150 Years of Prohibition

By Brian Brock

Franklin has been prohibiting people from having a good time for a century and a half, first with grain alcohol (ethanol) and now with THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) – 15 decades of being a nanny state.  

In the 1880s, the town government began blocking the sale of alcohol by refusing to issue permits for retail stores. Franklin elected the first supporter of this no-excise position in 1881 by 406 to 156 votes. Their celebration of the first centennial of the town in 1893 was a spiritless affair. As the temperance movement grew, New York state passed a law allowing towns to directly ban retail sales. Franklin did so in 1899. However, many medicines were mostly alcohol and remained available.

The campaign for prohibition was fueled by many fabrications and gross exaggerations. Alcohol was said to turn blood to water. All domestic violence was caused by consuming alcohol. The mere smell of alcohol could cause fetal abnormalities. Most drunkards die of dropsy, i.e., edema. Alcoholism could cause the liver to grow seven times its normal size.

In 1920, the federal government banned alcohol throughout the country under the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the only amendment that took rights from citizens. When those citizens realized all the unintended consequences of trying to criminalize drinking alcohol, the country reversed course after only 14 years with passage of the 21st amendment. In turn, New York reversed course but allowed towns to individually maintain the bans. Franklin voted to do so in 1935 and again in 1937.

It took almost 60 years for the townspeople to vote in 1999 to allow retail sale of beer, by 429 to 274 votes – 100 years after the initial prohibition. Then in 2019, they voted to allow the consumption of alcoholic beverages with meals in a restaurant by a larger margin of 471 to 147 votes, a three to one ratio. The tide had turned.

Sale and use of cannabis followed a similar cycle. By the late 1800s, medicinal cannabis extracts were sold in pharmacies and the offices of doctors throughout the United States to treat stomach problems and other ailments. After 1917, these medicines required a prescription in New York. During Prohibition, a wave of opposition to intoxicants carried a ban on cannabis into the law books of New York in 1927. In only five years, such bans spread to 29 states.

The federal government followed in 1937 with the Marijuana Tax Act that criminalize cannabis nationwide. It taxed the sale, possession, or transfer of all hemp products, which effectively banned all but industrial uses of the plant.

Tall tales were told of the use of cannabis leading to a downward spiral into madness and death, such as in the movie Reefer Madness (1936). Despite decades of research, there is no conclusive evidence that cannabis is a gateway drug.

It took decades for facts to overtake the fiction. In 1970, President Nixon appointed the National Commission on Marihuana [sic] and Drug Abuse chaired by the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, Raymond Shafer. In its report Marihuana, a Signal of Misunderstanding (1972), the Shafer commission recommended decriminalization of use of THC, comparing it to alcohol.

After that report, it took almost half a century for the state of New York to reverse itself. In 2014, cannabis was again permitted for medical use – last out, first in. Then in 2021, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act allows adults to use it for recreation but allows towns to continue a commercial ban on cannabis, as the state allows for alcohol. Currently, of 933 the towns, only seven remain completely dry and 39 are moist including Franklin.

However, this time the primary deciders on cannabis commerce were town boards. Last October at a special meeting, the Franklin town board unanimously voted to ban licenses for retail sale or on-site consumption with Local Law 1-2021. Within a month, the townspeople were able to place the question of these bans on the ballot for the following year. Therefore this local law is suspended unless affirmed by a vote of the townspeople. Last March, village residents voted to allow retail sales but ban on-site use. Franklin still bans the on-site consumption of alcohol in bars.

The MRTA provides for nine types of cannabis licenses, but towns may block only two of these. Regardless of the vote, a microbusiness (retail) license would allow a small, vertically-integrated business that may grow, process, sell, and deliver cannabis in Franklin. Such an operation, which could be located anywhere, would provide less oversight of sales to minors than a store which is open to the public.

With both alcohol and THC, governments followed the same cycle. For decades, they took no notice of the use, which came with some down sides. Next, the intoxicant was banned, first for recreation and then for medication. From hard experience, society learned that the benefits of a ban were insufficient to justify the loss of freedom and the costs of enforcement. Finally, the governments restored the peoples’ right to make their own choices. In both cases, it took a century for governments to learn its lesson.

In 2023, the Cannabis Control Board will conditionally license 150 retail stores, which will be distributed proportionally to the population of a region. The Southern Tier has two percent of the population of the state and therefore will be awarded three stores. Likely they will be sited in population centers. Cities in the Southern Tier are Binghamton, Broome Co. (48,000 residents), Elmira, Chemung Co. (26,000), Oneonta, Otsego Co. (13,000), Corning, Stuben Co. (10,000), Hornell, Stuben Co, (8,000), and Norwich, Chenango Co. (7,000).

Regulations for adult recreational use should be finalized by the end of the year, which is the first step for a legal market. Currently, applications for retail licenses are being reviewed, and plans are for licenses to begin to be awarded in March or April of next year.

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