Prohibition in the United States: a 100-Year Retrospective – As Medicine
Prohibition in the United States: A 100-Year Retrospective is a 5-part blog series offering readers an overview of the history of drug prohibition in the United States using historical newspapers and two of the nation’s most widely used psychoactive drugs – alcohol and marijuana. Part 3, “As Medicine,” compares medical marijuana as it is now with the fleeting world of medicinal beer, wine, and most commonly, liquor.
This is to certify that the post-accident convalescence of the Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at meal times. The quantity is naturally indefinite but the minimum requirements would be 250 cubic centimeters.
Note from Otto C. Pickhardt, M.D., 1932, after Winston Churchill was hit by a car in New York City.
Just as there is legal access to medical marijuana in 38 states and Washington, D.C. now, there was access to medicinal liquor under Prohibition. The Volstead Act made explicit, but vague, allowances for the medicinal use of alcohol so long as the individual had a prescription from a “duly qualified physician.”. The original law only mentioned alcoholism by name, but liquor could also be prescribed “after careful physical examination” for any “known ailment” for which the physician believed alcohol would be necessary “in good faith.”. The 1921 National Prohibition Supplemental Act, also known as the Willis-Campbell Act, clarified that only liquor and wines could be prescribed by doctors, and specified the amount of liquor that could be prescribed at one time. This enraged proponents of the medicinal beer movement, but business boomed for those in the medicinal liquor business. Most famously, the Walgreens chain of drugstores grew from 20 locations to over 500 locations over the course of the Prohibition era, most likely due to their participation in the lucrative sale of prescription whiskey.
Prescription liquor was not without its controversies, as prominent medical professionals publicly took issue with the practice of prescribing copious amounts of alcohol, which was, in their professional opinion, doing more harm than good. In 1932, Dr. Arthur Dean Bevan, then-chair of the AMA Council on Medical Education, wrote a letter to the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Among his concerns, Bevan noted that physicians had been selling their full quota of 400 liquor prescriptions per year to “bootlegging druggists and bootleggers,” and suggested that the bulk of liquor prescriptions were going to “beverage use and not for medicine.” He went on to describe the practice as “a disgrace to the medical profession,”, and called upon the medical community to eliminate “the injury done by alcoholic drink.”
Medicinal marijuana is widely available in the United States in 2023. Thirty-eight states, three territories, and Washington, D.C. allow its use, and there are approximately 46,000 medical marijuana patients in Connecticut alone. The drug’s status as medicine is controversial among the public, as our cultural understanding of the drug is complicated by its sordid political history. The drug’s application is controversial in the medical community as well, largely due to a lack of information, as legal barriers have prevented researchers from securing adequate supply and funding. Preliminary research points to the drug’s efficacy for management of pain and nausea, but also points to its adverse effects, particularly among adolescent users.