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Alcohol Prohibition in America Is Not Over Yet

There are still many areas where selling and even possessing alcohol is illegal. Research shows that they are probably not faring as well as their wet counterparts.
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Boston Police load seized casks onto a truck, circa 1930. In some places, people are still waging a war against booze. (Photo: Boston Public Library)

Boston Police load seized casks onto a truck, circa 1930. In some places, people are still waging a war against booze. (Photo: Boston Public Library)

The 20th century refuses to leave Arkansas.

While the nation eases toward marijuana legalization, Arkansas is still fiercely debating the merits of allowing the sale of a different kind of controlled substance: alcohol.

Today, nearly half of Arkansas counties are dry, prohibiting the sale of alcohol within their borders. The same is true in Mississippi, as well as in nearly a third of counties in Kentucky and Oklahoma. In total, dry counties and municipalities make up about 10 percent of the United States’ landmass, estimates long-time alcohol researcher David J. Hanson, a sociology professor emeritus at SUNY Potsdam. Prohibition may have been repealed 80 years ago, but for ardent modern-day prohibitionists, that’s no reason to give up the fight.

Contrary to popular understanding, the 21st Amendment did not legalize alcohol nationwide. It merely repealed the national prohibition on its sale, kicking the question back to states. Many continued to ban the sale of alcohol statewide, particularly in the South where the temperance movement was strongest. It wasn’t until 1966, more than three decades after the 21st Amendment was ratified, that Mississippi became the final state to repeal its statewide ban on alcohol sales.

He argues that banning alcohol sales teaches children better values and stops people from “looking like a bunch of knuckle-dragging yahoos.”

For the past 50 years, states have employed a patchwork of laws, including allowing counties and municipalities to regulate the sale of alcohol. Some areas are “dry,” totally banning alcohol sales, or “wet,” permitting such sales. Others are “moist,” where significant restrictions exist—such as only permitting alcohol sales on qualifying golf courses or banning sales on Election Day.

Today, hundreds of counties and municipalities across the country remain dry. In Tennessee, for example, visitors to the Jack Daniel’s distillery won’t find the whiskey at any nearby restaurants in dry Moore County. Dozens of Alaska towns—virtually all Native communities—go even further, banning not just the sale but also the mere possession of alcohol. More than two dozen states, ranging from New Hampshire to North Carolina and Florida to Kansas, currently have dry areas.

How can it be that so many places still consider alcohol taboo nearly a century after the end of prohibition? Larry Page, the director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council and perhaps the most reasonable-sounding Prohibitionist one could meet, explains: “You gotta look at our culture," referencing the historical strength of the temperance movement in the South. “That’s had a lasting residual impact."

Indeed, a nationwide CNN poll from January 2014 found that nearly one in five Americans believe alcohol consumption—not just sales—should be illegal. And support for the idea was significantly higher in the South than other parts of the country.

Page thinks he knows why. “While alcohol is a legal drug, it’s the most dangerous drug in America,” he says.

Even the town louche would probably concede this point. Heavy drinking can lead to major health problems, domestic violence, child abuse, and car accidents, among other negative effects. Despite years of “Just Say No” anti-drug campaigns, the same CNN poll found that more than three-quarters of Americans believe alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana.

“I understand that many people can drink and not create problems,” Page goes on. “But because it is the most dangerous and abused drug in the country, people should have the right in their locale to limit or restrict it.”

Dry counties don’t just exist as a relic of a bygone era; they’re still actively supported by many. For instance, 57 percent of Arkansas voters opposed a measure to legalize alcohol sales statewide—in 2014. Ironically, the opposition was largely financed by competing liquor interests in other counties who wanted to prevent more competition from cropping up. According to disclosure filings, more than half the $1.75 million raised by Citizens for Local Rights—the main group opposing statewide legalization—came from just four competing alcohol groups. One of them, the Conway County Liquor Association (whose stores generate significant revenue from residents of dry Faulkner County nearby), contributed $562,350 in total, more than three-quarters of the group’s existing assets. (A particularly incredible advertisement from Citizens for Local Rights shows a bartender in a wet Arkansas county telling voters, without a hint of self-awareness, that, “I think that big business and government, they should completely stay out of local affairs.”)

