Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Americans Have Always Abused Medicinal Drug Laws
Abuse of medicinal drug laws did not start with marijuana
November 09, 2009 9:02 AM
Seemingly healthy young men are asking for intoxicating pain medication
with a wink, a nod and suspiciously vague symptoms. Sympathetic
physicians are making good money writing them prescriptions. New
dispensaries are springing up all over Colorado Springs to capitalize on
the legal gray area. Local officials and police are outraged.
The city promises a crackdown.
The brouhaha makes headlines in '09.
The drug in question was not medical marijuana, which has been in the
news so much lately. It was medical whiskey, and the similarities to
today's prescription pot predicament are remarkable.
A century ago, drinking alcohol for enjoyment was illegal in Colorado
Springs, as recreational pot smoking is today. City founder Gen. William
Jackson Palmer had forbidden liquor from being made or sold anywhere in
"Palmer wanted to create an attractive, orderly city that would
appeal to new settlers, as opposed to some of the wilder communities in
the West with their saloons," said Matt Mayberry, director of the
Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. "But, people still want their
alcohol and will come up with inventive ways to get around the law."
In Palmer's town, the way around the law was through the doors of
the local pharmacy.
City law granted an exception for medicinal liquor. With a doctor's
prescription, a patient could buy a quart of whiskey at one of several
local pharmacies and take it home. Shots were forbidden. So were pints
of beer. It seemed to be a compassionate compromise. In an era when
local doctors still sometimes prescribed heroin to treat tuberculosis,
alcohol was seen as legitimate medicine.
But locals could not help but notice that a surprising number of healthy
men were showing up at the pharmacy counter with doctor's notes.
Their most common malady, which required a stiff dose of whiskey, was
"More people are bitten by snakes than in any town of this size that
I know of," a correspondent from the Pueblo Chieftain wryly noted in
the 1880s. "It is a little remarkable with what facility a man can
get a prescription for snakebite in such a temperance town."
The same shenanigans seem to be back in style.
Marijuana is illegal in Colorado, but under a constitutional amendment
passed by voters in 2000, people with "debilitating medical
conditions" can register with the state to use the plant. The law
says "primary care givers" can legally supply patients with
their prescription pot.
State and local governments are struggling to define what the language
really means. In the meantime, some people are treating it like medical
whiskey all over again. About 400 people a day were signing up for the
state's medical marijuana registry during a rush in October,
according to the Department of Public Health and Environment, which
oversees the registry. Almost a quarter of them are men under age 30.
They are the fastest growing group of medical marijuana users, and the
majority say they need to smoke pot because of "severe pain."
Public health officials think it may just be a new version of an old
excuse — snakebite 2.0.
To serve this new group of patients, almost 100 dispensaries have opened
in Colorado, including at least a dozen in the Pikes Peak region.
"Is it really all a sham? Were they getting the whiskey just for
recreation? And are they doing the same thing with marijuana now?"
asked Dan Zook, Assistant District Attorney for the Fourth Judicial
District Attorney's Office. "I don't know. There are
legitimate patients out there. But let's face it, we have a lot of
At the turn of the century, the sham was pretty obvious.
Most of the pharmacies up and down Tejon Street dispensed with the
formalities of fake illness and just began quietly pouring drinks.
Samuel Le Nord Caldwell, a local doctor, wrote in 1901 in a letter to
future residents of the city that, although Colorado Springs was
officially a dry town, all pharmacies "serve drinks to their patrons
from their soda water fountains and one who 'knows the ropes' can get
almost any kind of a drink."
A chap just had to sidle up to the counter at the back, according to the
editor of the Colorado City Iris, and "ask for `a nectar' at
one establishment or `a wild strawberry' at another."
There were crackdowns, of course. Police raided offending druggists and
courts hit them with heavy fines in 1895, 1898, 1900, 1904, 1905, 1907,
1910 and 1911, according to newspapers.
But crackdowns never stemmed the flow of drink.
One flabbergasted editor wrote, "There are several druggists in town
who have violated the liquor laws almost every day and the profits from
their illegal business is so great that they can well afford to spend
thousands of dollars evading conviction."
The big profits spawned robberies and fights. In 1908, the wildly
prosperous owner of the South End Pharmacy, who liked to wear huge
diamond rings, was lured to the edge of town, robbed and shot dead.
The D.A.'s office says the modern-day medical marijuana situation
has spawned a similar increase in violence and theft.
"We've seen home invasions. Three murders directly stem from
marijuana. We haven't seen this much crime associated with marijuana
in years," Zook said.
The city of Colorado Springs, like many towns in the state, is
considering strict regulations for marijuana sellers. The days of the
dispensary boom may be numbered. But keeping a lid on abuse of the law
may prove tricky, if history is any indication.
The Springs never figured out how to stem the flow of medicinal whiskey.
In 1911, Colorado Springs Mayor Henry Hall pushed the city to get rid of
the anti-alcohol laws, saying it was better to have saloons than back
room pharmacy hypocrisy.
"Colorado Springs is living a lie in the pretense of prohibition
— and it is not wholesome to live a lie," he warned.
But prohibition, and the swift business of drugstore spirits, remained
the status quo in the city until national Prohibition was repealed in
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