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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Utah’s Contribution to Repealing Prohibition: Reflecting on the 90th Anniversary of the 21st Amendment

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is known for⁣ a few things, but ⁢alcohol consumption is not one⁣ of them.

Every year, Utah ranks close ‌to the⁤ bottom‌ of lists of states‌ when it comes‍ to⁣ alcohol consumption. ​It landed as‌ the ‍sixth least-drunk state or district in ⁢the nation, SafeHome.org​ reported⁤ in September. The website 24/7 Wall Street, using different metrics, named it the least drunk state in America a few months before that.

Utah is home to many bars and breweries, and also members ⁢of The‌ Church of Jesus Christ‌ of Latter-day ​Saints, a faith that advises against drinking alcohol.

So it may surprise people Utah played the deciding role in⁤ repealing the ​nationwide ban on alcohol production and sales. Utah became the 36th state to ratify ⁣the 21st Amendment exactly 90 years ago on Tuesday, overturning the 18th Amendment that set ⁤up Prohibition, beginning in 1920.

Here’s a look back at why Utah ⁢ratified the ⁣measure and how Utahns reacted at the time.

Utah and Prohibition

Utahns⁢ backed the 18th Amendment,‍ but the state⁤ was sort of late to the temperance movement that had moments‍ but started‍ to rise with the Woman’s Christian ⁢Temperance Union beginning in the 1870s.

The state’s delay was ⁢largely tied ⁣to ⁤concerns “about charges of church interference in politics,” according to Allan ​Kent ‌Powell, retired managing editor of “Utah Historical Quarterly,” who wrote about ⁣the subject for Utah History Encyclopedia.

There were a ⁢handful of efforts to pass bills, ⁣but all of them⁢ either died in ​the Utah Legislature or were vetoed by then-Gov. William Spry, Powell wrote. The Church⁢ of Jesus Christ ⁤also never really lobbied ⁢the⁢ state on⁤ the issue. Some towns‍ passed local laws, but the state seemed stuck on it.

The turning point came in 1916. The Republican Party‌ adopted the movement on‍ a national scale and it‍ became ‍more of a bipartisan issue in the state,‍ Powell wrote. Utah Republicans ousted Spry⁢ in their primary, but their⁤ candidate lost in the general election ​to Simon Bamberger, a Democrat who had championed the ⁢cause in his campaign even without ties ​to‌ the church.

State leaders passed Prohibition laws the following ‍year, joining⁣ nearly ‌two dozen other states⁣ that already passed similar laws.

As Utah police geared up to enforce the law, some ⁣governments were figuring out how to cover lost‍ tax revenue in the days before the law went into effect. Ogden leaders, for example, ⁤started ‍looking into an ordinance issuing a new tax on soft drinks, the Ogden Daily Standard reported at the time. ​Multiple ‍local breweries and saloons also looked to ​join the trade as Utah went dry.

There was “hearty rejoicing ” from those‌ behind the ​push when the law took effect on Aug. ​1, 1917, according⁢ to the Salt Lake Herald-Republican. ‌Celebrations were reported across the state.

Others reluctantly‌ accepted​ it. One drunken miner told the outlet‍ the night ⁣before: “I will crawl under the billiard table and‍ sleep, and ‍when I awaken I ⁤will be⁢ sober, and after tomorrow I will never drink‌ again ​because I ‍will live‍ in Utah.”

Utah and other U.S. states ratified the ​18th Amendment in 1919.

Utah⁤ ‘kills’ Prohibition

Prohibition officially went ⁢into ‌effect nationwide ‍on ‍Jan. 16, 1920, and everything ran smoothly before ⁢it unraveled by the decade’s end.

The⁣ Women’s Organization for ⁣National Prohibition Reform, which formed at⁤ the end of the ⁤decade, argued liquor ⁢bans‌ didn’t stop people from illegally drinking, Time magazine noted in ‌a piece on the 18th Amendment’s downfall.

