Sample Research Paper on The Impact of Prohibition on Organized Crime


Governments have often used prohibition as a strategy of addressing social problems and vices for years for the wellbeing of the society. However, over the years, prohibition has appeared to encourage the emergence and growth of organized crime. This research demonstrates how prohibition of production and sell of alcohol in the United States between 1920 and 1933 encouraged the emergence and growth of organized crime. It describes how prohibition creates a vacuum between public demand for prohibited products and/or services and the prohibition, thereby providing criminals an opportunity to create illegal businesses to benefit from supplying the scarce prohibited products at a high price. The research further supports this position using the rational choice theory of crime that explains why people commit crime. Finally, the research explains the significance of evaluating the impacts of prohibition on organized crime, and areas that need further evaluations in the future.

The Impact of Prohibition on Organized Crime


Alcohol consumption was an essential part of the American cultural life during the first two decades of the 20th century. Almost everyone in the American society drank alcohol in some form, regardless of age, sex, and religious and political affiliation. Alcohol consumption in America had escalated to alarming levels, as there were fears that it could lead to the collapse or destruction of the prospering American society. These fears led to the enactment of the Volstead Act that prohibited the selling of alcoholic liquors in the United States (U.S.) as from January 16, 1920. Immediately after midnight when the prohibition law came into effect, the country experienced many cases of liquor robbery and hijackings, as the alcoholic drinks were expected to become scarce and highly priced in the underground markets. This situation encouraged the emergence of strong organized crime groups that took advantage of the U.S’ extensive boundary with Canada and Mexico to smuggle alcoholic drinks into the U.S. where they were secretly sold at very high prices. The U.S. also had an extensive Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf shorelines that were used by organized criminals to smuggle alcoholic drinks into the U.S. Organized crime grew at unprecedented rate during the prohibition era that began in 1920 and ended in 1933. The unprecedented growth of organized crime immediately and during the alcohol prohibition era in the U.S. implies that any kind of prohibition may encourage growth of organized crime in the same way. Therefore, reviewing the impacts of prohibition on organized crime would provide an important insight on whether prohibition continues to encourage the emergence of organized crime. This is because prohibition is still being used in controlling the production and supply of products and substances across several states in the U.S., and majority of countries throughout the world. Most recently, the proponents of marijuana legalization have been supporting their position arguing that marijuana prohibition encourages growth of organized criminal groups dealing with the substance, the same way alcohol prohibition did between 1920 and 1933.

Literature Review

What constitutes organized crime varies from one state to another, thus there is no any universal definition of organized crime. Although every criminal event is organized to some extent, not every organized criminal activity qualifies to be an organized crime. However, there is a general agreement that organized crime is that undertaken by two or more individuals who, with continuity of purpose, are involved in either the supply of illegal goods and services, or engage in predatory crimes. Common categories of organized crimes include racketeering, gangs, vice operations involving illegal goods and services, and even terrorist groups. The main goals of an organized criminal group are profit and power, which are pursued through production and/or exchange of illegal goods and/services in illegal markets (Calderoni, 2010, p. 42). Scholars and policymakers have been examining the impacts of prohibition on organized crime. Majority of them are in agreement that prohibition encourages the emergence and growth of organized criminal groups. Woodiwiss (2001) supports this claim by emphasizing that prohibition easily encourages the transfer of once-legitimate products and/or services to persons that are ready and willing to break the law (p. 184). According to Woodiwiss, alcohol prohibition in the U.S. between 1920 and 1933 encouraged the emergence of large criminal gangs in Chicago, New York, and Cleveland that were involved in the production and distribution of across, which at times took place across international borders. Those producing prohibited products and substances normally seek the services of gangsters to smuggle and distribute their products. Albanese (2014) points out that prohibition has been largely responsible for the emergence of strong organized crime groups than any single event in the recent history (p. 136).

Prohibition tends to triggers a series of events or situations that escalate the growth of organized criminal groups and their associated organized crimes. The first impact of prohibition is that in creates vacuums into which the criminals rush to occupy. Most cases, if not all, organized crimes have appeared to develop around the underground market created by the vacuum left between the public demand for the prohibited products or services and the prohibition of them. Prohibition usually results in the scarcity of the prohibited products and services that particular groups of people were used to in the society. With such scarcity, the consumers of such prohibited products and services would be more willing to pay higher prices to acquire them (Brux, 2008, p. 38). This situation can be more severe if the prohibited products and services are addictive in nature.

The second impact of prohibition is that it opens opportunities for the establishment of illegitimate business. Illegitimate businesses are normally established to gain from the vacuum created by the prohibition. Since prohibition criminalizes the production, supply, and purchase of prohibited goods and services, some people are more willing to break the law to benefit from filling the gap. The prohibited goods and services are normally highly priced because of their scarcity and the greater risks involved in supplying them. However, people will be motivated to open illegitimate businesses because the actual or perceived benefits are greater than the risks involved.

