The National Prohibition Act, known informally as the Volstead Act, was the enabling legislation for the Eighteenth Amendment which established prohibition in the United States. The Anti-Saloon League's Wayne Wheeler conceived and drafted the bill, which was named for Andrew Volstead, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who managed the legislation.
While the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited the production, sale, and transport of "intoxicating liquors", it did not define "intoxicating liquors" or provide penalties. It granted both the federal government and the states the power to enforce the ban by "appropriate legislation." A bill to do so 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 the House on the same day, October 28, 1919, and by the Senate one day later. The three distinct purposes of the Act were:
1. to prohibit intoxicating beverages,
2. to regulate the manufacture, sale, or transport of intoxicating liquor (but not consumption), and
3. to ensure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye and other lawful industries and practices, such as religious rituals.
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 The act defined intoxicating liquor as any beverage containing more than 0.5% alcohol by volume and superseded all existing prohibition laws in effect in states that had such legislation.
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 Omaha's Tom Dennison and Chicago'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.
The first documented infringement of the Volstead Act occurred in Chicago on January 17, 1920 at 12:59 a.m. According to police reports, six armed men stole $100,000 worth of "medicinal" whiskey from two freight train cars. This trend in bootlegging liquor created a domino effect with criminals across the United States. In fact, some gang leaders were stashing liquor months before the Volstead Act was enforced. The ability to sustain a lucrative business in bootlegging liquor was largely helped by the minimal police surveillance at the time. There were only 134 agents designated by the Prohibition Unit to cover all of Illinois, Iowa, and parts of Wisconsin. According to Charles C. Fitzmorris, Chicago's Chief of Police during the beginning of the Prohibition period: "Sixty percent of my police [were] in the bootleg business."
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 were used to evade the law's intended purpose. 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.
The Act called for trials for anyone charged with an alcohol-related offense, and juries often failed to convict. Under the state of New York's Mullan-Gage Act, a short-lived local version of the Volstead Act, the first 4,000 arrests led to just six convictions and not one jail sentence.
Prohibition lost advocates as alcohol gained increasing social acceptance and as prohibition led to disrespect for the law and the growth of organized crime. By 1933, public opposition to prohibition had become overwhelming. In January of that year, Congress sought to preempt opposition with the Cullen-Harrison Act which legalized "3.2 beer" (i.e., beer 3.2% alcohol by weight or 4% by volume), and wines of similarly low alcohol content, rather than the 0.5% limit defined by the original Volstead Act.
Congress passed the Blaine Act, a proposed constitutional amendment to repeal Prohibition, in February. On December 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, rendered the Volstead Act unconstitutional, and restored control of alcohol to the states. The creation of the Federal Alcohol Administration in 1935 defined a modest role for the federal government with respect to alcohol and its taxation.