As Ottawa looks to legalize pot, business lessons from the Prohibition era

Government lawmakers are treading carefully over the business of recreational pot — just one of the parallels to the careful legalization of alcohol in Canada in the face of temperance objections.

Planned rules about advertising and packaging parallel the slow and fractured repeal of limits on booze

Workers pour liquor down a sewer following a raid during the height of prohibition in the U.S. The American black market was often supplied by Canadian firms still permitted to produce booze for medicinal use and export. (Library of Congress/Reuters)

According to historians who study the end of alcohol Prohibition, yesterday's script for the federal government's news conference on the cannabis legalization could have been written nearly 100 years ago.

Back then, "opposition to legalization … had a very strong focus on children and youth," says Adam Coombs, a UBC historian with expertise in 1920s and '30s Canada.

"Access to alcohol would mean children or younger people could have access to it."

Just as it did when they overturned Canada's alcohol rules in the face of a still-strong temperance movement, the Canadian government is today insisting that helping businesses sell an intoxicant to customers is low on its list of priorities.

Kids and health first

"I am very proud that our government has committed to doing a better job of protecting our kids and to take the profits out of the hands of organized crime while also ensuring the health of all our citizens," said former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, who as a member of Parliament, has been a leader on the Liberals' drug legalization file.

In fact, each of the ministers on the podium Thursday — representing Health, Justice, Revenue, and Public Safety — took turns saying virtually the same thing.

Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Health Minister Jane Philpott, and Parliamentary Secretary Bill Blair were all on hand Thursday to discuss the legislation around the legalization of marijuana. And each made efforts to make recreational pot sound unappealing. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Organized crime was certainly a problem in the 1920s, especially in the U.S., where Prohibition laws were far more strict. But that is only one of the many parallels — and lessons — from Prohibition days.

In Canada, federal Prohibition lasted only about a year. In Quebec, it lasted less than nine months. In much of Canada, alcohol continued to be produced for export and for medicinal uses.

Just as with marijuana now, that meant the process wasn't a clear transition from illegal to legal use.

"In Prohibition in Canada, you had the continuation of a medicinal alcohol industry where people could get prescriptions," says Coombs. It was considered a therapy for insomnia, stress relief, nervousness and various psychological conditions.

Prescribed a litre a week

"In some cases in Ontario, you could get prescribed up to a litre a week," he says.

It's really hard to legislate morality.- History professor Matthew Bellamy

When the end of Prohibition came, just as with the current law on cannabis, the federal government created the enabling legislation. The details of the rules were left not just to the provinces, but to local counties and municipalities.

Some provinces stayed dry, with P.E.I. only permitting alcohol sales in 1948.

As early as end of the 1800s, the Canadian temperance movement was one of the biggest lobbies in the country. In fact, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier held a national plebiscite which showed a majority of Canadians in favour of Prohibition. 

But once in place, Prohibition laws were widely flouted and, as the federal ministers took turns saying this week, such laws did nothing but turn unsatisfied demand into a lawless — and lucrative — free-for-all. 

"It's really hard to legislate morality," says Carleton history professor Matthew Bellamy, who is currently writing a book on the racy history of Ontario's Labatt brewery that survived Prohibition, partly by supplying the U.S. black market by boat across Lake Erie. "During Prohibition of course people were slipping into the blind pigs of the nation and continuing to drink."

A deal to supply the U.S. black market with booze during the Prohibition era helped the Labatt Brewing Company survive while about half of producers went broke. (Aaron Harris/Canadian Press)

And so, as the governments began to repeal these alcohol bans, they knew they had a problem that was getting out of hand. But with the temperance crowd watching, they also knew they had make the newly available product as unappealing as possible.

Government agencies sold spirits in stores that looked like post offices, where customers would write down what they wanted and clerks would disappear and come back with an unmarked brown paper bag.

"In the post-Prohibition period, provincial governments placed tight restrictions on liquor advertising in an attempt to curb consumption," says Bellamy.

Both plain packaging and restrictions on advertising are back this week in the proposed marijuana legislation.

And according to Bellamy, permitting but quelling alcohol sales really worked post-Prohibition, and it could also work now with pot. 

The citizen toker?

"What happened after Prohibition was that we did become what [Canadian post-Prohibition scholar] Dan Malleck called 'the citizen drinker,' that is to say moderate and responsible," says Bellamy.

Part of the technique that seemed to work in the 1920s and '30s, and could work again, is to impose cultural rules on consumption.

"With weed, I expect that this kind of thing will also emerge: We'll get a culture around weed and know how to use it more responsibly," he says.

Bill Blair explains how marijuana bill will affect youth accessing drugs

6 years ago
Duration 1:27
The Liberals announced their bill to legalize and regulate cannabis April 13, 2017

One government rule that could, perhaps, change that culture would be provisions allowing ads for cannabis as a treatment for arthritis, back pain and bowel problems — a trend sure to discourage more youthful users.

According to UBC's Coombs, the federal government seems to be hoping to imitate the kind of puritanical post-Prohibition rules on public drinking that limited tables to four people and banned music.

"These rules were brought in to control how you could drink alcohol and the idea was essentially to make it as anti-social as possible."

As part of its current plan, the federal government promises to review the regulations in five years. 

In the post-Prohibition era, unwinding the strict original rules "was an exceptionally gradual process," says Coombs.

Considering that Ontario and B.C. continue to consider liberalizing liquor sales, he says that unwinding still goes on 80 years later.

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Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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