7 illegal things that amazingly used to be legal

things that used to be legal list

We tend to think of laws as obvious truths, but the real truth is that as a society we pretty much just make things up as we go along. If you don’t believe me, just check out the following, seven illegal things that used to be legal.

7. Prostitution

Outside of Nevada, we’ve pretty much all grown up understanding that you just can’t throw a few Ben Franklins at a lady in exchange for a good time. But that wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that these hard working ladies got caught up in the same series of reforms which led to prohibition, amongst other things. Before then, it was widely legal – if not entirely socially acceptable – to head to the ol’ corner brothel for a quick rub and tug during lunch. Even after prostitution was shut down by fainting church ladies, it was impossible to entirely snuff it out, thanks in large part to the federal government’s acknowledgement that it has no direct power over the issue. This meant that it became a local and state issue, and due to the confusion of patchwork and sometimes contradictory statutes, prostitution has managed to survive as a legal enterprise at times, most recently in Rhode Island between 1980 and 2009, and of course, in Nevada and the Kardashian household.

6. Smoking Everywhere

This one is fairly recent, and yet, it already seems bizarre that people used to be able to smoke everywhere from airplanes to movie theaters to college classrooms. Of course, in the classroom you could only smoke so long as you had an ashtray because, well, it’s college and you’ve got to keep it classy. Within the next couple of decades it will seem just as bizarre that people used to be able to smoke inside of restaurants and bars, and eventually, people will be puzzled by the thought that people used to be able to smoke in public at all. But back in the day, everyone openly smoked, from Dwight Eisenhower to Gandalf, probably because it made them look cool and helped get them laid.

5. Child Abuse

What people understand to be “child abuse” has always had a shifting definition, and so it should come as no surprise that the law has had a hard time dealing with it over the years. After all, even today you can still strike your own children, so long as you use an open hand, and even then you’re dancing in a legal gray area. Back in the day, though, people didn’t care so much for gray and so they just sort of shrugged at the idea of a parent whooping his kid’s ass like Stone Cold Steve Austin, and in many cases, they even encouraged it. Spare the rod and spoil the child, and all that. It wasn’t until 1875 that the state of New York stepped in and said, “Yo, that ain’t cool,” and outlawed child abuse. But it remained a state and local issue until 1974, when Congress finally passed an act encouraging all states to make child abuse illegal, although it still goes on today, again most notably in the Kardashian household.

4. Drinking and Driving

drunk driver

These days, drunk driving is seen as a universal taboo, one of those grossly irresponsible things that marks the person behind the wheel as an out-of-control asshole to be shunned by all right-thinking people. But this is really a fairly recent development. After all, when cars were first introduced, nobody really thought anything of it, and why would they? Cars were brand new, and if grandma wanted to hang her head drunkenly out of the buggy, screaming “Whooooo!” and “YOLO” like she just left a bachelorette party, then hey, why not? I mean, cars weren’t exactly rolling at 100mph back in those days. But in 1910, California stepped in and told grandma to chill because she was making a scene, passing the first drunk driving laws. But even then, the laws were loosely defined, and it was basically understood that unless you were completely shit-hammered, the cops would let you slide, which is a far cry from the SWAT team they send out these days if you so much as gargle mouthwash.

3. Dueling

Like with prostitution and child abuse, dueling laws vary state to state. In fact, there are some states where dueling is still technically legal, although the loser does have the right to sue for damages, which honestly just seems kind of pathetic. Instead of through the law, dueling is one of those rare things that has been largely eradicated through public shaming more than anything else. After all, if you win, you basically just murdered a dude, which people weren’t really cool with even way back in the day. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when dueling became publicly disgraceful in the United States, but it was probably around the time Aaron Burr dropped Alexander Hamilton like Tupac. But even after that, dueling continued, and at one point, the U.S. Navy claimed that it lost 2/3 as many officers to duels as it did to combat in war. As you can see, this country has always been gangsta as hell. Don’t even get me started on the horse and buggy musket drive-bys of yore.

2. Owning People

Look, even if you’re not the most historically literate dude or lady dude, you’ve at least probably seen Django Unchained, so please tell me I don’t have to explain this one in too much detail, okay? Anyway, there was this tall, ugly looking dude named Lincoln who said, “Yo, this shit ain’t cool,” which pissed a lot of rednecks off because they got used to owning people like they were farm equipment. A big war happened, Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara she was triflin’, and then Django blew up Candyland. Read a history book sometime, you Philistines.

1. Drugs


Yes, at one point or another just about every drug has been legal in the U.S., even the really crazy shit that they teach you in school will turn you into a zombie with no teeth. This is because most drugs were either developed originally for medical reasons, accidentally discovered in experiments, or just plants growing out of the earth that people have ingested like food since the beginning of time. In fact, the first drug laws in the U.S. weren’t passed until 1875, and even then San Francisco only made it a simple misdemeanor to “keep or frequent opium dens.” Really, though, drugs as a terrifying boogeyman didn’t become a thing until the church lady reformers behind the bans of prostitution and alcohol decided to add drugs to their list of things that gave them the vapors. But hey, at least now we’re all safe from the scourges of sex, drugs and Big Gulps.

Prisoner image by Shutterstock
Drunk driver image by Shutterstock
Smoking weed image by Shutterstock
(Previously published on October 4, 2013.)