The chemists involvment in Prohibition

Interesting article by Deborah Blum about how the U.S. government poisoned alcohol during prohibition and its deadly consequences.

A couple of interesting highlights:

Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.

I did, however, remember the U.S. government’s controversial decision in the 1970s to spray Mexican marijuana fields with Paraquat, an herbicide. Its use was primarily intended to destroy crops, but government officials also insisted that awareness of the toxin would deter marijuana smokers. They echoed the official position of the 1920s—if some citizens ended up poisoned, well, they’d brought it upon themselves. Although Paraquat wasn’t really all that toxic, the outcry forced the government to drop the plan. Still, the incident created an unsurprising lack of trust in government motives, which reveals itself in the occasional rumors circulating today that federal agencies, such as the CIA, mix poison into the illegal drug supply.

During Prohibition, however, an official sense of higher purpose kept the poisoning program in place. As the Chicago Tribune editorialized in 1927: “Normally, no American government would engage in such business. … It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified.” Others, however, accused lawmakers opposed to the poisoning plan of being in cahoots with criminals and argued that bootleggers and their law-breaking alcoholic customers deserved no sympathy. “Must Uncle Sam guarantee safety first for souses?” asked Nebraska’s Omaha Bee.

But people continued to drink—and in large quantities. Alcoholism rates soared during the 1920s; insurance companies charted the increase at more than 300 more percent. Speakeasies promptly opened for business. By the decade’s end, some 30,000 existed in New York City alone. Street gangs grew into bootlegging empires built on smuggling, stealing, and manufacturing illegal alcohol. The country’s defiant response to the new laws shocked those who sincerely (and naively) believed that the amendment would usher in a new era of upright behavior.

But one positive externality of Prohibition was NASCAR.

NASCAR racing can trace its roots back to the Prohibition era of the 1920’s and early 30’s. The undercover business of whiskey, or “moonshine running” began to boom. More of a problem than secret manufacture of moonshine was the secret transportation of it. The common term for moonshine runners was “bootleggers.” Bootleggers were men who illegally ran whiskey from hidden stills to hundreds of markets across the Southeast.

These men were the real “Dukes of Hazzard” if you will, only there was nothing funny about their business. Driving at high speeds at night (often with the police in pursuit) was dangerous. The penalty for losing the race was jail or loss of livelihood. As bootlegging boomed, the drivers began to race amongst themselves to see who had the fastest cars. Bootleggers raced on Sunday afternoons and then used the same car to haul moonshine Sunday night. People would come to see the races and thus, racing moonshine cars became extremely popular in the back hills of the South. Bootlegging continued even after the end of the Prohibition era, because of the huge tax placed on whiskey upon repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933.

A huge money making sport born out of illegal activities (at least according to the 18th ammendment). So the moral of the story is, you never know where your million dollar idea is going to come from?!?!?!?


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