Prohibition in California: Support for Prohibition, then Repeal

Support for Prohibition

Did people support Prohibition in California? Yes. They largely did support it at the start. That raises another question. Why did they?

First, temperance sentiment had long been strong in the state. Voters had elected the only Prohibition Party member in Congress. They had also given its presidential candidate, Robert P. Shuler, the largest popular vote in history.

Second, Californians widely believed that Prohibition would improve health. It would increase safety. And would reduce crime. That it would improve the economy. It would  raise morality. And it would reduce violence. But were be wrong. It didn’t work. In fact, Prohibition caused many serious problems.

Prohibition (1920-1933)  didn’t eliminate drinking. Far from it. The Anti-Saloon ranked San Francisco. It was second to New York as the wettest city in the country.

The New York Times did surveys in Los Angeles County. It found that Prohibition had not reduced the amount of alcohol consumed. But it did reduce the quality drunk. And arrests for drunkenness climbed steadily.


The State Prohibition Commissioner made a report. He found that people often drank hair tonics and other products containing alcohol. Thay accounted for one-half of the drunkenness in the state. Even worse, bootleg alcohol often had toxic lead. Some customers were paralyzed, blinded and even killed by it. The number of such deaths jumped from 69 to 418 in just five years.

BootleggingCalifornia support Prohibition

The state had supported Prohibition. But a state senator declared California a “bootlegger’s paradise.” Speakeasies mushroomed in every city and town. Their operation required that police be bribed. Some departments were completely corrupted by the lure of easy money.


The federal director of Prohibition enforcement for northern California resigned. That’s after he was indicted for embezzling alcohol. When not corrupt, enforcement agents were generally ignorant of rights limiting search and seizures. That was the complaint a U.S. attorney. Police entered homes without search warrants. Property was often destroyed. Innocent people were often assaulted. And that’s by the very people who were paid to protect them.

Prohibition made formerly legal activities illegal. That made ordinary people into criminals. So respect for law declined, often openly. In 1928, a Los Angeles jury drank the evidence against a bootlegger on trial. They said they had to be certain that it contained alcohol. The bootlegger had to be released for lack of evidence.

Prohibition deprived the state of alcohol tax revenues. That’s at the very same time it was causing more crime. In turn, this was leading to mounting costs. Everything from police, to courts, to new prisons.


The situation caused by Prohibition continued to get worse. People saw that “the cure was worse than the disease.” Prohibition didn’t reduce drinking. It made it much more dangerous to health and life. It didn’t reduce crime. And it increased it. Prohibition didn’t increase prosperity. Except for criminals, such as moonshiners and bootleggers. It didn’t improve morality. Rather, it directly led to its rapid decline.

Earlier, people supported Prohibition. But the Noble Experiment had created a monster. Californians voted over three-to-one for Repeal.

Resources: Prohibition in California


California Alcohol Laws. Think you really know them?


Austin, S., et al. Fermenting Berkeley. A Spirited History. Berkeley: Berkeley Hist Cent.

Ostrander, G.M. The Prohibition Movement in California, 1848-1933. Berkeley: U CA Press.

Roux, R. Prohibition in Kern County, 1919-1933. Bakersfield: Greenhorn.

Weber, L. Prohibition in the Napa Valley. Charleston, SC: Hist Press.