What getting medical marijuana is like today vs. what getting medical liquor was like during Prohibition

September 3, 2014

Left: Orange County sheriff’s deputies dump illegal alcohol (via Orange County Archives). Right: Members of the Colorado National Guard with illegal marijuana (Lewis Geyer/Times-Call via AP)

During Prohibition, people were able to legally consume alcohol if they received a prescription from a doctor, similar to how residents of some states are able to legally consume marijuana. Here’s how that worked.

In what states was medical liquor legal?

In all 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii were not granted statehood until 1959, 26 years after Prohibition was repealed). Medical liquor was regulated by the U.S. Treasury department and not the states, like medical marijuana is. Pharmacies’ ease of obtaining permits to fill prescriptions varied by geography, author Daniel Okrent wrote in “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” according to Smithsonian. Pharmacies in big cities, on the coasts and along the Canadian border had an easier time.

In what states is medical marijuana legal?

Today, 23 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing at least some form of medical marijuana, including Colorado and Washington, which have also legalized recreational use. The amount of marijuana someone can posses varies by state. In Alaska, Montana and Nevada, individuals are limited to one ounce, while in Oregon, one can possess up to 24 ounces.

What qualified someone for medical liquor?

Prescriptions for medical liquor were available to patients with anemia, tuberculosis, pneumonia, high blood pressure and other disorders, according to the History Channel. The American Medical Association actually adopted a resolution in June 1917, less than three years before Prohibition began, stating alcohol’s use as a “therapeutic agent” had no scientific value and “should be further discouraged.” However , alcohol had long been used for medical purposes, including during the Civil War to treat soldiers’ pain when they ran out of other painkillers.

What qualifies someone for medical marijuana?

In California, which in 1996 became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, its Department of Public Health allows marijuana to be used by those with a “serious medical condition,” including AIDS, anorexia, arthritis, cachexia, cancer, chronic pain, glaucoma, migraines, persistent muscle spasms, seizures, severe nausea or any other chronic medical symptom that limits their life activities or would cause serious harm to their physical or mental safety if untreated.

How did someone apply for medical liquor?


Prohibition prescription front (Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Patients had to receive a prescription from a doctor that noted the kind of alcohol they were to receive, and a dosage, according to Okrent. It usually cost $3 for a prescription and $3 or $4 to have it filled at a pharmacy, Okrent wrote, or about $40 in today’s dollars. Quality varied, ranging from cheap alcohol to well-known brands like Jack Daniel’s, which included a phrasing “Unexcelled for Medicinal Purposes” on its label.

How does someone apply for medicinal marijuana?


California’s medical marijuana application form (via California Department of Public Health)

Applying varies by state. In California, a resident must receive a doctor’s recommendation and provide that along with proof of identity and proof of residency in their county. The state charges a fee of $33 to $66.  The highest fee in the country is the $200 charged by Minnesota, New Jersey and Oregon, while in Maine and New Mexico, there is no fee.

How much medical liquor could someone possess?

The maximum legal prescription was for one pint of alcohol every 10 days, according to Okrent.

How much medical marijuana can someone possess?

It varies greatly by state. In Alaska, Montana and Nevada, it’s legal to possess one ounce of usable marijuana, in addition to plants, while in Oregon and Washington, it’s legal to posess 24 ounces of usable marijuana in addition to plants.

Hunter Schwarz covers the intersection of politics and pop culture for the Washington Post
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