along came the Germans, storming across Europe and downing kegs along the way. It simply wasn’t patriotic to share any bad habits with those nasty, beer-swilling Huns, and so in 1919 Congress passed the Volstead Act, which came into effect on January 17, 1920, making the favorite pastime of millions of Americans a criminal act overnight.
So now you’ve got a product that a good portion of the adult population want, and that they can’t get in stores… a real business opportunity! But the nature of an illicit market means you need the connects to be able to source your illegal product. You also need to have some sort of protection—after all, you can’t sue or call the cops if someone robs you or screws you over.
These needs meant that control of the market fell into the hands of those who could provide both. America’s inner cities exploded with violence, as the Mafia fought Irish and Jewish gangs for control.
While the word is Sicilian in origin, in Italy the “Mafia” has come to serve as a sort of umbrella term for crime syndicates across the south, i.e., the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in Naples and the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria (which today controls 80 percent of the cocaine coming into Europe), all of which follow their own traditions and can trace their origins back to the 19th century.
But the American incarnation of the Mafia grew mainly out of the various small-time gangs formed in the Little Italys of New York, Chicago and other towns, as well as extortion rings like the Black Hand, all of which gradually adopted the Sicilian tradition. Meanwhile the Irish mob started out as gangs of street brawlers with names like the Dead Rabbits and the Plug Uglies, who ended up working as enforcers for dirty politicians at Tammany Hall, thus making the transition into organized crime.
Jewish immigrants, mainly consisting of families fleeing pogroms in Poland and Ukraine, then parts of the old Russian Empire, also got in on the action. Kingpins in the “Jewish Mafia” (the Kosher Nostra?) included “Bugsy” Siegel, whose murder in Las Vegas by way of getting shot through the eye inspired the death of Moe Greene in the The Godfather; Meyer Lansky, who inspired Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II; and Arnold Rothstein, best known for being the criminal mastermind who fixed the 1919 World Series. Lansky and Siegel teamed up with Italian boss “Lucky” Luciano and formed Murder, Inc. a ruthless crew of killers who exterminated rats like they were pest control. Of course, there were plenty of white, Anglo-Saxon bootleggers too.
The rampant gangsterism of this era is synonymous with Chicago and Al Capone. On February 14, 1929, seven members of the North Side Gang, rivals to Capone, got the worst Valentine’s card of all time when they were lined up against a warehouse wall by four men dressed as cops, possibly out-of-town killers from Detroit’s Purple Gang, and sprayed with Tommy guns till their bodies turned to Swiss cheese. No-one was convicted of the attack, which isn’t surprising considering Capone had both the mayor and half the city’s police department in his pocket. Capone did eventually get sent down… for not paying his taxes.
Now, amid this lawlessness, alcohol wasn’t banned completely. Those who had a few bottles left over in their basement could hold on to their stash, and alcohol could still be acquired for “legitimate” (read: boring) uses—as a disinfectant, for example, or an industrial solvent.
Plus, if there’s anything I learned from a spell I had in prison (for selling drugs), it’s that anyone desperate for a drink can always make their own. Taking some bread, sugar and some sort of fruit, which in our joint usually meant an apple or an orange, blending it all together in a large bottle of water and letting it ferment for a couple of weeks gives you a shitty kind-of cider—which reeks like vomit, but hey, it gets you drunk. If we’d had some grapes we’d have been able to make wine, which is probably why we never had grapes.
Needless to say, neither industrial solvent nor moonshine brewed in someone’s back yard are things you should be putting into your body, and the lack of quality control meant many thousands of Prohibition-era Americans got sick. One batch of moonshine alone in Wichita, Texas, poisoned 500 people. In some cases, the government deliberately contaminated industrial alcohol to discourage people from drinking. They usually weren’t discouraged, and then they died (the total death toll from drinking poorly refined alcohol during Prohibition is estimated at around 10,000).
People also carried on drinking in secret underground bars known as speakeasies, leading to one perhaps-unexpected consequence: the popularity of jazz. Some of the more high-class of these illicit watering holes hosted performances from the greatest jazz legends of all time. Duke Ellington got a gig playing at the Cotton Club in Harlem, run by the gangster Dutch Shultz (whom Murder, Inc. later added to their impressive cement shoe collection), and audiences came from far and wide to hear some of that “Cotton Club sound.” It was through speakeasies that jazz got introduced to white America and took off in the mainstream.
