Medicinal Alcohol in Canada During Prohibition

Publication Year: 
2003

Beyond the availability of mail-order services, almost every neighbourhood had two other perfectly legal outlets: the doctor's office and the drugstore. Long before the war, local prohibition measures had loopholes that allowed some alcohol to be sold for “medicinal, mechanical, scientific, and sacramental purposes.”

The faith in liquor as a medicine was clearly still powerful. Doctors could write prescriptions for it, and druggists could dispense it. Before the war, in the absence of any government dispensaries, licensed drugstores were the only places that people could get alcohol within the municipalities where local-option prohibition prevailed. The system was ripe for abuse. “Men go there with a certificate of their own manufacture, with an imaginary doctor's name on it, and get as much liquor as they want,” a Charlottetown newspaper complained in 1882. Ten years later, after a visit to nearby Summerside, a British writer reported, “'Prescriptions' were given for various amounts, from a bottle up to ten gallons, some practically unlimited, the liquor being taken by instalments, as required.” Quebec's comptroller of provincial revenue told the royal commission a similar story: in one parish under local option in January 1889, the “medicine” being dispensed amounted to 279 bottles of whisky, 217 of gin, 28 of brandy, 11 of wine, 6 pints of whisky, a pint of beer, and a half-pint of brandy.8

Under the post-1915 provincewide legislation, doctors were again permitted to prescribe liquor (often by the quart), and long lineups formed outside the doors of opportunistic practitioners, who might charge a fee of two or three dollars for this service. By no means were all doctors involved, but there were enough of them to supply a good many drinkers. In 1920 Alberta's doctors issued more than 500,000 prescriptions for bottles of alcohol, and Ontario's practitioners wrote more than 650,000 a figure that climbed to over 800,000 in 1924. “Patients” simply took their “prescriptions” to an authorized drugstore or one of the new provincial liquor dispensaries. “Towards Christmas especially,” a B.C. civil servant later recalled, “it looked as if an epidemic of colds and colics had struck the country like a plague. In Vancouver queues a quarter of a mile long could be seen waiting their turn to enter the liquor store to get their prescriptions filled.” In Ontario the monthly total of prescriptions written in December typically jumped by 50 per cent.9

Criticism of these practices poured into newspaper editorials and government letter boxes. “imagine, Mr. Premier, an honest, busy doctor specifically prescribing Killarnock's Scotch or Thompson's Grand Highland, strictly for medical purposes,” one angry prohibitionist wrote to Ontario premier Drury, who for his own part, muttered grimly that the medical profession had become simply “a thin cloak for bootlegging.” Deeply divided over the use of alcohol, doctors expressed resentment that they had been caught in this twist of public policy. Alberta and British Columbia tried using numbered forms to be sent to specific doctors, but forgeries soon appeared. Some provincial boards restricted the number of prescriptions a doctor could write per month, and a small number of medical men were eventually prosecuted. But booze by doctors' continued to be available throughout the prohibition period in Canadian provinces.10

Some provinces required all purchases to flow through the government dispensaries, but some left retailing to licensed vendors, most often drugstores. Druggists could also order alcohol in bulk for filling prescriptions. In Yorkton, Sask., former hotel-men Harry and Sam Bronfman had already made good use of a wholesale druggists license to import and distribute large quantities of alcohol. Ontario's Board of License Commissioners believed that some drugstores were “little better than bar-rooms, but the proprietors display great cunning in covering up their guilt.” By 1923 the Board had concluded that a “very considerable number” of drugstores had opened across the province “apparently for the purpose of carrying on an illegal traffic in liquor.” According to Stephen Leacock, it was only necessary to lean against a drugstore counter “and make a gurgling sigh like apoplexy. One often sees these apoplexy cases lined up four deep.”11

In Alberta authorities discovered that some druggists hired former bartenders to handle their liquor business and then shifted legal blame onto them if they were caught selling illegal booze. Provincial governments did what they could to regulate this traffic, as well as curb consumption of so-called “medicated wines” and various extracts available in grocery stores.12 They probably succeeded in restraining this legal flow.

8 McGahan, Crime and Policing, 44 (quotation by Charlottetown newspaper); Fanshawe, Liquor Legislation, 381 (quotation by British writer); Royal Commission on Liquor Traffic, Report, 125 (quotation by Quebec official).

9 In Quebec City physicians wrote over 15,000 prescriptions in the seven months after 1 May 1919. In Prince Edward Island they handed out over 34,000 over a nine-month period. British Columbia's doctors signed over 181,000 during 1919, and one Vancouver doctor issued 4,000 in a month. A Winnipeg doctor-pharmacist team sold 5,800 prescriptions in August 1920 alone. Hiebert, “Prohibition in British Columbia,” 111 (quotation); Thompson, “Prohibition Question,” 76-7; Stretch, “From Prohibition to Government Control,” 20; Canadian Annual Review, 1922, 588-9, 746, 764, 794-5.

10 Johnston, Drury, 162 (quotations). There is no Canadian research on attitudes of the medical community to the use of alcohol as medicine in the period, but for a review of the U.S. debates (and the American Medical Association's about-face on its 1917 rejection of alcohol's therapeutic possibilities), see Jones, “Prohibition Problem.”

11 Campbell, Demon Rum or Easy Money, 24; Thompson, “Voice of Moderation,” 173; Gray, Booze, 92; Hiebert, “Prohibition in British Columbia,” 111 (quotation by Leacock); Hallowell, Prohibition in Ontario, 107-10; Ontario, Board of License Commissioners, Report on the Operation of the Ontario Temperance Act, 1917-18, 7, 1919-20,9-10, 1920-1, 8, 1921-2, 13, 1922-3, 6-7, 8 (quotations by Ontario board), 1923-4, 6-8, 1924-5, 6-8, 1925-6, 6-8; Davis, “I'll Drink to That,” 258; Stretch, “From Prohibtion to Government Control,” 36; Marrus, Mr. Sam, 68-70; Newman, Bronfman Dynasty, 79; Grant, When Rum Was King, 85-92; Anderson, Rum Runners, 12-13, 30-1; Tucker, “Labatt's,” 165; Canadian Annual Review, 1920, 657, 697, 1922, 747, 832-3.

pp. 237-239 Booze: A Distilled History by Craig Heron (2003)

Image retrieved from Medicinal Spirits: Prescribing Liquor during Prohibition, 1919
on Sept 22, 2014.

medical alcohol, alcohol, dispensary, soldier, WW1, World War One, prohibition
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