Legalized pot: The challenge is to do it right

Guest opinion: We've been there, done that with repealing prohibition. Have we learned enough to smartly regulate marijuana?
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Guest opinion: We've been there, done that with repealing prohibition. Have we learned enough to smartly regulate marijuana?

The voters have spoken. They made a decision on Initiative 502, making it clear that the majority of the state’s voters believe it is time to adopt a new, more responsible approach to marijuana.

The state now has the answer to one question: How voters feel about legalization of the substance. But the bigger riddle now is: What are the next steps?

There are echoes of this issue —  and lessons to be learned —  from Washington's history. One needs only review our state’s movement to ban alcohol and then later —  predating national repeal —  to end Prohibition. Our state’s experience ending Prohibition is an important reminder that we need to proceed carefully and thoughtfully as we craft the framework for legalizing marijuana.

Washington kept ahead of the nation during the era leading to the 18th Amendment and then during the years of that curious national experiment, which ultimately proved to be not only an abject failure, but a source of much expense, lawlessness and needless effort and excess. (Marijuana criminalization has imposed similar social and fiscal costs; we have paid hundreds of millions millions on policing and incarceration.)

Alcohol in this state — as in the rest of the country — was a divisive issue since the early territorial days when fur traders and trappers used “firewater” to pay the indigenous people for animal pelts.

There were periodic attempts by missionaries and local authorities — notably the Hudson Bay Company, directed by its parent company in London —  to ban alcohol for both white settlers and natives. The HBC believed that if they wanted to restrict the flow of alcohol to the natives, they had to dry up alcohol for settlers as well.

The Prohibition movement united such groups as the Anti-Saloon League, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Washington Grange, which supported temperance due to a belief that alcohol was detrimental to farm laborers. There was a division between urban areas and rural areas, with cities generally in favor; small towns and farm areas generally opposed. Counties, cities and even unincorporated jurisdictions held “local option” elections, dividing the population into “wets” and “drys.”

During the 1889 creation of Washington’s constitution, delegates took up four questions: approval of the constitution, Prohibition, women’s suffrage and the location of the state capital. The voters (all men) ratified the constitution, rejected prohibition and women’s suffrage and picked Olympia for the capital.

In The Dry Years, Dr. Norman Clark described the temperance forces, groups that favored total abstinence, as “dedicated alcohol fighters, absolutely convinced of the evil of all intoxicating drink. … The saloon was evil institutionalized, a symbol and an instrument of Satan’s work.” Dry towns generally did allow alcoholic beverages used for sacramental purposes and permitted pharmacies to sell alcohol for “medicinal purposes” (sound familiar?).

Women’s suffrage became linked to the controversy during territorial days when women briefly gained the right to vote and supported prohibition measures. In order to win the vote in 1910 — 10 years ahead of the rest of the nation — the suffragists distanced their cause from Prohibition.

But once they achieved the franchise, women helped enact laws against liquor. Few could fault their distaste for the saloons of the era, which served as a corrupting force, often bilking workmen of their wages.

When Washington enacted prohibition laws in 1914, ahead of the 18th Amendment, the popular vote was 189,840 for, 171,208 against. Washington was ready for Prohibition, but not for managing it.

The nation did not provide the necessary forces for apprehending smugglers from nearby Canada and bootleggers were successful in corrupting the very forces that were designated to provide protection from “demon rum.” One of the most successful of the bootleggers was a former Seattle Police lieutenant who, at the height of Prohibition, grossed more than $200,000 a month delivering 200 cases of liquor to Seattle every day. Drug stores where prescription liquor could be obtained for medicinal purposes boomed (with 65 opening in Seattle alone between January and March of 1916).

Prohibition was not a success. Although it originally was backed by a majority of the voters, state laws implementing the amendment were eventually repealed in advance of the state delegation’s vote on the 21st Amendment, which repealed prohibition .

But the aftermath of the repeal resulted in a difficult period, one that —  portending  a similar aftermath with I-502's approval — is worth reviewing in hopes that a thoughtful approach can be crafted.

As Clark's book reports, the first 15 months post-repeal led to a lawless period. Most county and city governments dismissed their dry squads to cut expenses. Beer was available across the street from public schools. There were road houses, taxi dancers, service to minors and shootings. Moonshine booze was a standard item in many drug stores.

Eventually the state Legislature appointed a three-member Liquor Control Board, charged with drafting regulations. The state maintained control over alcohol and reaped benefits from profits, taxes and fees, a welcome infusion of cash in the grim days of the Depression.

But there were abuses — wildcatting and failure to enforce regulations. In urban areas, there were questionable “sales” of liquor licenses by city officials. The state remained mired in Blue Laws such as Sunday closures and no post-midnight Saturday sales. Liquor by the drink and sales in hotels and restaurants were tightly controlled and often the topic of proposed reforms.

Washington was slow to deal with some of the vestiges of the anti-saloon movement. It was 1960 before the word “cocktail” could be used in advertising. And it would be a few more years before the one-mile restriction on sales near the University of Washington was relaxed and women could sit at bars.

If there are lessons to be learned from our experience with prohibition, it is that the sale, taxation and regulation of marijuana need to be approached sensibly and prudently. Let’s make sure that we’re prepared to deal with the change in a mature fashion. In taking a leadership position in the nation, Washington should step up and craft a wise and sensible approach.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jean Godden

Jean Godden

Jean Godden served 12 years on Seattle City Council.