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History Repeated: The Resemblance Between Medical Marijuana and Alcohol Prescriptions During Prohibition

Sep 8th, 2016 Marijuana Laws

In history there’s an adage that what’s old is new again.  This certainly seems to be the case with Michigan’s Medical Marijuana act which allows a caregiver to legally sell marijuana to a patient bearing a valid prescription.  Otherwise, it is illegal to sell, use or possess marijuana.

During prohibition it was similarly illegal to sell, use or possess alcohol.  One exception to this prohibition was the alcohol prescription.  According to the Smithsonian Institution’s web site, during prohibition your doctor could write you a prescription for booze.  This would allow “patients” to purchase a pint of booze every ten days!

History buffs will be interested to know that during prohibition a particularly creative lawyer by the name of George Remus took full advantage of this “loophole.”  First, he used his contacts in Washington to pass laws that he could take advantage of to build a mostly legal business empire.  To do this, he purchased all the standing liquor, meaning that already produced by distillers around the country.  He used his connections to get “withdraw permits” and he arranged to have this withdrawn booze sold to drug companies that he also owned.  This booze would then be sold to pharmacies that would fill the alcohol prescriptions.  In this way Remus became both buyer and seller, thereby assuring the uninterrupted availability of alcohol to anyone who wanted it.  To learn more, watch Ken Burns documentary about Prohibition.

As it relates to the lawful use of marijuana, the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act is not quite so specific relative to amount of marijuana that can be purchased.  Some have argued that because caregivers can possess 2.5 ounces for each patient, each patient can purchase 2.5 ounces.  The Michigan appeals court decision of People v. Hartwick looked at this question, specifically the “reasonable amount” provision that appears in section 8 of the act.  This court indicated that the intent of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act was to allow for patients to possess enough medical marijuana so as to allow for the uninterrupted availability.

This effectively leaves open to question the amount necessary, and this means that Michigan citizens can be arrested for the possession of marijuana even if they have a valid prescription.  It will then be up to them to prove that the amount possessed was a reasonable amount for the purpose of allowing the patient uninterrupted availability based on the patient’s specific needs concerning their medical condition.  Hartwick did indicate that patient and caregiver can testify relative to the amount of marijuana necessary to ensure proper treatment of the debilitating condition. See 498 Mich at 203.

Just as with prohibition eventually giving way to legalization, the Michigan Comprehensive Law Reform Committee has been seeking full legalization of marijuana.  The recent attempt to have this placed on the ballot failed, but look for future petitions, and for a future ballot initiative.   Since all that’s old is new again, it’s quite possible we will see legalized marijuana in Michigan’s future.