The Parallels Between Marijuana and Alcohol Prohibition

gavel and marijuana buds on white background

If you haven't made the pilgrimage to a legal marijuana state, or are planning your first trip, there's one misconception about legal cannabis that you need to know before you arrive. Many cannabis tourists anticipate driving into a legal state is like driving into Las Vegas at night with lights and flashing arrows pointing the way to the nearest dispensary as soon as you cross the border. Despite Colorado state laws that started the end of marijuana prohibition, not all cities and counties allow marijuana establishments.

Dispelling the misconception that there's a dispensary on every street corner like 7-Eleven, some regions inside all legal states have yet to allow marijuana businesses within their boundaries. While this is a minor inconvenience for tourists, for cannabis consumers the various laws can be more than a simple nuisance. To understand how this happens, we only need to glance back in time and examine the end of prohibition from another era.

Parallels in Prohibition

agents standing with confiscated alcohol
Editorial credit: Everett Historical /
While alcohol is prevalent throughout most of the United States today, we can use the alcohol industry's history to make a similar comparison in legal cannabis. Looking back to the era of alcohol prohibition, when the federal government repealed the ban in 1933, not all counties agreed with the change. As such, some counties opted to continue to prohibit the sale of alcohol, thus creating the terminology of "wet or dry counties."

Although it's been more than eight decades since the U.S government changed its stance on alcohol, many counties throughout the United States still refuse to allow alcohol establishments. In fact, according to an article in the Economist, about 10% of the nation still upholds anti-alcohol laws.

In certain counties, in a few states, you can be arrested for alcohol possession regardless of your age.

On the flip side, other states protect their alcohol establishments. Interestingly, Iowa laws prohibit alcohol prohibition by requiring county liquor boards to issue licenses. In other words, Iowa doesn't allow dry counties.

Similarly, cannabis laws can vary county by county and even city by city.

Fifty Shades of Green

marijuana plant growing among other plants

Just as the end of alcohol prohibition gave rise to wet and dry counties, the end of cannabis prohibition created green and gray counties. Regardless of the state laws, each governing body has the opportunity to enforce their own rules.

For example, in Colorado, there are several variations of cannabis legalization. Some counties allow all things cannabis including sales, manufacturing, growing, and testing businesses. Yet, other counties still prohibit any type of marijuana-based business from opening including medical dispensaries. Most of the counties in the eastern half of Colorado ban all marijuana operations.

To further muddy the waters, inside the counties, individual cities may also enforce their own laws. Here are just a few of the anomalies found within Colorado:

  • Colorado Springs in El Paso County does not allow recreational dispensaries; only medical marijuana retail operations are permitted within the city limits. Yet, just west of the city limits, in Manitou Springs, two recreational marijuana shops, Maggie's Farm and Emerald Fields, provide much-needed tax revenue allowing the city to pave the way for many new renovations. In an area highly dominated by tourism, these two locations are always busy.
  • Aurora, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, only allows recreational dispensaries, and they collect one of the highest tax rates in the state.
  • The City of Denver has the most lenient cannabis laws. As of 2016 and the passing of Proposition 300, social consumption became legal in certain circumstances, allowing the growth of businesses like cannabis-friendly yoga and art classes, cannabis lounges and even a cannabis church.
  • Longmont, Colorado recently started issuing licenses for retail cannabis locations after changing their stance in 2017. Twin Peaks Dispensary just announced the opening of the largest dispensary in Longmont. The facility offers both medical and recreational cannabis, as well as a section dedicated to research, education, and collaboration within the industry.
  • Woodland Park, Colorado, located in Teller County, immediately implemented a moratorium on marijuana businesses within a month of Amendment 64 passing in 2012.

State Comparisons

woman smelling marijuana leaf

  • Currently, 37 of 64 counties within Colorado ban marijuana businesses of any kind. Throughout the rest of the state, there are presently 549 recreational stores and 474 medical dispensaries. Including all cultivation, production, and operational licenses, Colorado has issued more than 2,500 cannabis licenses since 2012.
  • 16 of 36 counties in Oregon ban marijuana businesses. In the twenty pot-friendly counties, Oregon claims more than 700 approved and active retail permits.
  • 7 of 39 counties in Washington prohibit cannabis establishments. According to 502Data, a dashboard of Washington cannabis statistics, the state currently has more than 500 retail locations and more than 1400 cultivation/production licenses.
  • In California, only 18 of 58 counties permit marijuana operations, yet the state has issued more than 5,000 commercial cannabis licenses.

Medical Cardholders Pay the Biggest Price

medical marijuana buds on top of black packaging

For tourists, the ambiguous laws are confusing and inconvenient. However, for some, the regional bans on cannabis can mean much more. Unlike alcohol, many cannabis consumers depend on the products from their dispensaries for medical reasons. Unfortunately, someone's geographical location may prevent or deter them from having access to the herb.

While some city councils and county boards likely feel they are protecting their communities and residents from the perils of cannabis establishments, in some cases they are also preventing medical consumers from convenient access to marijuana.

Many residents in rural regions must drive long distances in order to get the necessary cannabis products they require. In one example, after the last medical dispensary recently closed in Teller County on December 15th this year, many medical consumers were left without local access to medical cannabis. With a moratorium in place, there's little hope for any new business to open in the remote mountain area any time soon. As such, medical consumers are forced to drive an hour or more to get the products they need, ultimately increasing their expenses.

Slow Progress Is Still Progress

indoor marijuana grow operation

When we look at the big picture, showing 33 states with medical marijuana laws on the books, and 10 allowing adult-use, it may feel like legalization is happening quickly. However, take a deeper dive into the legal states and look at the more localized regions and laws, we discover we still have a lot of work to do. Many cannabis consumers, despite living in legal states, may not benefit from the ease of access they require.

As we look to the future, we can only surmise that cannabis will one day be as widely accepted as liquor and that other counties and regions will adopt more lenient cannabis laws as prohibition continues to come to close. But similar to the end of alcohol prohibition, it won't happen overnight. It will likely take decades, more political battles, and much more research to prove cannabis is safer than other substances. Maybe the day will come where cannabis products are available in convenience stores like beer and booze or sold over the counter in pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens. And maybe one day states like Iowa will implement similar laws to protect the cannabis industry the way they have the alcohol industry.