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

Lynn scores two as Caps strike first

Cowichan scores four in the third to dump Powell River 6-3

Second fire in as many weeks at Chemainus Secondary

UPDATE**2:10 p.m. students are being dismissed from school. “For those that take… Continue reading

Shawnigan Hills parkrun report for Feb. 22

New record of 38 participants

Homelessness and affordability raised as major concerns in CVRD survey

But most CVRD residents content with quality of life

Arts and Entertainment column: From opera to jazz to burlesque, it’s all coming up in Cowichan

On the big screen at the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre, classic Porgy and Bess.

Toddler killed in Squamish grocery store parking lot

Child’s mother taken to hospital but her condition is not known

Two law enforcement trucks ‘deliberately’ set on fire in northern B.C., RCMP say

Police say they have video evidence of a person in the area of the truck fires

B.C. mother, daughter return home after coronavirus quarantine in Asia

Jensine Morabito and her daughter were on Holland America’s Westerdam but did not catch the virus

Leap Year means we get an extra day in February, so how are you spending it?

People online have a number of suggestions and plans on how they will be spending Saturday

Greta sticker that drew outrage in Alberta not child pornography: RCMP

X-Site Energy Services has denied having anything to do with the stickers

Bald eagle hit by train in northern B.C. has a chance of survival

The raptor has been taken to OWL in the Lower Mainland for recovery

Cheslatta Carrier Nation and Rio Tinto sign a historic agreement

Co-operation crucial to stem dropping Nechako Reservoir level

Hundreds of B.C. firefighters ‘climb the wall’ for BC Lung Association

The charity fundraiser saw participants climbing up 48 storeys

Most Read