Pubdate: Wed, 19 May 2010
Source: Honolulu Advertiser (HI)
Copyright: 2010 The Los Angeles Times
Author: Daniel Okrent
Note: Daniel Okrent is the author of "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of 
Prohibition," just published by Scribner. He wrote this for the Los 
Angeles Times.


During Prohibition, Alcohol Could Be Bought at the Corner

"He owned some drugstores, a lot of drugstores," Daisy Buchanan said.
"He built them up himself."

To Daisy, this was a perfectly reasonable explanation of the wealth of
her new neighbor, Jay Gatsby. To her husband, more knowing about the
world beyond the boundaries of East Egg, it was evidence that Gatsby
had made his money as a bootlegger.

Modern readers in the grip of F. Scott Fitzgerald's prose may not
recognize the meaning of Tom Buchanan's insight, but Fitzgerald knew
his contemporaries would understand. In 1925, when "The Great Gatsby"
was published, the meaning of "drugstores" was as clear as gin: Those
were the places you went to get medically prescribed alcohol, a
legally acceptable source of liquor during all 13 years of

Sound familiar?

To any modern Californian, of course it does.

For most of the 1920s, a patient could get a prescription for one pint
every 10 days about as easily as California patients can now get
"recommendations" for medical marijuana.

All it took to acquire a liquor prescription was cash -- generally
about $3, the equivalent of about $40 today -- placed in the hand of
an agreeable doctor. It cost $3 to $4 more to have it filled by the
local pharmacist. Dentists were similarly licensed, as were
veterinarians who believed their patients too could use a belt of Four
Roses bourbon.

Then as now, the adaptability of the medical profession was
impressive. In 1917, as the 18th Amendment establishing Prohibition
was working its way through the ratification process, the American
Medical Association ousted alcohol from its approved pharmacopoeia,
adopting a unanimous resolution asserting that its "use in
therapeutics ... has no scientific value."

But the Volstead Act, which spelled out the enforcement and regulation
of Prohibition, nonetheless made an exception for medicinal use, and
in 1922, just two years into the dry era, the AMA demonstrated how
open minds can be changed -- or, perhaps, how capitalism abhors a
missed opportunity. The results of a national survey of its members --
a "Referendum on the Use of Alcohol in the Medical Profession" --
revealed an extraordinary coincidence: The booming prescription trade
had been accompanied by the dawning realization among America's
doctors that alcoholic beverages were in fact useful in treating 27
separate conditions, including diabetes, cancer, asthma, dyspepsia,
snake bite, lactation problems and old age. In a word, the assertion
that medicinal alcohol had "no scientific value," from the AMA's 1917
resolution, no longer had any scientific value.

In Chicago, druggist Charles Walgreen saw his chain expand from 20
stores in 1920 to a staggering 525 a decade later.

Along the way, Walgreen's introduced the milkshake, which family
historians have credited with the chain's rocketing expansion.

But it's doubtful that milkshakes alone were responsible. Something
Charles Walgreen Jr. told an interviewer many years later suggests
another possibility. The elder Walgreen worried about fire breaking
out in his stores, his son recalled, but this apprehension extended
beyond an understandable concern for the safety of his employees: He
"wanted the fire department to get in as fast as possible and get out
as fast as possible," Charles Jr. remembered, "because whenever they
came in, we'd always lose a case of liquor from the back."

All that "medicinal" whiskey (and rum and gin and brandy and every
other imaginable liquid intoxicant) was perfectly legal.

But it also made a mockery of the law, debased the dignity of the
medical profession and encouraged rampant criminality, as mobsters
eventually and inevitably took over much of the medicinal market. What
finally straightened out the liquor business was the legalization that
came with repeal in 1933 -- legalization that was accompanied by a
coherent and effective set of enforcement laws, a healthy boost in tax
revenues (in the first post-repeal year, the federal government was
enriched by the 2010 equivalent of $4 billion in alcohol tax revenue),
and an honest recognition that, all too often, "medicinal" had been a
cynical euphemism for "available."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake