As pot becomes legal, parallels drawn to the waning days of alcohol prohibition

As pot becomes legal, parallels drawn to the waning days of alcohol prohibition

Canada set to legalize marijuana in July 2018

A notorious 1922 police shooting in southwestern Alberta and the sensational trial that followed caused many to wonder whether enforcing alcohol prohibition was worth the trouble.

Alberta’s move to outlaw drinking in 1916 was wildly unpopular in the Crowsnest Pass, a cluster of coal mining towns nestled in the Rocky Mountains not far from the B.C. boundary.

The area became a hotbed of bootlegging and rum running, with prominent businessman Emilio Picariello — known also as “Emperor Pic” or the “Bottle King” —dominating the trade.

But on Sept. 21, 1922, Picariello got word that his son was wounded in a police stop. That led to a deadly confrontation outside the Alberta Provincial Police barracks in downtown Coleman hours later.

No one knows for sure whether Picariello or family friend Florence Lassandro fired the shot that killed Const. Stephen Lawson. Both were hanged the following spring — Lassandro the only woman in Alberta to meet that fate.

“It gripped the nation,” said Fred Bradley, a Crowsnest Pass heritage advocate. “It would have been the 1920s version of the O.J. Simpson trial.”

With provinces plotting out how they will manage the regulation and distribution of recreational marijuana once it becomes legal this summer, history buffs see some parallels to the waning days of alcohol prohibition in Canada.

Every province had its own approach to battling booze in the early 20th century.

And, like the way the federal government has approached the legalization of cannabis, the rules for ending prohibition of alcohol were up to each province.

Booze flowed freely in British Columbia three years before Alberta, so rum running between the two provinces was rampant.

READ: Pot shops speak out on B.C.’s proposed rules on age, retail plan

For many in Alberta, the Lawson shooting underscored how difficult and dangerous it was to police prohibition, Bradley said.

The province voted to repeal the policy six months after Picariello and Lassandro were executed. Booze sales were legal again in 1924.

Other provinces, too, grew weary of the corruption and violence that came with prohibition. Nearly a century later, the Liberal government has said one of the main goals of legalizing marijuana has been to take organized crime out of the picture.

“The end of prohibition was brought about because people began to recognize that the cure, as it were, was worse than the disease,” said Vancouver historian Daniel Francis.

Prohibition had mostly ended in Canada by the end of the 1920s, but it lasted until 1933 in the United States.

That presented a lucrative window of opportunity to supply the U.S. market.

The distilling business founded by the now-prominent Bronfman family made a fortune. Fishermen in B.C. made good money transporting booze down the coast as a side business.

“They saw an opportunity to make a few bucks,” said Francis. ”Most of them were small-time businessmen. They weren’t big crooks.”

When prohibition ended in the Unites States, the low-level rum runners mostly got out of the illicit trade and went back to their law-abiding lives, said Francis.

“They had no regrets over what they’d done and no guilt that they had been engaging in criminal activity,” he said. ”They saw themselves as a public service satisfying a quite understandable public need.”

Some of the kingpins, meanwhile, went on to deal in harder drugs like heroin or cocaine. And some people who served booze on the sly during prohibition became legit vendors at hotels and restaurants.

But Just because booze was legal didn’t mean it was a free-for all, said Dan Malleck, an associate professor of health sciences at Ontario’s Brock University who specializes in the history of drug and alcohol prohibition.

At Ontario outlets, there were no displays of products on offer. A customer had to fill out a form, line up at a counter and hand a passport-like booklet to a clerk, who would note each purchase.

Bottles were handed over concealed in brown paper bags.

It was no fun, but people put up with it.

“Most people were decent citizens who wanted to follow the rules,” Malleck said.

There was a bit of a clean-up period while governments tried to nail down the right number of stores, product prices and authorized drinking locations.

Provinces will have to find a similar balance once pot is legal, Malleck said, and its effectiveness will depend on how easily consumers can get what they want the legal way.

“The black market always will exist,” said Malleck.

