Prohibition party!

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“Everybody’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.”

― W.C. Fields

As a Dutch person it seems almost impossible to grow up without encountering, often from an improbably young age, the phenomenon of tourists asking you where the nearest coffee shop is. Cue surprised stares and open mouths when you proceed to shrug and apologise for your ignorance, while they hastily move on and continue their search. The Netherlands have long since been entrenched in the imaginations of many a foreigner as a sort of magical Alice in Wonderland-land. Legal drugs! Party! Woo! And, as their trips progress, some increasingly funky-looking windmills.

A lot of these thrill-seekers are unaware that drugs are in fact not legal at all in this country. Certain kinds – the ‘soft’ kinds such as cannabis and certain mushrooms – are merely tolerated under certain circumstances. For instance, as long as you are a Dutch resident, are of age, and are carrying a maximum of 5 grams of cannabis, you won’t be prosecuted. Yes, you read that correctly: tourists miss the boat. From January 1, 2013 onward, coffee shops are not allowed to sell to people without Dutch residency. Luckily for tourists, though, most shops don’t check all too rigorously.

The idea behind this degree of toleration is that the government can keep more of an eye on things this way, rather than forcing it underground and losing all control over it. At least, it does to us sober Dutchies. It’s also good to note that the country that epitomises Freedom with a capital F is now slowly but surely, state by state, converting to our wisdom. This is a very far cry from the historical example I mean to pull up here. A lot has changed in some eighty years.

I’ve always been enthralled by the contrasts and contradictions that arose during the Prohibition Era in the United States. It shows us how the American people reacted to the complete ban on the sale, production, importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages that was in place from 1920 to 1933. But wait. Wasn’t this the same period in time usually referred to as the Roaring Twenties? Reckless spending, wild jazz, booty-shaking dancing, partying, and outrageous flapper girls… and a general ban on alcohol. Quite a bold move on the government’s side, I’d say. If only the people who shoved the so-called Volstead Act down people’s throats had had the ability to listen to the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, some seventy odd years in the future, they would have known that ‘Life, uh, finds a way.’

The Volstead Act was a reaction to the perception that society had begun to run rife with alcoholics, gamblers, druggees and violence. The advocates of this act, well, advocated it as a cure for society’s problems, as it was to promote health and public morals. Now, anyone who has seen the successful HBO series Boardwalk Empire (with a fantastic Steve Buscemi, by the way), or anyone who can successfully add one and one, may have the notion to place some footnotes by the intended results of the Act. On the surface, some success was achieved. During the 1920s overall registered (!) alcohol consumption declined by around fifty percent, and it took American society until the 1940s to climb back up to their pre-Prohibition levels of alcohol consumption, so at least some temporary effects are indeed noticeable. Some US inhabitants were at least healthier and perhaps adhered to the odd moral here and there. On the other hand, of course, there is a reason why this era is known as the Roaring Twenties, and why Prohibition is usually regarded as a failed exercise.

Imagine hidden, underground parts of warehouses filled with huge home-made kettles or – on a smaller scale – bathtubs, where things resembling alcoholic beverages were produced by shaggy men in long coats. A significant amount of people had lost their income when alcohol was banned because, hey, no need to produce and distribute it any longer. These people somehow had to make a living (guess how!). A lot of previously alcohol-consuming but law-abiding people also felt the law was unjust, and were thus more than willing to break it. The result was an entire black market for the stuff. Or, for some sort of stuff; quality could vary immensely, to the point where some of the home-brewed stuff should not be consumed by anyone valuing their lives. Speakeasies – bars where alcohol was sold illegally – popped up all over the place. Organised crime received a huge boost. Mafia groups (think Al Capone!) flourished and added bootlegging to their repertoire. And the government hardly stood a chance. Prohibition was notoriously weakly enforced; the magnitude of the task completely overwhelmed law enforcers, who simply didn’t have enough tools available to them in order to deal with the situation. For those who had the energy to make an effort, the law could be bypassed fairly easily.

So, life indeed found a way. And now the whole thing was way further removed from the government’s hands than it had been previously. Moreover, when the stock market collapsed on October 24, 1929, it became apparent that state governments could really have used the tax revenue the sale of alcohol had brought in prior to Prohibition. Roosevelt, who was elected in 1932, saw reason and finally had Prohibition repealed in 1933. Of course, this Prohibition business concerned a completely different time, context, and even substance than the whole Dutch drug story told above. Still, I think it’s a good measure of human nature; when people feel they’re being treated unreasonably – in this case in the case of a complete alcohol ban – they won’t just stay put. And these days cannabis is widely considered to be a very mild drug that can hardly be called worse than alcohol for morals and general behaviour, so it follows similar lines.

In the end, I figure you just can’t stop the dinosaurs. All together now, one last time: Life, uh, finds a way.

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