Prohibition, the Volstead Act and the Harrison Tax Act: Reflecting on the powers that change perception
By Charlotte B. Cerminaro
It was almost ninety years ago that the 21st Amendment to the US constitution was passed by congress, closing the book on a disastrous chapter of American history. When the 18th Amendment was enacted in 1920, congress overturned President Woodrow Wilson's veto, and the Volstead Act quickly followed as an attempt to enforce the new legislation. There were less-known facts and forces at play that greatly influenced these historic events–and their effects have continued through the corridor of time, altering our trajectory to this very day.
In the early 1900's there were a number of attempts by politicians and lobbyists to create what they called "an ideal society", with a puritanical notion that the consumption of any non-food substance, including medicine, was "evil". The idea was to weed out the "undesirables" by criminalizing and controlling behavior.
Previous to and during the time of the Harrison Tax Act (1914), various narcotic substances were produced commercially and consumed legally, in regulated quantities, by adults. A small amount of coca extract, known as cocaine, was in the original Coca Cola formula. Tincture of opium was used to treat a number of medical problems. It was not considered criminal activity; these substances were only regulated in order to levy taxes and raise revenue for the centralized government. It would have been unthinkable to criminalize the market for commercial pharmaceutical products.
Of course, all this changed. With an air of moralizing and continuing efforts to control the populace, ad campaigns and congressional lobbyists played to the idea that "fear sells" and created slogans such as "reefer madness" in order to stoke irrational fear and racism. They announced that white women were in danger because even small amounts of psychoactive substances had a disproportionately violent affect on black people.
None of this was ever backed by any medical science or crime statistics. Ads and lobbyists increasingly pressured for legislation to outlaw all chemical substances—and they got their wish. The Federal government declared war on its own citizens; thus began the dismal, never-ending "War on Drugs". It has created some of the largest government revenue and it is the most destructive, divisive and racially discriminatory policies in US history.
For decades now our prison systems have been overflowing, overwhelmed and significantly populated by non-violent offenders. Exact numbers and percentages vary but it's not uncommon to have 45% of long-term inmates incarcerated specifically for "drug offenses". Often the only crime(s) with which they've been charged and convicted are possession with intent to use and/or purchasing with intent to use, and they have absolutely no history of any violent behavior. When prisoners are released due to overflow, all-too-often lately it's the violent, repeat offenders who are back out on the streets. A high demand on the market for illicit substances also drives some of the most deadly criminal activity along our borders and in neighboring countries.
Aside from the broken criminal justice system, the dangers associated with illicit drug use are numerous and indiscriminate. Being unregulated, there is no way to determine the content or concentration of substances. They are often diluted or "cut" to increase profit for the dealer, and sometimes the chemicals used for this are noxious, caustic and even poisonous. Talcum powder is one of the more benign substances but the use of drain cleaner or bleach is not unheard-of. During Prohibition, people turned to unlawful means in order to acquire alcohol and making "moonshine" was one of them. Unlike our modern-day distilleries where state boards of liquor regulate and label the concentration and quality of commercial liquor, illicit moonshine was often far more concentrated and sometimes, lethal. This trend has continued for years and it has proven to be quite deadly.
For well over a hundred years the course of civilization has been altered, the very foundations of justice and freedom, shaken. Draconian legislation has driven those changes—to the ways in which we think about crime and who we consider to be criminals. Two centuries ago such laws would have been unthinkable; how these laws are enforced would be, unquestionably, crimes against humanity. This is the very reason people fled the Old World and sought out the new. For those who continually tirade and rage against the injustice of racism and fascism, there is some legitimacy to their claim. The cause and its perpetrators, however, are overlooked in favor of an easier target, a scapegoat. Until these limited views are widened and the closed-minded modes of thinking are traded for those of reality and acceptance, they will continue to tear our society apart.
Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician and recording artist. In her free time she enjoys writing and regularly contributes to Enter Stage Right and she attained a Bachelor's Degree in Molecular Biology.