An End or a Beginning?

After careful consideration, I am prepared to forecast that the pending open marketing sale of what we politely call non-medical cannabis will not be anywhere near as confusing as the last time our provincial government bulldozed its way into the lucrative “forget your worries” drug distribution business. 

That was a couple of world wars back when thousands of young men came wandering home from the WW1 battlefields of Europe unable to find a friendly estaminet or pub for a relaxing glass of wine or a pint of beer. Our soldiers, sailors, and air force personnel were not pleased when they discovered that the mixed-up liquor laws in effect when they shipped out had been consolidated nationally in 1918 to a total prohibition of the sale of alcoholic drinks. 

Total prohibition didn’t last long. Officially it lasted until 1921. In reality bootlegging kept the liquor trade alive – and profitable enough to make the government envious. 

During the early half-hearted prohibition period, medical doctors boosted their incomes by charging $2 to sign a prescription for “medicinal liquor” which could then be legally purchased at a government outlet or a drug store. A Brief History of BC Wine and Liquor Laws ( informs us that in 1919 alone “181,000 prescriptions were written by the provinces’ doctors at $2 each. The government eased its conscience by stressing the medical values of booze as recommended by doctors and joyfully banked $1.5 million in liquor sale in that same year. 

That was peanuts compared with when the United States introduced national prohibition (1920-1933) and the east coast of Vancouver Island from Nanaimo to Victoria held pride of place among “rum runners” anxious to quench the great American thirst. 

Duty bound to respect American law, the provincial government declared rum runners criminals and made a few arrests. But high on its “things to do list” were new laws designed to make sure a goodly portion of all liquor sales ended up in the provincial treasury. Big Brother was discovering people would willingly pay to soften their sorrows. 

On Oct. 20, 1920, a plebiscite vote was held “to ascertain whether the electorate was still in favour of BC’s 1917 Prohibition Act or wanted a milder form of government liquor control.” The questions: “1) Do you favour the Prohibition Act; or 2) An Act to provide for Government Control and Sale in Sealed Packages of Spirituous and Malt Liquors.” 

The answer was clear with 55,488 voting to retain prohibition and 92,095 voting to get liquor sales out in the open under government control. A few weeks later a general election was called with revised liquor laws the main issue. The Liberal government lost half a dozen seats but still held power and the electorates support to control the sale “of spirituous and malt liquors.” Prohibition was over in BCand the government was in control of sales.

By 1921, back street government liquor stores – with no products on display – were opening, but customers had to go through several procedural steps before they could obtain the bottle of their choice. Pubs and cocktail bars were still officially unknown but “beer clubs” flourished. 

In 1924 there was a fight was over the sale of beer by the glass “in licensed premises without a bar.” It failed with 73,853 no votes and 72,214 yes. 

Although the “no” vote prevailed overall, many communities had voted in favour of beer by the glass in licensed pubs and were allowed to open. They were not pleasant places. No food was allowed and patrons were forbidden to stand while drinking. In 1927, women were allowed into the once all-male sanctum – but only if they entered by a separate entrance to men and if they drank in a separate room. 

In 1952, the government reintroduced the beer by the glass issue with the plebiscite slightly reworded to ask: “Are you in favour of the sale of spirituous liquor and wine by the glass in establishments licensed for such purpose?” 

Yes votes totaled 315,533; no votes were 205,736; and an astounding 20, 856 spoiled their ballots – whether by tantrum or spilled drinks is not recorded. The vote led to the establishment of the Liquor Inquiry Commission which in turn led to the Liquor Distribution Branch and explosion of pubs, bars, and nightclubs around the province. In the early going, patrons drank behind frosted or curtained windows – presumably to avoid being seen imbibing or to shield the eyes of passersby from temptation. Women were allowed to enter bars if accompanied by a man and eventually were granted to come and go as they pleased.

It wasn’t until the early 1970s, when Dave Barrett was premier and neighborhood pubs were making their debut, that most of the old taboos disappeared. And, while the world did not come to end, it’s hard to make a case that the more we drank the more we made the world a better place. 

So, we wait for October 17, the day the federal government legalizes marijuana. Significantly in BC, the Liquor Distribution Branch is in charge of the launch as it seeks the largest slice of the free-enterprise gold mine via wholesale and retail stores and a full-blown BC Cannabis Stores Internet presence with two separate websites “to fulfill online orders; one for consumers and another for private retailer stores.” 

Remembering the past history of the government’s progress from bystander to chief distributor of pleasurable and dangerous drugs based on alcohol, I wonder: will non-medical marijuana remain alone as a government sponsored aid to dreamworld? Or what might next be added to the list?



  1. This is so interesting, thank you. I recall peeking in the window of the liquor store in Sidney when my parents entered to buy a bottle of rye or perhaps a case of beer..looked dark and a bit scary. Before Sidney we lived on Mayne Island and Harry Wright used to go to Ganges on his small boat and bring back the ordered goods. There was a rumour that one of the people on Mayne used to meet Harry at the dock and see who bought his favourite alcohol, then that evening he would pay them a visit.

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