Pot Legalization: What Can Washington Learn From The End Of Prohibition?

Feb 21, 2014

Come summer, marijuana stores will open for business across Washington. The new legal pot market is modeled on a system the state adopted 80 years ago when Prohibition ended.

I wondered if there are other parallels between the legalization of alcohol then and marijuana today.

In the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," we’re transported to the days of Al Capone and Prohibition. It was an era where gunfire often settled underworld business disputes. 

But when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, business began to dry up for the gangsters, bootleggers and rumrunners. So when legal marijuana sales begin in Washington, how long will it take for the black market for pot to go up in smoke?

"Oh I don’t know. I would think three, four, five years," says Rick Garza, who heads Washington’s Liquor Control Board.

Garza says in the first year, the state only expects to capture 25 percent of the recreational pot market. But over time, he’s confident the black market will lose its customer base.

"I think once you bring something out of the shadows and you create a legal marketplace, people want to use that," Garza said.

Washington’s former pot consultant agrees.

Mark Kleiman of UCLA predicts the legal market will ultimately capture 90 percent of pot sales. But he says that won’t happen until production ramps up and the current medical marijuana market is regulated.

In other respects, the legalization of pot does not mirror the end of Prohibition, says David Wilma, a former federal narcotics agent turned writer and historian.

Wilma tells the story of a reporter who walked into a bar in Seattle’s Pioneer Square on the day Prohibition was lifted. But there was no one there celebrating.

"And the bartender says, 'Yeah, it’s really a quiet night, no big deal. It must be the rain,'" he said. The point, says Wilma, is that even during the dry years, people had easy access to alcohol and it was part of the culture.

You can bet that on the first day pot stores are open in Washington, there will be people celebrating, rain or shine.

Wilma does see one key similarity between the end of Prohibition and the legalization of pot: the opportunity for entrepreneurs to cash in.

And that, says the former federal agent, will invite another age-old crime: tax evasion.

Related Story: 

80 Years After Repeal Day, A Look At How Seattle Drank During The Prohibition