As the debate over whether the City of Sonoma should allow a cannabis dispensary in our midst, or at least a vote by local citizens, meanders on, I’m reminded of a similar controversy that lingered here for more than a decade, involving the rights of local vineyardists to make, and of local citizens to consume, wine and other alcoholic beverages.
It began with the passage in 1919 of the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Also known as the Volstead Act, it placed a prohibition on alcohol that dramatically affected not only the economy of Sonoma Valley, but the consumption preferences of most of its citizens, including most of the Sonoma City Council, local business leaders and the editor of the Sonoma Index-Tribune, my grand aunt, Celeste Murphy.
It proved highly unpopular, not only in the Valley of the Moon, but all over the country, spawning a huge explosion in the black market for alcohol, and the creativity of homemade brewers, winemakers and distillers.
Sonoma was a hotbed of opposition to Prohibition. My grand aunt also alleged that it “destroyed the wine industry of California.”
There are many stories of enterprising Sonomans producing liquor in homemade stills hidden in our foothills, and even in basements under local restaurants. One state senator, who was on the “dry’ side of the issue, alleged that Sonoma was “…among the worst, if not the worst, violator of the Volstead Act in California.”
For their part, Sonomans resisted and mocked the intrusive federal enforcers who frequently arrived without warning to search local property for illegal stills.
In one particularly snarky bit of commentary, my grand aunt referred to the agents as “revenue pussy footers who stole silently into the cheerful precincts of a perfect day and proceeded to turn everything topsy-turvy to uncover the illicit treasure... (with)... no results.”
She then offered the feds a suggestion, a paid ad in the Index-Tribune, which would read as follows:
“Wanted – Any information which will lead to the locating of a still in Sonoma Valley. Please bring samples and high proof to this office… If Jackass brandy is up to standard you will be in line for a Governor Edwards cabinet appointment or the bastille, depending on the outcome of the Supreme Court… We want to aid in the clearing up of the cloud on our title of Valley of the Moon about which a hazy misnomer, 'Valley of the Moonshine,' hovers like the persistent spirit of a departed Barleycorn.”
It took rebels like my Aunt Celeste and a majority of Americans and Franklin Roosevelt more than 10 years to convince congress to repeal the Volstead Act, which it finally did with the passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933.
By comparison, the simple act of allowing cannabis dispensary in our fair city in the year 2018, should only be 10 weeks or so.
In the meantime, I’m wondering whether the introduction of cannabis-infused wine into the local marketplace will make the whole debate come full circle.