Alcohol has been part of the United States since the nation’s birth. The history of the substance plays a role in how people view alcohol today.

Society’s views on alcohol impact its availability and its likelihood to be abused. Overall, alcohol abuse has evolved greatly over the years.

Colonial America and Alcohol

In colonial times, alcohol flowed freely. In 1770, the average person drank about 3.5 gallons of alcohol each year. This is approximately twice the modern average.

During this period in history, many people drank alcohol first thing in the morning and with all their meals. Parents made rum toddies for their children, even their toddlers.

Local governments were more focused on controlling people getting drunk than they were controlling alcohol at this time. They believed that alcohol was necessary for daily life. With the information available back then, alcohol was also viewed as a relatively safe substance.

The American Revolution

When the U.S. began the American Revolution, alcoholism was a rampant issue throughout the country. Many people said that alcohol was “the water of life.” It was a part of multiple areas of life, used as an antidepressant and an anesthetic as well as for entertainment.

As people continued to consume alcohol, more issues with the substance occurred. This is also when morphine was popular, resulting in the rising of morphine addiction.

On battlefields throughout the country, soldiers were combining alcohol and morphine as they fought, leading to an addiction of both substances. However, both alcohol and morphine were so prevalent back then that most people were not concerned.

During the American Revolution, a tincture was widely used. It was alcohol-based, and it contained 10 percent laudanum, powdered opium. This was prescribed, and it resulted in a high rate of addiction.

Morphine was often referred to as a “magic wand” during this time. Doctors prescribed it for pain as they do now, but it was also given for the delirium tremens that can occur when someone is experiencing acute alcohol withdrawal.

Some items included both alcohol and morphine. Morphine was also given when someone was no longer drinking alcohol. These two substances were easy to come by, resulting in major addiction issues during the time, especially among soldiers in the war.

The Birth of Prohibition

The law regarding alcohol prohibition was enacted in 1920. At the time, the consumption of alcohol was legal, but the manufacture, exportation, distribution, importation, sale, and transportation of alcohol was strictly prohibited. The law was violently enforced.

Prohibition was the result of the U.S. government ratifying the 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

It was not long before it was apparent that Prohibition was not going to be easy to enforce. Because of this, the U.S. government also passed the Volstead Act, a type of companion legislation. This was focused on trying to prevent bootlegging, which was a process where people illegally produced alcohol and created illegal drinking spots known as speakeasies.

Prohibition lasted for 13 years. The changes that resulted in the Prohibition era passed easily, but the law was difficult to enforce. This is partially due to doctors because they were able to buy alcohol for laboratory use, and could still prescribe it. Sacramental wine sales were also still legal.

Prohibition led to alcohol being sold illegally, much like the illegal drugs sold in today’s society. People also worked to make it on their own, and this resulted in bathtub gin, moonshine, and home-brewed beer.

Since people could not legally buy alcohol, it led to the birth of crime rings focused on creating, transporting, and selling alcohol to those who were looking for it. Gangs also got involved in the trade, which led to murders and other violence related to the illegal creation and distribution of alcohol.

Prohibition Largely Considered A Failure

During Prohibition, there was a reduction in alcohol use. There was a considerable reduction in cirrhosis-related deaths. However, more people died as a result of adulterated alcohol.

Overall, about half as many people drank hard liquor, and about a third fewer people consumed other alcoholic beverages during Prohibition.

While there were some positives, there were a lot of negatives, so Prohibition was largely considered to be a failure. The nation was divided regarding the issue.

Prohibition was further opposed when the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression occurred.

In February 1933, the end of Prohibition was passed. In December 1933, ratification took place, and the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment.

After Prohibition was abolished, alcohol control was given to the states.

Alcohol and the Constitution

The 18th and 21st Amendments of the U.S. Constitution were involved in Prohibition. The 18th Amendment stated that people could not create or distribute any “intoxicating liquors.” The third section of this amendment now states that it has since been repealed.

