Rev. Mark H. Creech
Repeating history: Medicinal whiskey’s echoes in medical marijuana policy
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By Rev. Mark H. Creech
May 27, 2024

The Prohibition era in the United States, which spanned from 1920 to 1933, is often deemed a failure, but in reality, it achieved many of its intended goals. Data from this period demonstrate a significant decline in alcohol consumption, with levels not returning to pre-Prohibition heights until decades after its repeal. Additionally, historical records show marked reductions in alcohol-related health issues, such as liver cirrhosis, with death rates from cirrhosis and other chronic illnesses linked to excessive alcohol use seeing dramatic decreases.

Many respected historians contend that Prohibition boosted workplace productivity. With fewer workers impaired by alcohol, there was a notable increase in job stability and a decrease in workplace accidents.

Professor Mark Moore of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government summarized these facts in a piece for the New York Times, noting:

    “Cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929. Admissions to state mental hospitals for psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1929. Arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922…Violent crime did not increase dramatically during Prohibition. Homicide rates rose dramatically from 1900 to 1910 but remained constant during Prohibition’s 14-year rule. Organized crimes may have become more visible and lurid during Prohibition, but it existed before and after.”

These substantial, well-documented facts underscore the significant positive impact of Prohibition. It is clear to anyone with intellectual integrity that repealing the illegal status of alcohol did not resolve the associated problems, which included the rise of organized crime, government corruption, unsafe alcohol consumption, public health issues, loss of government revenue, an overburdened legal system, and widespread social disobedience and disrespect for the law. The issues historically attributed to Prohibition have only intensified since its repeal, necessitating ongoing public health interventions and public policy measures to address the negative impacts of alcohol on society.

However, this article does not advocate for reinstating Prohibition. Nonetheless, it is valid to argue that Prohibition of alcohol sales offered more benefits than losses, and that its repeal resulted in greater losses than gains. While this viewpoint is not universally accepted, the data supporting it is remarkably compelling.

Something else not widely accepted, because it isn’t widely known, is the role “medical whiskey” played in undermining the Prohibition of alcohol sales. Although Prohibition banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages, it permitted exceptions for medical purposes. This created a legal loophole that allowed alcohol to be legally prescribed by physicians. As expected, the ability to obtain alcohol legally through a doctor’s recommendation led to the popularity of “medicinal whiskey.” Doctors prescribed whiskey for a broad range of ailments, often liberally and without a strong scientific basis for its use as a treatment. This widespread prescribing practice made it relatively easy for individuals to obtain prescriptions based on anecdotal evidence or even under the pretense of medical need.

Annually, as many as 11 million prescriptions were issued, all the while the American Medical Association was opposed to so-called “medical whiskey.” Prescriptions were regulated by forms that specified certain conditions, but enforcement was lax, which allowed for widespread abuse and profiteering by many physicians and pharmacists. Over time, the primary intent of medical care often became secondary to the commercial benefits of providing alcohol. Due to relaxed inspections and enforcement that permitted extensive non-compliance, it became challenging for the government to differentiate between legitimate medical use and recreational consumption. Thus, “medicinal whiskey” made a major contribution to shifting public perception and policy towards the full legalization of alcohol.

The irony of the way history repeats itself can be astounding sometimes. Only a few days ago, CBS News reported:

    “Since medical cannabis was first legalized in Colorado in 1996, nearly half the country has legalized marijuana for recreational use… As of April 2024, recreational marijuana is legal in 24 states, or nearly half the country, according to the Pew Research Center.”

Furthermore, every state in the United States that has legalized recreational marijuana had first legalized medical marijuana. This progression shows a common pattern where states begin by allowing marijuana for medical purposes, which sets the groundwork for ending the Prohibition on marijuana’s recreational use.

Medicinal whiskey and medicinal marijuana share several notable similarities in their historical and regulatory contexts. Both substances became available through regulatory loopholes during times when their consumption was generally disapproved. During Prohibition, doctors prescribed whiskey for a broad array of ailments, many of which lacked scientific justification for such treatment. Similarly, medical marijuana has been prescribed for a wide range of conditions, from chronic pain and nausea to anxiety and sleep disorders, despite inconclusive scientific evidence supporting many of these uses, and all the while major medical organizations such as the American Medical Association do not endorse smoked marijuana as a medicine.

