Pot Shots! Part Deux

Dispatches from the new marijuanaland.

By From the January-February 2014 issue


LYNDEN, Washington

Prohibition in America never ends with a bang. Take alcohol, the subject of two constitutional amendments and about as clean cut a federal case as one could ever conceive. Ratified in 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment banned booze’s “manufacture, sale, or transportation,” full stop, though some fixers such as Joe Kennedy amassed fortunes using complicated legal maneuvers to navigate around those plain and terrifying words. 

Thirteen years later, the Twenty-first Amendment began with the straightforward clause “The 18th article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.” Then came the fine print—and the politics.

Spirits were still outlawed in states and localities that decided to stay sober, the amendment stated. That latter clause is why Utah—Utah!—felt comfortable voting to put the national Prohibition-ending amendment over the top. Some states post-Prohibition punted the wet or dry decision to the counties. Others states decided to allow boozing again statewide, with a raft of restrictions. After all, there were serious concerns it might lead to dancing.

As the prohibition of alcohol slowly ebbed, the looming question mark was the black market. Would bootleggers go legit? Would speakeasies come out of the shadows? Would rum runners slow down? 

It would mean paying taxes on a substance that had been extremely profitable, to a government that had been at times vicious in its crackdowns. By and large, booze businessmen eventually swallowed their pride and went straight, for solid financial reasons.

“The customer is always right,” rang the old motto of department stores. America’s black market trade in booze made a lie of it. “Prohibition always trades out good drugs for bad drugs,” said my friend Joel Miller, author of the drug war history Bad Trip. Crackdowns reduce contraband in variety and quality, and hike the price to well above normal market rates.

Thanks to black market merchants and rampant police corruption, boozehounds could still lay their hands on alcohol during Prohibition, technically, but it wasn’t anything to write to Robert Parker about. Miller said, with some hyperbole, “We traded wine and spirits for bathtub hooch, the kind that makes you go blind half the time.” No wonder consumption went down.

Prohibition’s end gave drinkers the opportunity to pull out the stopper, to send the horrible hooch down the drain and to reach for better booze on a higher shelf. It did this on close to a national scale, after a relatively short period of time of enforcement of a horribly unpopular law.

In hindsight, we can see why the saloon would ultimately beat out the speakeasy. It increased choice, reduced violence and returned the American drinking man to his rightful barstool.

Pot is different. It was outlawed and periodically cracked down on after 1937. President Richard Nixon really launched the national war on weed as we know it with the establishment of the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973. That struggle persists, in most of these United States, unto the present day.

State-based legalizers had mixed results at best until they struck Red Dirt in Colorado and Washington with ballot initiatives in 2012. Voters, not politicians, decided enough was enough, though let it be noted that Washington’s Initiative 502 was endorsed by losing GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, and opposed by his Democratic opponent Jay Inslee.

Colorado’s pot legalization path is taking a modified county rule approach, with most pot shops open for business starting January 1. Well over 60 localities have enacted outright bans on any pot sales. These are called “smokeless counties,” though the term is misleading because they can’t do much about the private pot smoking of adults over 21 or bust them for growing up to six plants for personal use.

Cautious Colorado cities have taken a wait-and-see approach on allowing sales, with a few tragicomical results. The southeastern town La Junta rejected petitions to put pot sales on the ballot because…let’s let this 100-percent accurate, jaw-dropping Huffington Post headline explain it: “Legal Weed Sales Halted in Colorado Town Due to Lack of Staples in Paperwork.”

Other, more adventurous locales have inhaled deeply and passed that joint on. In Denver, the story is different than in La Junta, as we will no doubt be reading soon, because the Denver Post appointed former arts editor and music critic Richard Baca to be its inaugural “marijuana editor.”

Baca will oversee the paper’s pot coverage as well as the launch of a separate website just for pot news. “Wonder if they’ll run weed reviews,” one wag writes. There’s no good commercial reason for the new site not to do just that, if Baca wants to compete for readership of established pot publications such as High Times.


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About the Author

Jeremy Lott is a senior fellow at the American Security Initiative Foundation.