The third impact is that the demands of most illegitimate businesses that are associated with the prohibition would motivate the group of individuals running the business to improve how their business is organized. For example, those smuggling prohibited products are aware that they could be severely punished by relevant authorities, such as government, if caught. This compels them to establish an organized group of individuals running an illegitimate business in order to enhance how they produce and distribute the prohibited products and services without being caught. Mobs running illegitimate businesses often establish a form of a corporate organization that runs their activities. The organization has a hierarchical command structure, distributed amongst its members in ways that would enhance its operating efficiency in distributing their products and evading the government authorities.

Prohibition has also been found to provide those who organize crimes the opportunity to expand their activities to twilight zones and further strength their appeal in the society’s popular culture. For example, organized criminal activities are increasingly being undertaken in public spaces, such as bars and nightclubs that are highly frequented by law-abiding citizens. Corruption levels are high in public spaces of this nature, and the environment itself allows the law-abiding citizens to mingle freely with the real criminals. Some of these public spaces are actually owned and operated by the organized criminal groups, as they help them conduct their activities at the backdoor or background with little or no suspicion from the public and law enforcers. At times, police officers that are aware of the occurrence of such activities are often paid /bribed to ignore the activities taking place there (McCarthy, 2011, p. 88-89).

Prohibition also tends to provide criminal elements some great opportunities in public relations matters. According to McCarthy (2011), the public largely views the criminals involved as angels, as they satisfy legitimate social needs that the government and other pressure groups attempt to suppress (p. 89). In such a situation, the public will be in support of the organized criminal groups that are trying to fill the vacuum created by a particular prohibition. Therefore, government authorities might experience difficulties collaborating with the public in identifying and dealing with the organized criminals. This would eventually encourage further growth and expansion of the organized gangs, as they are aware a section of the society, if not the whole of it, is supporting their activities.

Analysis Significance

The impacts that prohibition had on the emergence and growth of organized crime in America between 1920 and 1933 is not unique to the circumstances of the time alone. Similar outcomes can be realized presently in case any prohibition comes into effect. Understanding the impacts of prohibition on organized crime can provide valuable information on how to prevent the emergence of organized criminal elements when trying to address particular behavior or substance considered as harmful, but perceived as essential by a section of the society. It can also help deal with organized criminal groups that have come into existence due to enactment of prohibition measures.

A comprehensive understanding of the impacts of prohibition on organized crime can be useful in policy formulation in law enforcement in ways that would ensure policies achieve their intended purpose, while simultaneously minimizing the possibilities of encouraging the emergence and/or growth of organized criminal groups. For example, over the past years, there have been fierce debates on whether to legalize the use and sell of marijuana in several states across the U.S. While some states strictly prohibit the production, sell, and use of marijuana, unless for medical purposes, some have authorized it, but under very strict conditions. However, it appears that more states are supporting the legalization of marijuana, as they believe it would reduce organized crimes that involve illegal production and distribution of marijuana in their respective jurisdictions. As of November 5, 2014, the recreational use of marijuana had been legalized in four U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Other states are also considering legalizing it for recreational use. Most of the states are using Marijuana for recreational use, while some of them have reduced the penalties imposed on individuals involved in illegal marijuana business. The emerging trend towards the legalization of marijuana for recreational use may be partly informed by the facts that prohibition tends to encourage the emergence and growth of organized criminal groups that create illegitimate business to fill the void between the public demand for marijuana and the prohibition. Therefore, there is need to conduct research to reveal what has inspired several states to reduce fines imposed on illegal marijuana business, and why states have begun  legalizing marijuana for recreational use. In case the research findings would indicate that the trend towards legalizing marijuana for recreational use is helping fight organized crime, this would be a justification that prohibition of marijuana has been encouraging the emergence and growth of organized criminal groups  involved in illegal marijuana business.

