Wayne, Billy, and Susan Meet Cheech and Chong

Bobby Halton
editor’s opinion

One of the most humorous lines today is, “They will be judged as being on the wrong side of history.” Well, unless you’re Mr. Peabody and Sherman and you have a “way back” and “way forward” machine, that’s just simple nonsense. History is history, and we need to look at all of it in context. Sometimes it helps us understand what’s going on right now—at least it does for me, especially when we’re talking about marijuana. Right now, marijuana is legal medically in about half the states, and it’s also legal recreationally in several.

One of the questions we should be thinking about now is how we are going to manage it when it finally is legal nationwide as a recreational substance. That is not a trivial question, nor is it one that we should ignore or pretend is not going to happen. It is going to happen. I can recall being in a staff meeting with several other chiefs when we noticed question 17, “Have you ever smoked marijuana?” on the application for firefighter. One of us asked if all of us would be willing to raise our hands if we lied on that question prior to our being hired. I can’t give you the exact number, but it was more than 90 percent, and we think the chief who didn’t raise his hand was lying. And yes, I raised my hand, maybe twice.

Now, to be clear, as an adult I choose sobriety. I do not drink, I have no intention of using marijuana should it become legal, and I do not smoke cigarettes or use tobacco. To be honest, I have done all those things in my past, as have many of you reading this editorial right now. The fire service is not the church choir. It is a collection of highly aggressive, highly competitive, highly talented, and highly motivated individuals. As such, we tend to be adventuresome. We have all lived lives where we have taken chances. Some of us rock climb; some of us race cars; some of us dive, hang glide, play hockey, and the list goes on and on. All those activities are high risk. You can get hurt. That’s why many times we enjoy it. It’s the risk.

But back to marijuana: It’s coming; it will be legalized; and, historically, it’s interesting when you think that at one point in time alcohol was illegal in the United States. It’s interesting because we’re getting close to making tobacco illegal. There are many fire departments where, although I think it’s a constitutional violation, you are prohibited from using tobacco as a condition of employment. I find it interesting that a governmental agency can place a restriction on legal activity regarding employment, but that’s for another day.

So much like marijuana, alcohol was illegal from 1920 until December 5, 1933, when Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment, officially ending prohibition nationwide. So, how did alcohol become illegal? It has to do with a fellow named Wayne Bidwell Wheeler. As a kid living on his family’s farm, Wheeler was assaulted by a drunken farmhand, who injured Wheeler’s leg with a pitchfork, leaving him with a permanent disability and an absolute hatred of alcohol and the folks who use it.

After college and law school, Wheeler went to work for a group called the Anti-Saloon League. Now, what’s interesting about the 18th Amendment is that looking back in history, most folks were not for it. But a vocal, very vocal intolerant minority of folks, well, they sure as heck were, albeit with the best of intentions, as are most paths to perdition. Wheeler got help from folks like Billy Sunday, a famous ballplayer turned evangelical preacher, who said with the beginning of prohibition, “Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.”

We wonder how an entire nation could give up the right to enjoy an alcoholic beverage. Well, Wheeler’s political tactics were a big part of it; added to that was his association with a couple of other important movements like suffragette, where he garnered partners like Susan B. Anthony. Prohibition would produce organized crime in America, the idea of dinner parties, Las Vegas, and graveyards of folks who died from drinking bad moonshine.

Wheeler was a small guy—about 5’6”—but he understood how to put political pressure on people and organizations. In fact, he coined the term “pressure group.” Politicians who dared oppose him would be ferociously attacked by him and his group. They would go after them with smear campaigns, calling them handmaidens for this group or that group—not much unlike what’s happening today.

And, like today, Wheeler boasted, “I do it the way the bosses do it, with minorities.” By moving his smaller numbers of voters between candidates, he was able to fix almost every close race. While Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard were bringing in the female votes, Wheeler made common cause with the progressive movement, which was fighting the liquor lobbies to “uplift” the urban immigrants. That’s right, the prohibitionists, the progressives, were hand-in-hand with the racists. Social engineering anyone?

Now that marijuana is going to be legalized, can we smoke it? If so, what about tobacco? If not, “Katie, bar the door,” because cigarettes may not have a Wayne, but pot does, lots of them, and they are as aggressive in their support of pot as Wayne was in his opposition to alcohol. And if you think the evangelical clergy motivated by faith, the KKK by racism, and the IWW by revolution all on the same team against booze was something, you ain’t seen nothing yet. They won the day, and for 13 years liquor was illegal in America. And then it was back, and everyone forgot about Wayne Wheeler but not his tactics, no sir, not his tactics. The monster Saul Alinsky and his progressive tyrannist followers would be proud.

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