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The Volstead Act, formally National Prohibition Act, which reinforced the prohibition of alcohol in the United Statesmarker, was named for Andrew Volstead, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversaw its passage. However, Volstead served as the legislation's sponsor and facilitator rather than its author. It was the Anti-Saloon League's Wayne Wheeler who conceived and drafted the bill.


While the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited the production, etc., of "intoxicating liquors", it did not define "intoxicating liquors". A statute would be needed to define the term and implement the Amendment. A bill so to do was introduced in Congress in 1919.

The bill was vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson (largely on technical grounds, because it also covered wartime prohibition) but his veto was overridden by Congress on the same day, October 28, 1919. The three distinct purposes of the Act were:

[1] to prohibit intoxicating beverages, [2] to regulate the manufacture, production, use and sale of high proof spirits for other than beverage purposes, and [3] to insure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye and other lawful industries.

It provided further that "no person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, or furnish any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this act." It did not specifically prohibit the use of intoxicating liquors. The act defined intoxicating liquor as any beverage containing more than 0.5% alcohol and superseded all existing prohibition laws in effect in states that had such legislation. The combination of the Eighteenth Amendment and the laws passed under its authority became known simply as "Prohibition" and enormously affected United States society in the 1920s (popularly known as the Roaring Twenties) and thereafter.


The effects of Prohibition were largely unanticipated. Production, importation, and distribution of alcoholic beverages — once the province of legitimate business — were taken over by criminal gangs, which fought each other for market control in violent confrontations, including mass murder. Major gangsters, such as Omahamarker's Tom Dennison, and Chicagomarker's Al Capone, became rich and were admired locally and nationally. Enforcement was difficult because the gangs became so rich they were often able to bribe underpaid and understaffed law-enforcement personnel and pay for expensive lawyers. Many citizens were sympathetic to bootleggers, and respectable citizens were lured by the romance of illegal speakeasies, also called "blind pigs". The loosening of social mores during the 1920s included popularizing the cocktail and the cocktail party among higher socio-economic groups. Those inclined to help authorities were often intimidated, even murdered. In several major cities — notably those that served as major points of liquor importation (including Chicago and Detroit) gangs wielded significant political power. A Michigan State Police raid on Detroit's Deutsches Haus once netted the mayor, the sheriff, and the local congressman.

Section 29 of the Act allowed 200 gallons (the equivalent of about 1000 750 ml bottles) of "non-intoxicating cider and fruit juice" to be made each year at home. Initially "intoxicating" was defined as anything more than 0.5%, but the Bureau of Internal Revenue soon struck that down and this effectively legalized home wine-making. For beer, however, the 0.5% limit remained until 1933. Some vineyards embraced the sale of grapes for making wine at home; Zinfandel grapes were popular among home winemakers living near the vineyards, but its tight bunches left their thin skins vulnerable to rot, due to rubbing and abrasion, on the long journey to East Coast markets. The thick skins of Alicante Bouschet were less susceptible to rot, so this and similar varieties were widely planted for the home wine-making market.

The Act contained a number of exceptions and exemptions; many of these became popular with people trying to avoid Prohibition without breaking the law. For example, the Act allowed a physician to prescribe whiskey for his patients, but limited the amount that could be prescribed. Subsequently, the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association voted to submit to Congress a bill to remove the limit on the amount of whiskey that could be prescribed and questioning the ability of a legislature to determine the therapeutic value of any substance.


Prohibition lost advocates as alcohol gained increasing social acceptance and as the effects of prohibition on disrespect for law and the growth of organized crime became apparent. By 1933, public opposition to prohibition had become overwhelming. In January of that year, Congress sought to pre-empt opposition with the Cullen-Harrison Act, which legalized "3.2 beer" (i.e., beer 3.2% alcohol by weight or 4% by volume), rather than the 0.5% limit defined by the original Volstead Act, but the Cullen-Harrison Act was insufficient.

Congress proposed an amendment to repeal Prohibition (the Blaine Act) in February and, on December 5, 1933—when Utahmarker became the 36th state to ratify the amendment—the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, made the Volstead Act unconstitutional, and restored control of alcohol to the states, until the creation of the Federal Alcohol Administration in 1935.

In 1968, with the passage of the Gun Control Act, the FAA became the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division of the IRS and began to be referred to by the initials "ATF." In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed an Executive Order creating a separate Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms within the Treasury Department. Rex D. Davis oversaw the transition, becoming the bureau's first director, having headed the division since 1970. During his tenure, Davis shepherded the organization into an agency targeting political terrorists and organized crime. However, taxation and other alcohol issues were not held to high importance standards during that time.

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