Prohibition was repealed 80 years ago today, and some of Denver’s most-beloved places were swiftly created to help erase the stigma of alcohol.
“A lot of great places opened,” said Tom Noel, who teaches history at the University Colorado Denver. “The Ship Tavern at the Brown Palace was designed as a celebration of repeal.”
The swank Cruise Room at the Oxford Hotel opened the day after Prohibition was repealed.
“I think there was an attempt by the liquor interests to make it more respectable, going from the low-down dives to classy places like the Ship Tavern,” Noel said.
The repeal of Prohibition brought into the open what had long been hidden, similar to what is expected to happen with the legalization of recreational marijuana sales in Colorado on Jan. 1.
Experts see parallels between the repeal of Prohibition and the legalization of marijuana sales in Colorado and Washington, particularly the fact that criminalization never really stopped the use of the product, instead forcing it underground, creating an unregulated black market.
Prohibition started in 1920, when the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned the production, sale, importation and transportation of alcohol.
It didn’t eliminate drinking, however. Alcohol consumption dropped at the beginning, to about 30 percent of the pre-Prohibition level, but then increased sharply, according to a 1991 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, based on mortality, mental health and crime statistics.
Bootleggers and organized crime prospered. Americans were horrified by booze-related mob violence, especially because Prohibition was expected to reduce crime. The Great Depression proved the tipping point with urgent need for increased funds in state and federal coffers. Prohibition had caused a loss of billions in tax revenues.
“Public sentiment had turned so strongly against Prohibition,” said Mark Pittenger, a history professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Franklin Roosevelt promised the repeal of Prohibition during his presidential campaign. Prohibition was overturned Dec. 5, 1933, when Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment.
“It was one of the first things people could see from the New Deal,” Pittenger said. “They took at it as government really doing things.”
Colorado’s own Repeal of Prohibition occurred Sept. 26, 1933, when a delegation of 15 voted to ratify the 21st Amendment.
Tremendous celebration erupted, with huge parties in the streets.
The end of the prohibition of recreational marijuana sales — authorized last year by state Amendment 64, which allows the consumption and possession of small amounts of pot by people age 21 and older — is expected to be more laid back.
“Businesses will open, and it will be a significant event, but it’s not as if there’s going to be some sort of parade down the street,” Colorado Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Mason Tvert said.
For starters, no one knows today which pot shops will be open Jan. 1. According to state regulators, 136 shops have applied for state recreational marijuana sales licenses, but none has been granted.
3D Cannabis Center owner Toni Fox
hopes soon to be cleared to replace the shingle on her River North medical pot dispensary to welcome recreational customers. She hopes they’ll be able to find her if her license is granted at the last minute.
“It’s going to be really tough to get the word out so fast,” she said.
The Brown Palace, where the Ship Tavern celebrated the end of Prohibition, will not continue the tradition by allowing people to smoke pot at its Churchill cigar bar — at least not right away.
“It’s something that they’ve been considering for some time but currently don’t allow,” hotel spokeswoman Ashley Cothran said. “They’re open to that changing in the future, but at this point, it’s a no.”
Curiosity probably will drive many people to at least take a taste of the once-forbidden drug — since consumption doesn’t necessarily require smoking, said Mark Kleiman, a top national analyst of drug policy. Marijuana can be taken in foods, through smokeless vaporizers and in potent tinctures, for example.
“I was in a meeting today on another topic with a short-haired, straight-laced Mormon lawyer in his mid-40s,” Kleiman said. “We were discussing the fact that cannabis now will be available in e-cigarette form, and the guy casually said, ‘If I could try it without breathing smoke, I’d try it.’ “
And former pot smokers may start up again, he said. “A lot of boomer-age people who stopped when their kids were born may go back to it as they retire.”
But they may be shocked by the powerful new strains, which could open a new market niche for low-THC pot.
“Everyone my age complains they can’t get the mellow stuff they got in college,” he said. “Maybe the mellow stuff will come back.”
But no one really knows, and that’s another parallel.
Then-President Herbert Hoover once called Prohibition “the Noble Experiment,” and the post-prohibition pot era is poised to be filled with just as much exploration.
Colleen O’Connor: 303-954-1083, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/coconnordp