“But after prohibition that black market in booze was a fraction of what it was.”

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Following a cease work order from the District of Highlands in October, the BC Supreme Court ruled Jan. 20. that bylaws won’t apply to O.K. Industries’ work until its quarrying activity is complete. (Courtesy of District of Highlands)
BC Supreme Court rules Highlands quarry work can continue

District bylaws won’t apply until quarrying activities are complete

A worker covers up racist graffiti along the West Shore Parkway. (Courtesy of Anna Young)
RCMP investigating racist graffiti spotted off West Shore Parkway

Hateful vandalism is rare, says Langford bylaw enforcement

BC Coroners Service is currently investigating a death at Canoe Cove Marina and Boatyard in North Saanich. (Black Press Media File)
Drowning death of North Saanich likely first in B.C. for 2021

Investigation into suspected drowning Monday night continues

Located at 9750 West Saanich Rd., this North Saanich mansion is on the market for $10.25 million. (Realtor.ca photo)
Located at 9750 West Saanich Rd., this North Saanich mansion is on the market for $8.65 million. (Realtor.ca photo)
The five most expensive homes for sale in Greater Victoria

A roundup of luxury estates currently on the market

Sidney's Beacon Wharf
Pontoon company piqued at prospect of public-private partnership around Sidney wharf

Seagate approached to submit proposeal for public-private partnership

Toronto Public Health nurse Lalaine Agarin sets up for mass vaccination clinic in Toronto, Jan. 17, 2021. B.C. is set to to begin its large-scale immunization program for the general public starting in April. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
B.C.’s COVID-19 mass vaccinations expected to start in April

Clinics to immunize four million people by September

Terry Keogh, an RDN Transit driver, used his paramedic skills the morning of Jan. 22 after coming across an unconscious woman along his route in downtown Nanaimo. (RDN Transit photo)
Nanaimo transit driver stops his bus and helps get overdosing woman breathing again

Former EMT from Ireland performed CPR on a woman in downtown Nanaimo on Friday

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a daily briefing in Ottawa. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)
31 cases of COVID-19 variants detected in Canada: Health officials

Dr. Theresa Tam made announces 13 more variant COVID-19 cases in Canada

An Atlantic salmon is seen during a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish health audit at the Okisollo fish farm near Campbell River, B.C. in 2018. The First Nations Leadership Council says an attempt by industry to overturn the phasing out of salmon farms in the Discovery Islands in contrary to their inherent Title and Rights. (THE CANADIAN PRESS /Jonathan Hayward photo)
First Nations Leadership Council denounces attempt to overturn salmon farm ban

B.C.’s producers filed for a judicial review of the Discovery Islands decision Jan. 18

Daily COVID-19 cases reported to each B.C. health region, to Jan. 20, 2021. Island Health in blue, Northern Health green, Interior Health orange, Vancouver Coastal in red and Fraser Health in purple. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate stays stable with 508 cases Friday

Vaccine delivered to more than 110,000 high-risk people

More than 100 B.C. fishermen, fleet leaders, First Nations leaders and other salmon stakeholders are holding a virtual conference Jan. 21-22 to discuss a broad-range of issues threatening the commercial salmon fishery. (Black Press file photo)
B.C. commercial salmon fishermen discuss cures for an industry on the brink

Two-day virtual conference will produce key reccomendations for DFO

Black Press file photo
Investigation at remote burned-out Vancouver Island cabin reveals human remains

Identity of victim not released, believed to be the owner of an SUV vehicle found parked nearby

Angela Waldick is the new team photographer for the Nanaimo NightOwls. (Nanaimo NightOwls photo)
Half-blind photographer will help new Island baseball team look picture-perfect

Nanaimo NightOwls say legally blind team photographer is making history

School District 57 headquarters in Prince George. (Mark Nielsen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter)
Prince George school district settles with sexual abuse victim

Terms were part of an out-of-court settlement reached with Michael Bruneau, nearly four years after he filed a lawsuit

Most Read