“During prohibition, nobody went out to a speakeasy to have a beer. You went to have 10 beers.” 

Still, there is no question that the overall trend is for dry counties to go wet. According to the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association (NABCA), more than 22 counties and 200 municipalities have gone wet in the past decade. “While there may always be dry localities in the United States, they are getting fewer and far between,” the group writes. Even in Arkansas, where voters handily opted against statewide legalization, two counties voted in the same election to become wet.

“Attitudes toward alcohol are becoming more moderate,” Hanson notes, a point that even Page concedes. In addition, increased support from profit-seeking restaurants—and large trade associations like NABCA—are helping chip away at dry areas. Another contributing factor is the ongoing internal migration shift in the U.S. As people move in droves from the Northeast and Midwest to the South, newcomers are diluting the power of Southern teetotalers. Carpetbaggers are getting the last laugh.

But as with any dying movement, the final prohibitionists are the most fervent. “Nothing good comes of drinking,” Page says. “Generally speaking, the quality of life in dry counties is superior to wet counties." He argues that banning alcohol sales teaches children better values and stops people from “looking like a bunch of knuckle-dragging yahoos.”

The problem, Hanson points out, is that prohibiting alcohol sales actually encourages people to get knee-walking drunk. “During prohibition, nobody went out to a speakeasy to have a beer. You went to have 10 beers,” he says. After all, when it’s difficult to get to a bar, patrons are going to make sure they take full advantage. So even as dry counties are relatively effective in reducing the frequency of drinking among residents, in so doing, they also promote binge drinking. In short, Hanson argues, “prohibition destroys moderation.”

Prohibiting alcohol sales often creates a perfect storm. First, people, when they do drink, generally get intoxicated. Second, because dry counties tend to be rural ones, the closest wet county is often further away. Third, in most rural areas, taxis or late-night public transportation are rarities. The sad result, then, is lots of people driving a significant distance to the bar, getting drunk, then trying to drive themselves home.

Traffic fatality statistics bear this out. In Texas, researchers examined data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and found that, over a five-year period, people in the state's dry counties had a fatality rate in DUI accidents of 6.8 per 10,000 people, more than three times higher than the rate in its wet counties of 1.9 per 10,000 people. “The fact is, the less distance you have to drive to buy the alcohol, the fewer fatalities there will be,” said Oscar Dillahunty, spokesman for a group that successfully advocated for Angelina County, Texas, to become wet in 2006.

Banning alcohol sales can also lead to increased drug problems. Researchers at the University of Louisville, for instance, recently found that meth lab busts in Kentucky are significantly higher in dry counties, suggesting that meth production is more common where alcohol is banned. In Texas, meanwhile, a 2005 study found that drug-related crimes were higher in dry counties. The researchers explained that their data “suggests that alcohol and drugs are substitutes in consumption,” so “regulations on [alcohol] lead to important unintended and possibly counteracting consequences for other deviant behaviors.”

There are a few other unintended consequences in dry counties. A recent study in Alaska found that, despite prohibitionists’ hopes, banning alcohol had no effect on suicide rates. Another repercussion is that dry areas can lose out on additional tax revenue and other economic benefits that come from increased sales. Winona, Texas, for example, boosted its sales tax revenue from around $2,000 per month to $11,000 after the town voted to legalize alcohol sales in 2009. Still, Tim Naimi, a physician and alcohol policy researcher at Boston Medical Center, says that the potential tax benefit is quite limited, because “in most states alcohol taxes are levied exclusively at the state level, and in those states it is generally not permissible for cities or counties to have their own alcohol taxes.” 

Though it’s clear that the wet crowd is winning the fight—after all, almost no wet communities decide to go dry—Page explains why he will continue to fight. “I think crime is lower in dry counties,” he says. “I think the quality of life is a little bit better.” Still, he concedes, “If you’re going to ask me if I have empirical evidence, I don’t.” Of course, Page is far from the only person who would rather be ideological than accurate. But, he added, “I think prohibition works.”