January 17, 2020 One hundred years ago today, alcohol prohibition commenced in the US as the Volstead Act took effect. It would be repealed in 1933. “The quick amendment of the Volstead Act is one of the least appreciated elements of how FDR changed the country’ s psyche” according to author Jonathan Alter. In his book about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office, “The Defining Moment,” Alter wrote:
“Immediately after delivering his first Fireside Chat on March 12, he reviewed the 1932 Democratic Party platform, which called for amending the Volstead Act to legalize 3.2 beer.* The 18th Amendment, which launched Prohibition in 1918, was aimed at hard liquor and permitted the legalization of beverages with less alcohol. So FDR issued a three-sentence message to Congress on legalizing beer. The next day, March 13, the House was preparing to recess when it received FDR’s message. It stayed in session, immediately passed the bill on beer, and sent it to the Senate. As FDR knew, under Senate rules, senators could not consider modifying the Volstead Act until they voted on the Economy Bill, which was on the floor first. So they swallowed the bitter budget pill that afternoon and chased it down with a beer vote the next day, effective immediately.
“Although formal repeal of Prohibition would not come until the end of the year, beer parties were held all over the country starting in March. At 12:01 a.m. on the first day of legal beer, Hawaiian guitarists drew a crowd as a truck from Washington’s Abner Drury Brewery pulled up at the White House with a sign: PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT, THE FIRST BEER IS FOR YOU. In Times Square, bands played ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.” H.L. Mencken, tipping a few in Baltimore, decided that maybe Roosevelt wasn’t so bad after all. ‘Something was happening immediately! Bars were opening overnight, with every other beer on the house!” recalled author Studs Terkel, explaining how the news played for a young man growing up in Chicago. ‘In the midst of the Depression it was a note of hope that something would be better.”
We commented in O’Shaughnessy’s (Summer 2009):
“Whether or not Barack Obama has read The Defining Moment, he is certainly aware of the analogies to FDR ending alcohol prohibition as he considers how to deal with marijuana. Evidently —and to our disappointment and shame— the new president is not going to bring the troops home swiftly or enact single-payer healthcare or push through pro-union legislation. And yet he could win the enduring respect and affection of the masses, and there’ll be dancing in the streets, if only he would legalize marijuana for medical use.
“Our demands are so meager it’s pathetic.”
*3.2 beer is about half strength. At a campaign event one Sunday in October, 1996, Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello) advised patrons of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club that if Proposition 215 passed, the Vatican was planning to assign jurisdiction over marijuana to “the twin sisters, Saintsa Maureen and Doreen, the patron saints of 3.2 beer.” It got a knowing laugh from a crowd that considered marijuana to be a relatively benign intoxicant. —Fred Gardner