Thanks to their playing at these “unsavory” establishments, as well as being black in general, jazz musicians were a favorite target for law enforcement. One man in particular wasn’t a fan. Harry Anslinger worked for the Bureau of Prohibition, aiming the barrel of his gun at Canadian whiskey smugglers, Mexican beer barons and rum-runners from the West Indies.
Knowing he was fighting a losing battle, President Roosevelt lifted the ban on alcohol in 1933, leaving Harry with nothing to do. The Bureau of Prohibition became the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (then later, the DEA) and rather than sit around scratching his butt and waiting to get made redundant, Harry set about justifying his new position.
That’s when word got round to him that performers of the “devil’s music” were fond of smoking certain mildly intoxicating herbs (“Man what’s the matter with that cat there?” Cab Calloway used to sing, “must be full of reefer!”). Harry, who was a massive racist even by 1930s standards (“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” he once said), got right on it, embarking on one of the most shameless propaganda campaigns in American history, claiming that smoking marijuana leads to insanity, sexual depravity and murder. Against all reputable medical and scientific advice, Anslinger successfully lobbied for the outlawing of Mary Jane through the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which passed purely on the basis of the hysteria he generated.
While the Temperance Movement was still very strong even without WWI, in the cases of both marijuana and alcohol it was hatred of a certain ethnic group that helped the push to get it banned. This continued a trend going back to 1875, when San Francisco passed a local law banning opium dens for letting innocent white girls consort with “Chinamen,” and the 1914 Harrison Act, which banned cocaine on the grounds of it giving black people magic powers.
This early War on Drugs gave the feds a new excuse to crack down on jazz. One victim was Billie Holiday, best known for singing Strange Fruit. Billie had a tough childhood, growing up poor and being raped at the age of 10, then struggled with alcoholism and heroin addiction for the rest of her life. Anslinger bore a personal grudge against her, and ordered she be made example of to make sure black musicians knew their place. His agents hounded her to the very end, even as she lay dying of liver cirrhosis, cuffing her to the hospital bed and questioning her for the name of her supplier. She passed away in withdrawal.
Another Prohibition Era
Flash forward around five decades, and “negro music” was once again in the crosshairs, this time in the form of gangsta rap. In 1988, the World’s Most Dangerous Group, NWA, received an official warning from the FBI after dropping their track Fuck Tha Police, in which they vented their frustration at how young black men were treated by the LAPD.
Rappers spoke of the problems affecting their communities, which inevitably involved rapping about drugs. When rap first emerged in the early eighties, it tried to convey a social message: “D-d-d-don’t do it, baby!” went the chorus in Grandmaster Flash’s White Lines. Then gangsta rap flipped the genre on its head by embracing those very same problems—instead of “don’t do it” you now had the Ten Crack Commandments by Biggie (an essential guide for purveyors of black market pharmaceuticals everywhere).
Many of the lyrics of gangsta rap, with their depictions of involvements with the criminal justice system and violence (“There’s gonna be a lot of slow singin’ and flower-bringin’ / If my burglar alarm starts ringin’,” Biggie warns us), have represented a sad reality for large parts of black America. And like jazz, rap emerged from the culture formed around the most prominent forbidden mind-bending substance of the time.
Since the Prohibition era, the US underworld has gone through some significant demographic changes. These days, Italian-Americans (along with Jews and the Irish) don’t face the same discrimination and hardship their ancestors did and no longer have to live in the ghetto. Symbolically, all that’s left of Little Italy in Manhattan is a single, lonely street, completely surrounded by Chinatown. With its members now firmly a part of white America, the Mafia’s power base in the old neighborhoods is all but gone.
As this process began, an influx of black Americans from the South and waves of Latino immigrants filled the gap. The North Siders, the Purple Gang and Murder, Inc. have all long been replaced by the likes of the Bloods, the Crips and MS-13.
One 1980s Chicago street gang, the El Rukns, actually made connections with Colonel Gaddafi, sending representatives to Libya with an offer to wreak mayhem in the United States (though more likely, the plan was to scam him into fronting some cash). The scheme was thwarted after the FBI launched a sting operation in which some Rukns got busted buying a rocket launcher from an undercover agent. To date, Rukns leader Jeff Fort, who currently resides in the ADX Florence maximum security prison, is the only American convicted of terrorism-for-hire.
