Updated: November 6, 2009 at 12:00 am
Seemingly healthy young men are asking for intoxicating pain medication with a wink, a nod and suspiciously vague symptoms. Sympathetic physicians are making good money writing them prescriptions. New dispensaries are springing up all over Colorado Springs to capitalize on the legal gray area. Local officials and police are outraged.
The city promises a crackdown.
The brouhaha makes headlines in ’09.
The drug in question was not medical marijuana, which has been in the news so much lately. It was medical whiskey, and the similarities to today’s prescription pot predicament are remarkable.
A century ago, drinking alcohol for enjoyment was illegal in Colorado Springs, as recreational pot smoking is today. City founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer had forbidden liquor from being made or sold anywhere in the city.
“Palmer wanted to create an attractive, orderly city that would appeal to new settlers, as opposed to some of the wilder communities in the West with their saloons,” said Matt Mayberry, director of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. “But, people still want their alcohol and will come up with inventive ways to get around the law.”
In Palmer’s town, the way around the law was through the doors of the local pharmacy.
City law granted an exception for medicinal liquor. With a doctor’s prescription, a patient could buy a quart of whiskey at one of several local pharmacies and take it home. Shots were forbidden. So were pints of beer. It seemed to be a compassionate compromise. In an era when local doctors still sometimes prescribed heroin to treat tuberculosis, alcohol was seen as legitimate medicine.
But locals could not help but notice that a surprising number of healthy men were showing up at the pharmacy counter with doctor’s notes. Their most common malady, which required a stiff dose of whiskey, was “snakebite.”
“More people are bitten by snakes than in any town of this size that I know of,” a correspondent from the Pueblo Chieftain wryly noted in the 1880s. “It is a little remarkable with what facility a man can get a prescription for snakebite in such a temperance town.”
The same shenanigans seem to be back in style.
Marijuana is illegal in Colorado, but under a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2000, people with “debilitating medical conditions” can register with the state to use the plant. The law says “primary care givers” can legally supply patients with their prescription pot.
State and local governments are struggling to define what the language really means. In the meantime, some people are treating it like medical whiskey all over again. About 400 people a day were signing up for the state’s medical marijuana registry during a rush in October, according to the Department of Public Health and Environment, which oversees the registry. Almost a quarter of them are men under age 30. They are the fastest growing group of medical marijuana users, and the majority say they need to smoke pot because of “severe pain.”
Public health officials think it may just be a new version of an old excuse — snakebite 2.0.
To serve this new group of patients, almost 100 dispensaries have opened in Colorado, including at least a dozen in the Pikes Peak region.
“Is it really all a sham? Were they getting the whiskey just for recreation? And are they doing the same thing with marijuana now?” asked Dan Zook, Assistant District Attorney for the Fourth Judicial District Attorney’s Office. “I don’t know. There are legitimate patients out there. But let’s face it, we have a lot of recreational users.”
At the turn of the century, the sham was pretty obvious.
Most of the pharmacies up and down Tejon Street dispensed with the formalities of fake illness and just began quietly pouring drinks.
Samuel Le Nord Caldwell, a local doctor, wrote in 1901 in a letter to future residents of the city that, although Colorado Springs was officially a dry town, all pharmacies “serve drinks to their patrons from their soda water fountains and one who 'knows the ropes' can get almost any kind of a drink.”
A chap just had to sidle up to the counter at the back, according to the editor of the Colorado City Iris, and “ask for ‘a nectar’ at one establishment or ‘a wild strawberry’ at another.”
There were crackdowns, of course. Police raided offending druggists and courts hit them with heavy fines in 1895, 1898, 1900, 1904, 1905, 1907, 1910 and 1911, according to newspapers.
But crackdowns never stemmed the flow of drink.
One flabbergasted editor wrote, “There are several druggists in town who have violated the liquor laws almost every day and the profits from their illegal business is so great that they can well afford to spend thousands of dollars evading conviction.”
The big profits spawned robberies and fights. In 1908, the wildly prosperous owner of the South End Pharmacy, who liked to wear huge diamond rings, was lured to the edge of town, robbed and shot dead.
The D.A.’s office says the modern-day medical marijuana situation has spawned a similar increase in violence and theft.
“We’ve seen home invasions. Three murders directly stem from marijuana. We haven’t seen this much crime associated with marijuana in years,” Zook said.
The city of Colorado Springs, like many towns in the state, is considering strict regulations for marijuana sellers. The days of the dispensary boom may be numbered. But keeping a lid on abuse of the law may prove tricky, if history is any indication.
The Springs never figured out how to stem the flow of medicinal whiskey.
In 1911, Colorado Springs Mayor Henry Hall pushed the city to get rid of the anti-alcohol laws, saying it was better to have saloons than back room pharmacy hypocrisy.
“Colorado Springs is living a lie in the pretense of prohibition — and it is not wholesome to live a lie,” he warned.
But prohibition, and the swift business of drugstore spirits, remained the status quo in the city until national Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
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