Raising a glass to the 21st Amendment

Rebecca Spicer Airlines for America
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December 5. Is it just another day on your calendar, squeezed somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas? Perhaps. But as you head out to holiday parties to celebrate the season, the date may take on added meaning.

Today is the day in 1933 when the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, with 36 states (a three-fourths majority of the 48 states existing then) approving it. With that move, the 18th Amendment was repealed, ending 13 years of Prohibition and granting each state the primary authority to enact and enforce alcohol laws.

To understand fully the importance of the 21st Amendment, watch HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” or PBS’ “Prohibition,” series that profile the Prohibition era from 1920-1933. Those years were marked by violent crime and a rampant disdain for the law as desperate Americans stopped short of nothing to get their supply of illicit alcohol. As John D. Rockefeller, Jr., wrote at the time, “Drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”

It was evident, the one-size-fits-all policy of the 18th Amendment was a failure. Congress needed to come up with a solution to reinstate order to communities and to restore respect for government. The solution? Let states make their own decisions about alcohol policy. And that’s just what the 21st Amendment did. It granted each state the ability 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.

Disappointed in the results of the 18th Amendment, Rockefeller led the effort to establish a plan of action for the 21st Amendment to ensure that it would work. The blueprint was spelled out in the book Toward Liquor Control, which recognized that the key to success was putting alcohol policy decisions in the hands of the states. If the new system is not rooted in what the people of each state sincerely desire at this moment, it makes no difference how logical and complete it may appear as statute – it cannot succeed.”

The new system did succeed. It succeeded because it was rooted in “what the people of each state sincerely desire.” Today, the state-based system continues to allow for alcohol policies that reflect the will of the people in each state. For example, many Utah residents probably don’t want the same alcohol laws as neighboring Nevada, and those differences are considered within this system.

Today, the system is still a success.

This system delivers commercial and economic value in communities around the country. The system helps new brewers get to market; supports millions of jobs; ensures that millions of dollars in taxes are properly paid to local, state and federal governments, and delivers enormous choice to the consumer. After all, 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. And America’s 3,300 independent beer distributors and their 130,000 employees are proud to be part of this system.

The next time you reach for a cold beer, think about the state-based alcohol system that generates so much excitement for consumers across the country. 80 years after the repeal of Prohibition, let’s make a toast to the 21st Amendment and its continued success. Cheers!

Rebecca M. Spicer is the Vice President, Communications & Public Affairs at theNational Beer Wholesalers Association in Alexandria, VA.