The Secret History Of The War On Public DrinkingRoundup: Media's Take
New Year's Eve was still three weeks away, but by dusk crowds had thronged Times Square. Everyone's eyes were trained on the screen on 42nd Street. The buzz of mass anticipation hung in the air. Suddenly, the lights on the screen flickered with the message everyone had been waiting for: "Utah is voting!" A hush fell across the crowd. The "yes" votes from Pennsylvania and Ohio had come in hours earlier, so if Utah voters approved the 21st Amendment as well, liquor would become legal for the first time in the United States in 14 years.
At 5:33 p.m., the screen changed again. "Prohibition is dead!" it declared. Times Square erupted in cheers. The good news rippled out through the city, shouted from the mouths of paperboys and in triumphal booms from the ships in the harbor. That night, all across America, people celebrated by crowding into former speakeasies, hosting raucous parties and drinking in the streets.
This month, 80 years later, some Americans celebrated the anniversary of the Repeal with old-timey cocktails, good craft beer or at least a festive hashtag (#RepealDay!). But there wasn't much drinking in the streets. Because America is in the grip of a new Prohibition: One that makes it illegal to drink alcohol in public.
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people are arrested or ticketed for drinking in public every year. Millions of others refrain from doing so because they have been conditioned to believe that public drinking is an act as obviously illegal as shoplifting or nude sunbathing in a city park -- even though it was perfectly legal nearly everywhere in the world as recently as 1975.
This Prohibition, unlike the last, isn't the result of a constitutional amendment. Nor did it emerge overnight. The net of laws that now bans public drinking across most of the country took state and city lawmakers 40 years to weave. Most of these laws attracted as little public notice upon their passage as any other state or municipal law, which has allowed this net to be lowered so slowly and quietly that many people don't realize that anything has changed.
Another difference between this Prohibition and the one that ended 80 years ago? Many of the people who are aware of this one actually like it. They say that the virtually nationwide ban on public drinking has "cleaned up the streets," reduced per capita alcohol consumption and even helped slash the incidence of serious crimes such as murder and arson.
They may have a point. But it's also likely that they underestimate the price we pay for the benefits of this Prohibition. Decades of evidence suggest that laws against public drinking are enforced unequally and capriciously, disproportionately hurting the most downtrodden members of society. More fundamentally, these laws allow the state to interfere with individual behavior to prevent an act that in itself harms no one....
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