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

A Kelowna clinic decided to immunize their patients in a drive-thru flu clinic earlier this month. (Twila Amato - Black Press Media)
Interior Health anticipates increase in flu vaccinations this season

Some 300,000 doses of flu vaccine ready for distribution across Southern Interior

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Interior Health reports 18 COVID-19 cases, highest daily count since July

The total of COVID-19 cases in the region is now at 662

Deana Conde Garza, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Williams Lake and District, has been gathering items, such as an old wheelchair from her uncle’s farm in Alberta, for the club’s upcoming Haunted Hospital event. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Boys and Girls Club of Williams Lake creating Haunted Hospital for Halloween fundraiser

Family pods of six or less can register online to attend, event goes Oct. 29 and Oct. 30

Williams Lake Minor Hockey Association president Mike Rispin addresses city council at its regular meeting Tuesday, Oct. 20 to ask the City to rescind its no-spectator policy. The order was rescinded that evening and on Friday, Oct. 24 the City released COVID-19 policy updates. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
COVID-19 policy updated at Cariboo Memorial Recreation Complex

The City, council, CRD staff and user group representatives met to clarify the guidelines

DriveBC webcam shot of Highway 20 near Anahim Lake Friday, Oct. 23 at 11:30 a.m. shows snow-covered roads. A travel advisory is in effect. (DriveBC webcam image)
Travel advisory in effect for Highway 20 from Williams Lake west to Firvale

Winter driving conditions continue to have an impact

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry gives a daily briefing on COVID-19 cases at an almost empty B.C. Legislature press theatre in Victoria, B.C., on March 25, 2020. (Don Craig/B.C. government)
B.C. sees 223 new COVID-19 cases, now 2,009 active

Two new care home outbreaks in Surrey, Burnaby

White Rock RCMP Staff Sgt. Kale Pauls has released a report on mental health and policing in the city. (File photos)
White Rock’s top cop wants to bill local health authority for lengthy mental-health calls

‘Suggestion’ included in nine-page review calling for ‘robust’ support for healthcare-led response

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

RCMP stock photo (Black Press)
Charges laid against Prince George man, 39, in drug trafficking probe

Tyler Aaron Gelowitz is scheduled to appear in court Nov. 18

Green party Leader Sonia Furstenau arrives to announce her party’s election platform in New Westminster, B.C., on October 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. Green party says it’s raised nearly $835,000 in 38 days

NDP Leader John Horgan is holding his final virtual campaign event

U.S. border officers at the Peace Arch crossing arrested two men on California warrants this week. (File photo)
Ottawa predicts system delays, backlogs unless court extends life of refugee pact

Canada and the United States recognize each other as safe places to seek protection

Most Read