History.com, which‍ also wrote about the end of⁣ Prohibition, ⁣pointed out that federal and‌ state governments lost “billions in tax revenue” from illegal activities led by mobsters, bootleggers and underground speakeasies.⁤ Time also noted that it gained more​ steam as ‍the Great Depression crushed⁢ federal tax ⁢revenue, which had ⁢helped governments overcome the loss of alcohol taxes.

Utah⁢ wasn’t immune to⁣ the⁤ nationwide issues. Bootleggers ⁣found ways to produce and sell booze to speakeasies in the Beehive State, too.

“Public officials were often ⁢frustrated in ⁤their attempts to‌ enforce the law,” Powell wrote, noting studies that found people of ‍all backgrounds⁤ participated in ⁢the underground trade.

Hundreds of illegal distilleries and stills were uncovered in⁤ the final decade of the state’s dry period, as well as tens of thousands of gallons of ⁢alcohol — likely ⁣a fraction of what ⁤was produced in​ this‍ era, he added.

Prohibition sentiments flipped very quickly in Utah and nationwide, forcing elected leaders to revisit the conversation.

Congress passed the ​Blane Act⁢ in ​1933, ⁢introducing the​ 21st Amendment as long as 36 states ratified it. Only two Utah lawmakers voted against a bill that set up a 21-person delegation to ratify the amendment‍ around this ​same time before Utahns went to the polls to vote, ‌John Kearnes wrote in a piece⁢ about this era ‍for “Utah Historical ⁤Quarterly.”

Kearnes noted a coalition of religious leaders battled to ​retain Prohibition, which split the state on the issue. The two sides argued ‍for‌ months over the‍ good and bad of prohibition before about‌ 60% of⁣ Utahns voted ⁤in favor of ‍ending ⁤it that November.⁣ They also voted to repeal⁣ the state ⁣law by​ a slightly slimmer ‍margin.

It ⁤was ‍now up to the delegation to ⁣finalize the process. The ⁣Salt Lake Telegram reported other states jockeyed with Utah to have the⁢ “honor‌ of ‌being⁣ the ‌state to ⁤sign the ‍death warrant” on Prohibition. Utah​ delegates weren’t going to let that happen.

“We are eager⁤ to end ⁢national Prohibition, but not until we​ are ⁢certain‍ that Utah will be the 36th‍ state ⁤to ratify,” one delegate said.

Ohio, Pennsylvania and ⁢Utah⁢ approved​ it on Dec. 5, but Utah’s vote came in the late afternoon, so it‌ became the state that⁢ ended ⁤Prohibition. The Logan Herald Journal reported at⁣ the time that the vote was​ slated to be even later in the⁣ day, but‍ was also moved up to appease national broadcasters and ‌curtail Maine’s bid to ‌be the 36th state to ​ratify.

One newspaper headline simply read: “Utah kills dry law.”

However, Prohibition’s rise and fall did spark a​ change⁣ Utahns see today. ⁣Ray L. Olson,⁣ one of the leading delegates, told the Logan ‌paper he ​was‌ “convinced ⁤there is a universal desire to promote temperance”⁣ through⁤ the right⁤ liquor laws.

Utah leaders rearranged their liquor⁣ laws as they started allowing⁤ alcohol, setting up state-operated stores in 1935 to ‍replace independent⁤ stores that ⁣operated before 1917, according to Powell.

These stores, now operated by the ⁤Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services, generated nearly $580 million in sales during the⁤ 2023 ⁣fiscal⁣ year,​ creating over $136 million in state revenue, $32 million in sales​ tax revenue and $3 million for the state’s anti-underage drinking ‍campaign.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Agree: Utah played a significant role in repealing Prohibition, a historic milestone worth reflecting on. #CheersToThe21stAmendment

  2. Good grammar, disagree: Utah’s role in repealing Prohibition may have been significant, but it does not warrant celebrating. The negative consequences of alcohol consumption cannot be ignored.

  3. Agree: Utah’s role in repealing Prohibition should be acknowledged and celebrated, as it represents an important milestone in our history.

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