Why Is Alcohol Legal?

Top 6 Reasons and Why It's Likely to Stay That Way

Woman holding a bottle of wine in wine store

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An argument can be made that alcohol is our country's deadliest recreational drug and one of the most addictive. It's also the most legal. So why is alcohol legal? What does this tell us about how our government makes drug policy decisions? These are a few reasons that might explain why no one has tried to ban alcohol since the failure of the Prohibition. 

Too Many People Drink

Advocates of marijuana legalization often point to a 2015 Pew Research report that indicated that almost half of all Americans — 49 percent — had tried marijuana. That's roughly the same as the number of Americans age 12 or older who report that they currently drink alcohol. Realistically speaking and in either case, how can you outlaw something that roughly half the population does on a regular basis? 

The Alcohol Industry Is Powerful

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States reports that the alcoholic beverage industry contributed more than $400 billion to the U.S. economy in 2010. It employed more than 3.9 million people. That's a lot of economic muscle. Making alcohol illegal would strike a significant financial blow to the U.S. economy. 

Alcohol Is Endorsed by the Christian Tradition

Prohibitionists have historically used religious arguments to ban alcohol, but they've had to fight the Bible to do it. Alcohol production was Jesus' first miracle according to the Gospel of John, and the ceremonial drinking of wine is central to the Eucharist, the oldest and most sacred Christian ceremony. Wine is a symbol in the Christian tradition. Outlawing alcohol would affect the religious beliefs of a good portion of American citizens who are protected by a Constitution that promises freedom of religion. 

Alcohol Has an Ancient History

Archaeological evidence suggests that the fermentation of alcoholic beverages is as old as civilization, dating all the way back to ancient China, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. There was never a time in recorded human history when alcohol wasn't part of our experience. That's a lot of tradition to try to overcome.

Alcohol Is Easy to Produce

Alcohol is pretty easy to make. Fermentation is a natural process, and banning the product of natural processes is always tricky. Jailhouse "pruno" can easily be made in cells using products available to prisoners, and much safer, tastier beverages can be made cheaply at home.
As Clarence Darrow put it in his 1924 anti-Prohibition speech:

Even the drastic Volstead Act has not prevented and cannot prevent the use of alcoholic beverages. The acreage of grapes has rapidly increased since it was passed and the price gone up with the demand. The government is afraid to interfere with the farmer's cider. The fruit grower is making money. The dandelion is now the national flower. Everyone who wants alcoholic beverages is fast learning how to make them at home.
In the old days the housewife's education was not complete unless she had learned how to brew. She lost the art because it became cheaper to buy beer. She has lost the art of making bread in the same way, for she can now buy bread at the store. But she can learn to make bread again, for she has already learned to brew. It is evident that no law can now be passed to prevent her. Even should Congress pass such a law, it would be impossible to find enough Prohibition agents to enforce it, or to get the taxes to pay them.

But the best argument in favor of keeping alcohol legal was the precedent set by the Prohibition to which Darrow referred. The Prohibition failed, repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933. 

The Prohibition

Prohibition, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, was ratified in 1919 and would remain the law of the land for 14 years. Its failure was evident even in its first few years, however. As H.L. Mencken wrote in 1924:

Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.

The prohibition of alcohol was such a complete and humiliating failure to our nation that no mainstream politician has advocated restoring it in the many decades that have passed since its repeal. 

Drink Without Fear of Reprisal?

Alcohol itself may be legal, but the things people do under its influence often are not. Always drink responsibly.

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Head, Tom. "Why Is Alcohol Legal?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/why-is-alcohol-legal-721153. Head, Tom. (2020, August 28). Why Is Alcohol Legal? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-is-alcohol-legal-721153 Head, Tom. "Why Is Alcohol Legal?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/why-is-alcohol-legal-721153 (accessed August 5, 2021).