The findings that prohibitions tend to encourage the emergence and growth of organized criminal groups can be best described using the rational choice theory. According to the rational choice theory, people often act to advance their own interests, and can decide to engage in criminal behavior  after weighing the potential risks of getting caught and punished against the rewards/benefits that can be realized from  the particular criminal activity. These rewards and the possibilities of being caught vary with time and place. Therefore, an offender will engage in criminal behavior if its benefits are greater than the benefits of not committing the crime. Furthermore, the offender will commit a crime if the benefits involved are greater than the severity of punished that he/she would suffer if caught. The impacts of prohibition normally create a vacuum between public demands for the prohibited goods and the prohibition. The scarcity of the prohibited goods and their increasing demands among public makes their value and prices to skyrocket. Therefore, potential criminal elements will then evaluate the benefits of starting illegal business to supply the prohibited products against what they would lose for doing nothing at all, or the severity of punishment they would suffer if arrested by government authorities. Majority of the potential offenders would establish illegitimate businesses to produce and supply the prohibited products because the perceived benefits are greater than the risks involved. Since those involved in the illegitimate business have some common interests, they would tend to establish an organized criminal group/organization that would help them reduce the risks involved, while at the same time maximizing the benefits accruing from the illegal business. The organized criminals also have to make a rational decision on the locations most suitable for their criminal activities. Prohibition would also compel the organized criminal groups to make a decision about the most appropriate time and location to conduct their illegal businesses. Since prohibition makes it riskier to undertake an illegal business during the day and in very open environments, organized criminal normally prefer extending their illegal activities to twilight zones such as nightclubs to hide from the authorities by mingling with the public as they undertake their business. The organized criminal’s mingling with the public in such places minimizes their exposure to law enforces, while at the same providing an opportunity most of their clients/customers. It is evident from the above discussion that prohibition increases the scarcity of a much sought after products, resulting in the skyrocketing of its value/price. The abnormally high prices of the prohibited products encourage people to establish illegal businesses to reap its great benefits. The constant threats of being arrested by law enforcers compels these criminals to establish an organized group of criminals that is highly innovative and efficient, thereby minimizing the risks of being arrested while simultaneously maximizing on the benefits accruing from the illegal business.

In general, it is evident that understanding the impacts of prohibition would help policymakers and law enforcers fight social vices in a more efficient way by avoiding strategies that tend to promote the occurrence of undesired outcomes. Therefore, the understanding that prohibition encourages the emergence and development of organized crime would enable policymakers and law enforcers come up with alternative strategies that are quite different from prohibition. For instance, instead of addressing an issue through prohibition, policymakers should provide controlled access that would not escalate the demand of the product by the ones the public was used to. Part of the solution would be avoiding the creation of a vacuum by promoting cheaper, safer and better legally accepted alternatives. This would minimize the benefits of establishing illegal businesses as the demand for the products would be low and risks of producing and/or distributing them would be high. In recent years, several mass shootings of innocent civilians, especially children in school environment prompted the U.S. federal government propose a legislation that prohibits the ownership and use of semi-automatic rifles and automatic rifles with magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Those opposing the proposed law have argued that the prohibition would not only be a violation of the rights to own a rifle, but would also encourage the growth of illegal gun markets. Such markets are normally operated or run by organized criminals to satisfy the demands for guns. Therefore, there is quite convincing evidence and argument that prohibition tends to encourage the emergence and growth of organized crime.


It is evident that prohibition encourages the emergence and growth of organized crime, instead of helping strengthen or improve law enforcement efforts. Prohibition creates opportunities that help those willing and ready to break the law to benefit a lot from selling the prohibited products to the public at very high prices. These criminal elements maximize their benefits and minimize the risks involved through forming organized criminal groups. These groups streamline the criminals’ operating efficiencies while at the same time minimizing the risks of being arrested and punished for engaging in illegal business. Although prohibition tends to encourage the emergence and growth of traditional organized crimes involvement smuggling of prohibited goods, there is little information regarding its impacts on modern forms of organized crime perpetrated through the internet, for example, organized cyber attacks. It is difficult to define the nature of prohibition in online platforms, and how they impact criminal elements engaged in organized cyber attacks. In recent years, the world has witnessed increasing cases of cyber attacks perpetrated by groups of people located in different parts of the world. However, it has been largely unclear about the kind of prohibitive measures that have motivated these individuals to undertake coordinated attacks by sharing their expertise in infiltrating internet networks and systems, such as those belonging to governments and corporations across the world. The kinds of internet usage and access technologies encouraging organized cyber attacks are not well known. Furthermore, is there evidence that high internet security measures have either increased or reduced organized cyber attacks? What kinds of internet prohibitions have been found to encourage organized cyber attack?  While present evaluations indicate that prohibition encourages the flourishing of traditional organized criminal groups involved in smuggling of physical products, future evaluations should focus more on examining the impacts of probation on organized criminal groups carrying out cyber attacks. This is because organized cyber attacks are increasingly becoming a serious global problem, as it is targeting government systems, national and multinational companies, financial institutions, and security agencies that are tasked with controlling such crimes. The prove that prohibition is impacting traditional and new forms of organized crimes the same way would be essential in determining its universal applicability on all forms of organized crimes, that is, those undertaken in both physical and virtual environments.



Albanese, J. S. (2014). Organized crime in our times. New York: Routledge.

Brux, J. M. (2008). Economic issues and policy. Mason, OH: Thomson South-Western.

Calderoni, F. (2010). Organized crime legislation in the European Union: Harmonization and approximation of criminal law, national legislations and the EU framework decision on the fight against organized crime. Heidelberg: Springer.

McCarthy, D. M. P. (2011). An economic history of organized crime: A national and transnational approach. New York: Routledge.

Woodiwiss, M. (2001). Organized crime and American power: A history. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.