A Brock prof’s research into how the government of Ontario dealt with the regulation of alcohol and public drinking in the province in the post-prohibition 20s and 30s raises some interesting questions about our society’s attitudes towards to alcohol.
“We have this incredibly conflicted relationship with alcohol,” says Dan Malleck, associate professor of Community Health Sciences and author of Try to Control Yourself: The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario, 1927-1944.
“From the end of prohibition in Ontario until the Second World War, liquor laws in the province changed significantly,” says Malleck. “And with the creation of the LCBO in 1927, the government tried to foster a system that worked in the complex political and social culture of the time.”
The whole idea of allowing drinking in a province where a lot of people still thought it should be illegal because it was immoral and destructive to society had to be weighed against the fact that prohibition simply did not work.
“Government had to strike a balance between keeping alcohol relatively restricted, and making it appealing enough so that people wouldn’t go to illegal watering holes to drink,” says Malleck. “Many people saw drinking as inherently evil, but prohibition was much worse in that it created a whole new level of illegality.”
At the turn of the century, the idea of the state controlling all aspects of liquor production, distribution and sales – based on principles of “disinterested management” – was taking hold in Scandinavian countries and around the world. Disinterested management is when managers don’t have a financial stake in selling more alcohol. Instead their focus is to control the consumption of alcohol in society.
The province adopted a modified version of this system in the wake of repealing the Ontario Temperance Act. The production of alcohol remained in the hands of private industry, but the LCBO ran the stores and inspected breweries, wineries and distilleries.
From 1927 to 1934 people could buy booze in the liquor store to take home, but they couldn’t drink regular strength booze anywhere in public, such as bars. Then from 1934 to 1944 people were allowed to drink beer in hotel beverage rooms and beer and wine in hotel dining rooms, which was similar to the pre-prohibition model of alcohol regulation in Ontario.
“The LCBO constrained drinking mostly to hotel beverage rooms, but the way the board enforced the rules was not as rigid as many imagine,” says Malleck. “They were very flexible in the application of the law and it was more about self-control and showing that you were trying. The thinking was that you might as well keep these places in sight and manage them rather than drive drinking back underground.”
Our society’s current notions of “responsible drinking” and the “responsible drinker” were shaped and influenced by this bureaucratic balancing act.
“Once you strip away the morality of it, the main concerns about drinking are the family, social order and economic stability,” says Malleck. “So if you create this idea that it is ok as long as you do it in a way that won’t disrupt whatever you are worried about, like the social order or integrity of the family, then what’s wrong with it?”
Malleck’s historical research has relevant connections to ongoing present-day debates about what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in society.
During the U.S. election last November, voters in Colorado and Washington passed plebiscites allowing adults over the age of 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. This decision by voters to legalize marijuana represents a significant shift in public attitudes toward the drug, on par with the changes in attitudes towards alcohol that were witnessed after prohibition.
“People are talking about drug control following the same model,” says Malleck. “My research on post-prohibition Ontario looks at what happened in a similar environment, but without a 100-year panic around drugs.”
Malleck’s book Try to Control Yourself is now available in paperback from UBC Press. His historical research looks at the post-prohibition regulation of alcohol in six diverse Ontario communities – Toronto, Ottawa, Niagara, Essex County, Waterloo County and Thunder Bay district.