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Prohibition's Boost to Organized Crime

Updated on April 5, 2010

Prohibition in the United States was set into motion by the Eighteenth Amendment to the national Constitution and the Volstead Act (“Prohibition”). Prohibition’s purpose was to ban the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol (“Prohibition”). “The onset of Prohibition unleashed an unsurpassed level of criminal violence, and violence is the specialty of the gangs” (Abadinksky, 2003, p. 67). Prohibition provided opportunities for gangs to grow into organized crime empires and “led to a new level of criminal organization” (Abadinksky, 2003, p. 67). Prohibition acted as a catalyst for the growth of organized crime by providing an illegal structure for organized crime to generate revenue while denying the government tax revenue on alcohol. Prohibition also caused many health problems due to production of alcohol by “unregulated clandestine home manufacturers” (“Prohibition”).

Organized crime flourished under Prohibition by providing opportunities “for organized crime to take over the importation (“bootlegging”), manufacture, and distribution of alcoholic beverages. Al Capone, one of the most infamous bootleggers of them all, built his criminal empire largely on profits from illegal alcohol” (“Prohibition”). The organized crime families used their experience “gained by years of struggle against reformers and concealed agreements with politicians was brought into service in the organizing and distribution of beer and whiskey” (Abadinksky, 2003, p. 109). Prohibition allowed organized crime members to take advantage of political connections and utilize criminal networks already established.


Prohibition resulted in a significant loss in government revenue. “From 1919 to 1929, federal tax revenues from distilled spirits dropped from $365 million to less than $13 million, and revenue from fermented liquors from $117 million to virtually nothing” (Blocker, 2006, p. 236). The “cost of enforcing prohibition was high, and the lack of tax revenues on alcohol (some $500 million annually nationwide) affected government coffers” (“Prohibition”) . Prohibition’s attempt to clean up America resulted in significant revenue loss for the government and significant revenue gain for organized crime.

Prohibition resulted in numerous health problems stemming from a lack of government oversight in alcohol manufacturing. “There were many cases of people going blind or suffering from brain damage after drinking “bathtub gin” made with industrial alcohol or various poisonous chemicals” (“Prohibition”). Other unregulated alcohol manufacturing methods also caused health issues, such as “amateur distillers used old automobile radiators to distill liquor, and the subsequent product was dangerously high in lead salts – which usually led to fatal lead poisoning” (“Prohibition”). Some argue that health related problems resulting from prohibition are minimal compared to cirrhosis and alcoholism that would have flourished without prohibition (Blocker, 2006). There is no proof, however, that cirrhosis and alcoholism would have flourished without prohibition.

The government finally realized prohibition was ineffective and only resulted in an increase in organized crime, a decrease in government revenue, and numerous health problems as a result of unregulated alcohol manufacturing practices. “The conclusive proof of Prohibition’s failure is, of course, the fact that the Eighteenth Amendment became the only constitutional amendment to be repealed” (Blocker, 2006, p. 233). Prohibition provided the catalyst that fueled organized crime growth. Organized crime sustains itself now by controlling illegal activities such as prostitution and drug trafficking. Would organized crime cease to exist if the government legalized and taxed prostitution and certain drugs? Organized crime has a history of making money off illegal ventures. Legalizing, taxing, and regulating some of these ventures, such as prostitution, would decrease opportunities for organized crime, increase tax revenue for the government, and improve health issues due to the regulatory nature of government involvement


Abadinksky, H. (2003). Organized crime (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth Learning.

Blocker, J. S. (2006, February). Did prohibition really work? Alcohol prohibition as a public health innovation. American Journal of Public Health, 9(2), 233-243.

Prohibition. Retrieved from Wikipedia:


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