Contributor: Sarah Lerdal. Lesson ID: 11088

Can the government control behavior? How far should it go in regulating commerce? Can laws spur on more crime? Apply the answers you'll learn when you write your editorial about legalizing marijuana!


United States

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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To what extent should the government try to regulate the production, selling, and buying of goods and services? Do you believe the government should take a "laissez faire," meaning "hands off," approach, actively intervene, or take some middle ground when deciding economic policy? Take some time to discuss your beliefs with your teacher.

We have a capitalistic economic system, but the extent to which the government should intervene is still debated today.

That debate, and the power of the central government, took center stage in the 1920s.

After World War I, the government stopped telling factories what to produce as far as munitions, and stopped rationing Americans' food, but they did regulate the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcohol.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed, which outlawed alcohol in the United States. The Volstead Act was the law that officially enforced the amendment.

People who advocated for the ban of alcohol were called prohibitionists, or "drys." What would have been some of their arguments for supporting the 18th Amendment?

Opponents of Prohibition were called "wets." What might have been some of their reasons for disliking the ban on alcohol?

The Volstead Act did not outlaw consumption, so many Americans continued to drink the alcohol they already had stashed away!

The Prohibition era saw a rise in violent crime, in part because a lot of money was to be made from the sale of illegal alcohol. People who sold this illegal alcohol were known as bootleggers. Secret places that sold the alcohol were known as speakeasies.

Watch Prohibition in the United States: National Ban of Alcohol (, below) to see some of the video footage from this time period:

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Organized crime — unlawful activity for profit that is systematically practiced city-wide or larger — also grew during the 1920s. Al Capone grew to be one of the most notorious mobsters. As a provider of illegal alcohol, he was quoted as saying, "I make my money from supplying a public demand. If I break the law, my customers, who number hundreds of the best people in Chicago, are as guilty as I am. The only difference is that I sell and they buy" (Prohibition: The Era of Excess by Andrew Sinclair).

Al Capone mugshot 17 June 1931

Image by United States Bureau of Prisons, via Wikimedia Commons, is a work of a United States Department of Justice employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain (17 U.S.C. § 101 and 105).

Al Capone was difficult to bring down, because he paid off so many government officials. Watch Al Capone Downfall (Ken Burns) to see how he was finally stopped:

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The country was divided over whether alcohol should remain outlawed.

In the Got It? section, you will take a look at some of each side's arguments. Think about your stance on the issue, because you will see if the arguments solidify your opinion or make you think twice about it.

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