The 21st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that one year after it was ratified, people could once again manufacture, transport, and sell intoxicating liquors in the U.S. This amendment does include a sentence that states that this is true unless a specific jurisdiction prohibits it.

Alcohol After Prohibition

In 1933, the Cullen-Harrison Act was passed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as an amendment to the Volstead Act. This made it possible for people to produce beer and wine with lower alcohol content.

Right after Prohibition ended, many states did not make alcohol legal right away. However, rates of drinking started rising again after World War II. Major concerns about fetal alcohol syndrome, teen drinking, and drunk driving were discussed, but they did not slow people down when it came to drinking alcohol.

Some states went nearly two decades or longer as dry states before allowing alcohol to be available again. These states include:

  • Kansas, which was dry until 1948
  • Oklahoma, which was dry until 1959
  • Mississippi, which was dry until 1966

As of 2015, there were still dry areas throughout the country. No states are dry, but there are 10 counties throughout the U.S. where there is an outright ban on alcohol sales.

Alcohol in the 21st Century

In 1968, fetal alcohol syndrome was first discussed. Extensive research into how alcohol could potentially harm an unborn baby was conducted. This led to a lot of the knowledge that is present today regarding this condition.

During this same year, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the American Psychiatric Association published its first criteria regarding alcoholism research.

In 1970, the Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation Act was passed by Congress. This is what led to the creation of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

In 1984, the U.S. government passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. This law established that all people must be 21 years old to buy and consume alcohol.

In 1988, the U.S. government passed a bill that required all alcoholic beverage containers to have a safety and health warning. By this time, sufficient research had been conducted that shed light on the potential health consequences of alcohol consumption.

In 1994, alcoholic beverage companies could start displaying the alcohol content of the beverage on its bottle or can. It was illegal before then.

In the 2000s, immense efforts were made to target youth regarding the health and safety issues associated with alcohol. The Drug Abuse and Resistance Education program was widespread, reaching more than 40 million students throughout the world in 2001. A year later, the Center for Alcohol Advertising and Youth was founded.

In 2007, absinthe was once again legal in the U.S. Prior to this; it had been banned for nearly 100 years. The one caveat is that the absinthe cannot contain thujone or else it is considered illegal in the U.S. Absinthe is alcohol that allegedly has hallucinogenic properties. It is made from wormwood.

In the United States, 200 counties outlaw alcohol. Research shows that compared to counties where alcohol is legal, dry counties have a bigger meth problem. This research further discovered that dry counties tend to have bigger problems with other drugs too.

Certain states have several dry counties where meth use is relatively high. These states include Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kentucky.

In 2015, 26.9 percent of adults in the U.S. said they engaged in binge drinking. About 70.1 percent of participants said they had at least one drink in the prior year.

The Evolution of Alcohol Compared to Other Illicit Substances


In the 1920s, amphetamines became popular drugs in the medical community. Soldiers were given amphetamines during World War II to combat fatigue so they were alert enough to fight as efficiently as possible. They were prescribed these drugs by a medical doctor.


In the late 1800s, cocaine gained popularity in the U.S. It was endorsed by doctors, including the U.S. Army’s surgeon general. For a few decades, a variety of tonics that contained cocaine were available, and these were unregulated. There were approximately 200,000 people with cocaine addiction in 1902. The drug was outlawed in 1914.

Crack cocaine

Around 1985, crack cocaine hit the scene. Since it was cheaper than powdered cocaine, it did not take long before people addicted to cocaine made the switch to crack.


These drugs were very popular throughout the 19th century. Opioids were used by soldiers and even children. Due to its widespread availability, addiction to morphine would form quickly. Toward the end of the century, heroin addiction gripped the na

Alcohol Still Widely Abused

Alcohol remains the most abused substance in the U.S. Though its presence in American life has waxed and waned over the centuries, it has always been prone to abuse.

Today, many federal and local programs are dedicated to helping those who abuse alcohol. While there is no cure for alcohol addiction, there is hope that effective treatment can manage the chronic condition.

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