From the late 19th century onwards, Temperance movements grew in popularity in the United States. They were primarily driven by a belief that easy availability of alcohol was responsible for poverty and crime (especially domestic violence).
Their dreams became reality in January 1919 when the 18th Amendment was formally ratified. This banned the sale, production and importation of “intoxicating liquor”, defined as alcohol stronger than 0.5%. It would go into effect a year later.
From the start, enforcement proved futile. Organised crime and smugglers stepped in to supply a black market. The corruption that it spawned enabled many underworld figures, such as Al Capone in Chicago, to build vast fortunes. Policing was also hindered by loopholes, such as the fact that people were still allowed to make their own wine and hard cider at home. Whisky was also sold in limited quantities for “medicinal” purposes.
By the late 1920s it was clear that the policy was a disaster. Not only did crime increase, with the homicide rate sharply up, but enforcement also proved to be expensive. While some historians have pointed out that rates of liver damage declined, recent studies have suggested that this was due to other factors, such as previous anti-alcohol policies and income.
By the 1932 election, both parties were committed to ending the experiment. In March 1933, legislation raised the minimum alcohol content to legalise low-alcohol beer. The 21st Amendment later that year repealed prohibition completely.