A toast to the 21st Amendment

Michael Johnson Executive Vice President, National Beer Wholesalers Association
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Is today marked on your calendar as a special holiday? If you are like most Americans, it’s just another Monday in December. Even though December 5 may not get the attention of the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving, this day marks an anniversary for our country that is worth recognizing.

It was on December 5, 1933, that the states ratified the 21st Amendment, which forever changed the social and economic landscape of our country. The 21st Amendment is best known for repealing Prohibition and allowing alcohol to once again flow legally after a 13-year ban. But the 21st Amendment did so much more — it implemented solutions after years of systemic societal problems, both before and during Prohibition.

Turn on HBO on a Sunday night and you can see exactly what I’m talking about. Watch just a few minutes of the award-winning series “Boardwalk Empire” and you’ll get a real sense of the violent crime that dominated communities; the mobster mentality that controlled governments; and the rampant disdain for the law that generated fear among the lawful as some Americans worked to source illicit and illegal alcohol during Prohibition.

To restore order, generate civility and restore respect for government, Congress worked to come up with a solution. That solution? The 21st Amendment. The plan? Entrust each state to enact and enforce its own set of alcohol laws, recognizing that each state can best reflect the needs and desires of its citizens — not a federal “one-size-fits-all” system. After all, the country had just tried a federal system for 13 years, and it was very clear that Prohibition did not work.

It was just a few months later that future President Herbert Hoover said this about the importance of states’ rights:

It is my belief that in order to remedy present evils a change is necessary by which we resummon a proper share of initiative and responsibility which the very essence of our Government demands shall rest upon the States and the local authorities […] It is my conviction that the nature of this change, and one upon which all reasonable people can find common ground, is that each State shall be given the right to deal with the problem as it may determine.

Nearly eight decades later, America’s state-based system of alcohol controls continues to allow states the ability to pass their own alcohol laws such as minimum age requirements, ID checks and anti-drunk driving laws. It also generates a robust marketplace that fosters competition and supports businesses in communities across the country — businesses that provide solid jobs to local citizens.

America’s 3,300 independent beer distributors and their 98,000 hard-working employees are proud to be part of that system. They work with brewers, importers and retailers in local communities across the country to continue building on the success of the 21st Amendment. This healthy model has generated a marketplace that supports 13,000 labels of beer and 1,750 brewers nationwide. All across the country, consumers can see the impact of the 21st Amendment in action every day. It’s why you can order a California craft beer from a menu in Illinois; see a neon sign light up a Tennessee restaurant promoting a Vermont brewery; or see a tap handle from Pennsylvania in a Texas bar.

So, 78 years and millions of beers after the repeal of Prohibition, I invite you to pick a beer of your choice and raise a glass to celebrate today’s state-based alcohol system, which generates so much excitement for consumers across the country. Cheers!

Michael Johnson is the executive vice president and chief advocacy officer at the National Beer Wholesalers Association in Washington, D.C.