The Great American Saloon Series

Sweet 21

Seventy-five years ago today, Americans regained the right to drink.

By 12.5.08

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Seventy-five years ago today Utah ratified the 21st Amendment and brought the United States' dark age of Prohibition to a close. The very first Repeal Day was cause for raucous celebration, but since then the anniversary has mostly languished in obscurity. This year December 5 is finally getting the attention it deserves, thanks in large part to Oregon bartender and founder of RepealDay.org Jeffrey Morgenthaler. Tonight drinkers throughout the nation will raise a glass to freedom.

As we toast, we should also reflect on how the spirit of the Anti-Saloon League lives on in the continued growth of the nanny state. Just as the teetotalers of the previous century held governments in thrall, so today do various do-gooders persuade city councils and state legislators to restrict our choices "for our own good."

Yesterday's demonization of drink is reflected most clearly in today's anti-smoking crusade. The speakeasy has been replaced by the smoke-easy as bar owners hide ashtrays from sight from meddling health inspectors. Smoking bans have gone from California oddity to standard practice, creeping to ever more absurd extremes. Outdoor bans are increasingly common, extending to wide open beaches, parks, and golf courses. Dedicated cigar bars and tobacco shops are under fire. Even the home, the last refuge for many smokers, is no longer free from the government's encroachment in some cities.

Though smoking remains legal, legislators are doing everything in their power to make it as expensive and unpleasant as possible. Smokers are an easy target for tax hikes and cigarette taxes now exceed any reasonable estimate of smoking's social cost. Federal taxes on cigars may soon rise from five cents per stick to as high as three dollars and this year Congress came perilously close to explicitly forbidding certain types of cigarettes. Their only hangup was over whether to ban all tobacco flavorings or merely some of them.

Politicians interfere with what we eat as well. Transfat bans are becoming the trendy new public health measure, led by Michael Bloomberg's successful campaign in New York -- the same city where chain restaurants must now make nutritional information not merely available, but prominent, regardless of whether customers really want to be reminded of how many calories lurk in their combo meals. American cheese lovers lament the restrictions on young raw milk cheeses, readily available in Europe but blocked domestically by risk-averse regulators who wouldn't know Camembert from Kraft. Can restrictions on salt, caffeine, or high fructose corn syrup be far behind?

Then there's the legacy of Prohibition itself. Though the 21st Amendment legalized alcohol sales, state regulations impede truly free markets. The ubiquitous three-tier system of producers, distributors, and retailers has spawned countless laws benefiting middlemen at the expense of consumers. Constraints on direct sales increase the cost of alcohol while bans on shipping make it impossible to order boutique spirits, wines, and beers. Even as the Internet has granted consumers access to the abundant long tail of countless goods, drink lovers remain trapped in a 1930s model of distribution.

Finally, we should acknowledge our contemporary struggle with prohibition. The war on drugs has led to gang violence, trampling of civil liberties, and military interventions abroad. Federalist principles are routinely ignored in medical marijuana raids, doctors face prosecution for prescribing painkillers, and ordinary adults must show their ID just to purchase effective cold medicine. The United States now has more than 300,000 people imprisoned for drug violations.

The ratification process of the 21st Amendment holds a lesson for today. All other amendments have been ratified by state legislatures, but this was different. Fearing that rural lawmakers would not bear the ire of the temperance movement, Congress sent the 21st directly to the people assembled in state conventions.

Bringing the modern nanny state to heel will depend on countless individuals standing up against those who would trade our liberties for their preferences. On this Repeal Day, raise a glass to freedom regained and to freedoms still to be won. Cheers to the 21st Amendment!


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About the Author

Jacob Grier is a writer and bartender in Portland, Oregon. He writes at www.jacobgrier.com.