Both medical whiskey and medical marijuana also encountered issues of enforcement and potential abuse. The ease of obtaining prescriptions for medicinal whiskey reflects current challenges with medicinal marijuana, where the line between medical necessity and recreational use has blurred, raising concerns in states where it is legal.

Furthermore, medicinal whiskey significantly influenced public perception and policy, contributing to the end of Prohibition. Likewise, medicinal marijuana has wrongly altered perceptions about cannabis use, misleading the public to believe it is harmless despite extensive research indicating potential risks. This shift in perception has been instrumental in driving the movement toward legalizing recreational marijuana in various states.

Of course, many would argue it’s time to end the Prohibition on smoked marijuana just like we did on alcohol. But consider the end result of ending the prohibition on alcohol—are matters better or worse? Perhaps better in near imperceptible ways, but clearly, and generally, much worse. It seems totally unrealistic to think the legalization of marijuana would be any different.

In his book, Reefer Sanity, Kevin Sabet, a former advisor in President Obama’s drug policy office, writes:

    “The legalization of marijuana would be a simplistic solution to a complicated problem. It would increase use and, with it, a host of attendant social problems. If anything, our experience with alcohol and tobacco over the past few centuries demonstrates that if these drugs are to be “models” for legal marijuana, then we’d better buckle our fiscal and psychological seatbelts, because we are in for a long and rough ride.”

It is often remarked that Alexander the Great managed to conquer the world before reaching forty but ultimately met an untimely death due to his inability to master his own excesses. This extraordinary young leader, who later inspired figures like Napoleon and Adolf Hitler, was educated by Aristotle and groomed in the arts of war by his father, Philip II. Upon his father’s death, Alexander swiftly quelled rebellious factions in the southern provinces of the vast kingdom of Macedon and compelled the Corinthian Senate to appoint him as the commander of the Panhellenic forces. He swiftly expanded his empire into Asia Minor. In 331 BC, he decisively defeated Darius and seized the Persian capital of Persepolis, capturing substantial treasures that bolstered his military might. Eventually, even the mighty city of Babylon succumbed to his forces, setting the stage for a celebration that would lead to his death.

The festivities took place in the palace of the vanquished monarch, marked by wild and licentious behavior. One fateful evening, an inebriated Alexander challenged himself to surpass Hercules by draining a massive tankard—the Cup of Hercules—which contained the equivalent of six bottles of wine. Overcome by the alcohol, he attempted to drink its entirety once more. This excessive indulgence led to severe illness, and he passed away a few days later at the age of thirty-three. Reflecting on his death, the esteemed philosopher Seneca observed:

    “Here then is this hero, invincible by all the toils of prodigious marches, by dangers of sieges and combats, by the most violent extremes of heat and cold, here he lies conquered by intemperance…”

The story of Alexander the Great serves as a poignant cautionary tale for America today. Just as Alexander’s unchecked indulgence led to his premature downfall, the United States faces a similar risk. This nation, still youthful and remarkable in its unparalleled achievements, grapples with severe alcohol-related issues that undermine its societal fabric. Reflecting on the lessons from the era of medicinal whiskey, it becomes clear that opening the door for legalized pot – a second harmful mind-altering drug – via medical marijuana will ultimately and most painfully compound the nation’s challenges, much like Alexander’s fatal second attempt to consume the Cup of Hercules. America’s greatness, much like Alexander’s, could ultimately be compromised not by external threats but by our own excesses.

© Rev. Mark H. Creech

 

The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Rev. Mark H. Creech

Rev. Mark H. Creech is Executive Director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc. He was a pastor for twenty years before taking this position, having served five different Southern Baptist churches in North Carolina and one Independent Baptist in upstate New York.

Rev. Creech is a prolific speaker and writer, and has served as a radio commentator for Christians In Action, a daily program featuring Rev. Creech's commentary on social issues from a Christian worldview.

In addition to RenewAmerica.com, his weekly editorials are featured on the Christian Action League website and Agape Press, a national Christian newswire.

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