In July 1933 Fresno was a town of just over 50,000, and like most American cities, was struggling under the weight of the Great Depression. To ease the burdens of daily living, the common man turned to an illegal substance – alcohol.
Prohibition was still the law of the land and it had supporters, but the tide of public opinion had strongly turned against it. That year the Fresno Bee regularly editorialized in favor of repealing the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, which established Prohibition. A typical question of the day was: Are you dry (in favor of Prohibition) or wet (in favor of repeal)?
Today, Fresno is 10 times larger and the jobless rate is near the lowest it has been in a decade. But city leaders have been wrestling with the best way to legalize a substance of a different kind: marijuana.
Last month the Fresno City Council decided to put a tax measure on the November ballot for voters to decide. If approved, the city could issue business licenses to those who want to start medical marijuana dispensaries.
Medical use of marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, and in 2016 the state’s voters widely backed recreational use of pot. But cities have the authority to license dispensaries and manufacturing hubs within their limits.
In many ways, the debate leading up to the council’s vote last month mirrored the tenor of the Prohibition debate in 1933. And there are lessons from that time that can prove useful as the city moves forward with its ballot measure.
The will of the people in 1933 led states toward repealing Prohibition. The Bee supported such an effort as well, as it said Prohibition violated the liberty of the citizens of that era. Eighty-five years later, California’s voters have made clear they want to be able to use marijuana as they wish. Two years ago the recreational use of marijuana was approved, and even the majority of voters in Fresno – 51.4 percent – backed the right to smoke pot for recreation. Today, Mayor Lee Brand is backing medical marijuana, but not any recreational use. If two-thirds of Fresno voters approve the tax measure, Fresno will become the third major city in the San Joaquin Valley to allow medical dispensaries (Modesto and Merced already do).
During the Prohibition debate The Bee pointed out that crime took off when alcohol became illegal. Speakeasies and bootleggers proliferated. Today, Brand and Police Chief Jerry Dyer say licensing medical marijuana dispensaries will attack illegal dealing. By setting up legal, city-licensed dispensaries for medical purposes, Brand aims to put illegal operations out of business.
Revenues raised from the licensing tax – estimated at between $3 million and $10 million – would go to police efforts to curb illegal drugs, Brand pledges, though the tax measure is still being finalized. Here is where caution is sounded from a Bee editorial in March 1933: “For unless beer is relatively cheap to the consumer, it will not drive out the bootlegger. Good beer at a fair price will be preferred by most people to illicit beer at about an equal price. But if because of excessive license fees and state taxation legal beer comes on the market at a price greatly in excess of current speakeasy quotations, the bootlegger will simply continue to flourish.”
Morality then and now divided Fresno’s pastors. A group of ministers recently implored the council to not allow medical pot dispensaries. Doing so would signal city endorsement of the use of marijuana and other drugs, which already ravages their communities, the pastors said. But other ministers expressed the value in letting residents suffering from pain find relief by utilizing pot under medical care.
In January 1933 the Rev. A.C. Douglas stopped in Fresno to give a speech on Prohibition and the temperance movement to a gathering at the Hotel Fresno. A former leader in the Iowa-Kansas Anti-Saloon League, Douglas told his listeners how he had spent decades studying the temperance movement. His conclusion: “No regulatory measures ever devised – including that of the United States Government – has ever been able to curb successfully the age-old social custom of drinking.”
That government control came to an end on Dec. 5, 1933, when Utah ratified the 21st Amendment. With that, two-thirds of states had backed the measure to repeal Prohibition, meaning Americans could once again drink freely. But that right came with responsibility that was not always followed. The same issue of The Bee that declared the end of Prohibition also reported how a leading Fresno citizen, grape grower Lucius Powers, had been killed the day before in a car crash in Fowler caused by a wrong-way driver. The next day The Bee reported the wrong-way driver told police he was intoxicated.
“There is nothing new about this, unfortunately,” The Bee said in an editorial published after the crash. “There was drunken driving before prohibition. There was drunken driving all during the nearly 14 years of prohibition. Undoubtedly there will be drunken driving now that prohibition has been repealed.”
That unfortunate reality also holds for marijuana – and any substance people chose to use. The mayor is right to say each person ultimately determines if he or she will be a responsible citizen.
That said, the tax measure goes to voters in the fall. May they keep the lessons of the Prohibition era in mind when they cast their votes in the November election. The Bee will offer its recommendation as the election gets closer. As of now, The Bee – as it did 85 years ago – sees value in honoring the will of the people, of reducing drug-related crime, and letting residents make personal choices in liberty.