To this day, South Side Chicago, Al Capone’s old territory, contains some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country, with 468 murders in the city last year, most of them gang-related. It’s fitting that in 2013 the Chicago Crime Commission named Mexican drug lord “El Chapo” Guzman, the recently re-incarcerated leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, which controls most of the city’s smack, as Public Enemy Number One—a badge of honor previously only bestowed upon Capone.
The emergence of crack in the ‘80s was associated with a massive jump in the murder rate. Some bright young spark figured out that baking coke into a smokeable rock gave you a really strong buzz which was better value for money. This caught on among poorer black people and Latinos in the ghetto, who could ill afford the expensive, longer-lasting but less intense powder cocaine used by richer whites. The lucrative advent of crack saw the development of many well-organized underworld empires.
Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh tried going deep cover infiltrating one such operation in the Chicago projects in the ‘90s, only to find, when he got a gun stuck in his face, that going around with a clipboard asking gang members questions doesn’t really fly. Still, he managed to earn their trust, and his fascinating, in-depth study revealed that such gangs are organized just like Fortune 500 companies, with strict hierarchies, boards of directors, division of labor and expenses (for example, funeral costs for dead members). Ghettos across America became urban war-zones as these gangs fought over territory, corner by corner, to earn the right to sling rocks at the local dope spot.
Abandoned or semi-abandoned buildings (where the owners really didn’t give a fuck) became crack houses, where customers could go to take a hit from that glass pipe.
Remind you of anywhere? The differences between crack houses and speakeasies were to a large extent ones of demographics (one clue as to why alcohol prohibition didn’t last very long).
And like high-strength moonshine during Prohibition, crack itself is directly a product of drug laws. When a product is illegal and unregulated, sellers (and buyers) have more incentive to get the biggest bang for their buck. (In a nutshell, because it’s better for bootleggers to deal in compact merchandise that delivers a more intense rush and retails for more; this advantage leads to weaker strands being driven off the market, and it’s not worth customers’ time to go around seeking something weaker.)
It’s the same with weed. One argument against legalization goes that the shit that’s around now isn’t the same shit that the old-timers used to smoke back in the Swinging Sixties. Going through an ounce of Alien Napalm a day may not make you a poster-child for mental health, and in my experience smokers often prefer something milder—much as many drinkers (outside of Russia, at least) would prefer to have a casual beer or glass of wine rather than constantly downing shots of vodka.
Legal markets offer more options, and safer ones. This played out during Prohibition: Sales of whiskey shot up, while beer and wine almost disappeared off the shelves.
Plus ça Change…
Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. In a way, not a lot has changed in the last 90 years. Replace Tommy guns with Mac-10’s, jazz with rap, speakeasies with crack houses and Irish, Italians and Jews with African Americans and Latinos and you’ve got a pretty similar picture to what was going on in America nearly a century ago.
It’s not a perfect analogy, of course. For a start, alcohol’s far more widely used than any other psychoactive except caffeine, and plays a much more prominent role in our society than other drugs. In the US, people who are wealthier and whiter and male are more likely to drink more—something that clearly underpins alcohol’s social status.
Corruption has remained a major issue, as illustrated, for example by the Rampart scandal of the late ‘90s—where it emerged that the elite anti-gangs unit of the LAPD had basically become the biggest, baddest gang in the city. But it’s also subtler: Some of the more in-your-face aspects of graft, such as politicians sharing a drink with mobsters, have disappeared.
Prohibition is sometimes known as the Noble Experiment. According to some reputable sources—though this is hotly contested by other studies—it may even have succeeded in reducing total alcohol consumption.
Either way, it was ultimately decided that all the gang violence, corruption, poisonings and mass infringements of civil liberties simply weren’t worth it. And that’s the question we have to ask ourselves today.
Niko Vorobjov was born in Leningrad in the dying days of the Soviet Union. His family emigrated to Italy and the United States before settling in Great Britain. There, he served a prison sentence for selling drugs at university where he was studying for a degree in history and, ironically, criminology. Writing letters to the outside inspired him; he now works as a freelance writer. His writing has appeared in publications including Salon and Gorilla Convict. His last piece for The Influence was “Colombia’s New Ceasefire, Pablo Escobar and the Ethics of Buying Cocaine.”