When Baltimoreans had Rx for whiskey

As medical marijuana dispensaries make their first appearance in the state, it’s worth remembering a time when prescription alcohol flowed in the cups of Marylanders.

The Prohibition years from 1920-1933 saw a glut of doctor-prescribed alcohol across the United States. None other than famously boozy Winston Churchill carried with him a doctor’s note that allowed him “a minimum” of 250 cubic centimeters of alcohol — around half a pint — following a car accident he suffered in New York.

To get the scrip, a thirsty patient need show symptoms of “anything that you could persuade a doctor you needed alcohol for,” said Francis O’Neill, senior reference librarian at the Maryland Historical Society. The doctor would then fill out a government-issued prescription form and the patient would have their prescription filled at a local pharmacy. Most patients were limited to just one pint per ten days — though perhaps Churchill secured a special exemption. Alcoholism was not such a condition, apparently. A Sun article reported that doctors who treated alcohol-dependent patients were directed to taper them off over the period of four weeks, after which point they would be legally “cured.”

Though most of the state was already dry by the time Prohibition went into effect, Maryland was the only state in the union that refused to pass a local law enforcing the 18th amendment. The nickname “the free state” became a reference to the willingness of Marylanders to flout the law. This was particularly true in immigrant-rich Baltimore, which O’Neill said was the “citadel of alcohol use.”

And there were few places where prescription alcohol was more popular. A Sun article reported that in 1922, liquor prescriptions averaged one for every three people in the state — and Maryland boasted the highest in per capita consumption of physician-prescribed whiskey. Unlike their counterparts in New York, who might charge up to $8 a pint, Maryland pharmacists didn’t gouge patients. Another article in The Sun reported that medical-grade hooch in Baltimore was cheaper than the bootlegged version — around $2.50 to $3 a pint.

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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