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The lie of help, the story how the government helped kill people by saving them from alcohol

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From 1893 to 1933, the Anti-Saloon League was a major force in U.S. politics. Influencing the country through lobbying, newspapers, and pamphlets, it turned a moral crusade against the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol into the Prohibition Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Facts don’t change, but the story behind those facts often does.

A local newspaper editor at the time wrote that "In Alabama, it is hard to tell where the Anti-Saloon League ends and the Klan begins."

History books told us that during prohibition, alcohol was dangerous, but we weren’t told the worst physical effects of alcohol was the poisonous methanol put in it as an institutional policy demanded by Prohibition Enforcement. Prohibition Enforcement is where future Anti-Drug Czar Anslinger got his start. The methanol was added to harm and kill people who “broke the law” by drinking alcohol.

The effects of methanol:

Accumulation of acid in the blood (metabolic acidosis), blindness, and death. Reduced levels of consciousness (CNS depression), confusion, headache, dizziness, and the inability to coordinate muscle movement (ataxia). It also causes nausea, vomiting (emesis), and heart and respiratory (cardiopulmonary) failure. 

A poisonous level of methanol does not normally occur in alcohol. The US knew that bootleg alcohol was being made, so they purposely demanded adding a murderous amount to the sources used to create it. Keep in mind the government did this after smaller distillers had a formula to make their products safe, so the Prohibition Enforcement did this and did not tell the bootleggers, knowing it would harm the non-compliant working class.

Historian Oshinsky, summarizing the work Okrent: “Prohibition worked best when directed at its primary target: the working-class poor.”

The rich drank safely and well during prohibition.

National Prohibition Act, the U.S. law was enacted in 1919 to provide enforcement for the Eighteenth Amendment —prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. 

The Prohibition Act also informally known as the Volstead Act. The Anti-Saloon League's Wayne Wheeler conceived and drafted the bill and named it after Andrew Volstead, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who managed the legislation.

But there was still plenty of safe alcohol for the rich and white, thanks to —the Volstead Act. Two classes of alcohol were still legally permitted under Prohibition: sacramental and medicinal. According to Sections 6 of the Volstead Act  “a person may, without a permit, purchase and use liquor for medicinal purposes when prescribed by a physician as herein provided.”

Thousands of doctors, veterinarians, pharmacists, and dentists held permits authorizing them to prescribe select quantities of rye whiskey, scotch, and gin for a bevy of conditions including cancer, anxiety, and depression. According to Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, some 15,000 doctors applied for permits during the first six months of Prohibition, which began in 1920 and lasted through 1933.

Lucrative Business of Prescribing Booze During Prohibition, Gastro Obscura

There were also Black Prohibitionists, Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany and Sojourner Truth to F.E.W. Harper, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington—all endorsed temperance and prohibition. There belief was rooted in helping Black people, they didn't quite get this game yet.

The game was, this wasn't about morals. Prohibition was about control. Control of white immigrants and the newly free Black worker. It was an excuse a reason to oppress.

The Ku Klux Klan’s support of Prohibition gave the organization a way to promote its views and a way to perpetrate state-sanctioned violence against [African Americans], Catholics and Jews. “The war on alcohol united Progressives and Protestants, federal agents and Klansmen,” writes Kelefa Sanneh for The New Yorker.

Why the Ku Klux Klan Flourished Under Prohibition, Smithsonian

The war on alcohol, much like the war on drugs, was one of culture. One that disproportionally impacted Black people, and while it wasn’t completely driven by the white hegemony’s hate of the modern free Black person and the Jazz that was their soundtrack, it was definitely greatly fueled by it. 

Renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow famously said in 1924: “I would not say every Anti-Saloon Leaguer is a Ku Kluxer, but every Ku Kluxer is an Anti-Saloon Leaguer.”


Teka Lo, Public Intellectuals

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