The Third Rail: Repeal Day and Reefer Madness


Welcome to The Third Rail, a weekly column in which our shaker-wielding guide Peter Joseph explores that delicious thought space where pop culture and classic libations meet. Take a swig and let us know what you think in the comments.

This past Friday, Americans filled bars and raised a glass to celebrate (whether they knew it or not) the 75th anniversary of Repeal Day. On December 5th, 1933, twelve dry years of Prohibition ended, and Americans could once again get a strong drink without resorting to a trip to Canada, bootlegging, or hiding liquor in bowling balls. Even Congress proclaimed that: “Whereas the American system of State-based alcohol regulation has resulted in a marketplace with unprecedented choice, variety, and selection for consumers.”

This writer would have been happy to mark the day with his Congressman with the original drink of the Washington Lobbyist (the Rickey: juice of ½ lime, two oz. bourbon or gin, ice and club soda). But there are others out there who would rather use the anniversary as a chance to call for legalization of another substance. After all, it was only last month that Massachusetts citizens voted to decriminalize up to an ounce of pot.

Supporters of marijuana legalization have tried to use the failures of Prohibition to push for their own Repeal Day. But what if they succeed? As a fan of cocktail history, after the jump are a few lessons taken from the last 75 years of legal booze that those NORML members should keep in mind.

MADD acronym to become completely unpronounceable: It took five more years after the end of Prohibition before blood-alcohol content was defined, and most drunk-driving laws only fell into place starting in the ‘70s. When people do get pulled while smoking, they get charged with possession (and called out in the comments for not preparing their edible marijuana properly) rather than intoxication. Expect new laws in the books within a decade of legalization.

Camel vs. the Cartel: Once the laws pass, the real question is what company leaps first into the new revenue stream. Our guess (based only on a preference for terrible puns) is on Bud, or maybe some Miller High Life cross-promotion. But more likely it will be Big Tobacco companies who have the contacts with farmers and distribution already set up. It will be just a matter of time before you find mentholated joints.

The Zima of Cannabis: Cocktail historians mourn the drinking culture that was lost during the drought of Prohibition. Before 1920, you could stop into almost any bar and order a Rusty Nail, Tom and Jerry, or yes, a Third Rail. Afterward people were just happy to find a drink that didn’t come from Al Capone’s bathtub. It was inevitable that the corporations running the booze business would try to make the most mass-market friendly drinks. Which is why we have ready-made alcopops like Smirnoff Ice. The kids love ‘em. Whatever the flavor, expect some kind of sweet-tasting product that may finally knock smoking clove cigarettes off the teenage goth checklist.

Era of Illegal Marijuana Becomes Unspeakably Cool: Despite what some cocktail enthusiasts claim, nothing made drinking cooler than making it illegal. Speakeasies, gangsters, flappers — Prohibition did as much for alcohol’s rep as Trainspotting did for heroin’s (sorry, Danny Boyle). These days drinkers are still looking for Prohibition-style bars and cocktails (keep it simple, have an Old Fashioned: 2 oz. bourbon, ½ tsp. sugar, Angostura bitters, over ice with a twist of lemon peel).

If the type of decriminalization happening in Massachusetts spreads to the rest of the 49 (and face it, state governments do love vice taxes) then we inevitably will have chain marijuana sellers with names like Marley’s, Snoop’s, and Ben and Jerry’s. But no matter what, the era people will be thinking about when they toke up will still be the halcyon days of illicit activity. Pineapple Express will be the new Untouchables.

You’ve been warned.