I was scrolling through YouTube one day when I came across a video of policemen draining barrels of alcohol. It was during Prohibition. Using a hammer – or something similar – they punctured the barrels and the liquid burst out into a drainage ditch.
The images struck me. Yes, I had learned about Prohibition in school, but the sight of liquor being drained viscerally reminded me that there was a time when alcohol was actually illegal. Given our drinking culture and the ubiquity of alcohol advertisements, we don’t think about Prohibition very often. We also have forgotten the other culture wars related to alcohol. For example, there were legal restraints against liquor ads on radio.
While we have moved on from the dispute over the legality of alcohol, we are currently arguing about the same for drugs. Many of the arguments are similar. For example, legalization advocates make the case for personal liberty, while prohibitionists argue that drugs – because of their mind-altering and addictive qualities - don’t allow individuals to make rational, personal decisions about use.
One of the most compelling arguments for legalization – at least for me – is that government injunctions against drugs have harsh unintended consequences. These include over-incarceration, policy brutality, and organized crime.
While listening to the American History Tellers (AHT) series “Prohibition” I couldn’t help but think about these kinds of unintended consequences following the injunction against alcohol. Entire careers were created for criminals to produce and deliver illegal goods that consumers still wanted. This led to other types of crime in the provision of this service – for example, homicide, tax evasion, and racketeering.
I found the podcast series compelling for this reason – it put me in the 1920s and early 1930s and led me to consider these issues from that perspective. The script is tight and the story is engaging. Upon completion of each episode, I wanted to listen to the following one.
This is history story-telling done well – to lead the listener to experience the past and consider the present, all while not saying what to think but how to consider present issues in light of historical developments.
“Prohibition” has been my favorite AHT series. The other series have not been quite as compelling to me, although many are enjoyable, such as “The Space Race” and “The Bastard Brigade.”