Dead cops stop drug wars – a second look

Royal Canadian Mounted Police officier Lee JohnstonRoyal Canadian Mounted Police officier Lee JohnstonSeptember 28th, 2005: In light of the renewed discussion about the horrible events that unfolded in Mayerthorpe, Alberta, we thought it would be appropriate to bring this story back to the forefront.
It is terribly unfortunate that the families of the four slain Mounties are again being hooked into a nonsensical anti-marijuana campaign by insensitive and opportunist prohibitionists.

Dead cops stop drug wars

Did the shooting of Constable S.O. Lawson end Alcohol prohibition in Alberta? Some historians seem to think so.

“During the early years of alcohol prohibition, it was argued that all that was wrong was lack of effective law enforcement. So enforcement budgets were increased, more Prohibition agents were hired, arrests were facilitated by giving agents more power, and penalties were escalated. Prohibition still didn’t work.

The United States thus learned its lesson – with respect to alcohol…. Since alcohol is treated as a non-drug, however, the relevance of the lesson to other drug prohibitions has been overlooked.”

– Consumer’s Union Report: Licit & Illicit Drugs, 1972, p.266

Between 1915 and 1917, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba all passed alcohol prohibition laws through public plebiscites. Canadian alcohol prohibition went National in 1918 as part of the war effort, but by the end of 1919 Prime Minster Mackenzie King gave the power to regulate – or prohibit – back to the Provinces.

In 1920, the US began its own 13-year experiment with a national prohibition law. This move gave a boost to the “Dry vote” in Canada. Despite B.C. wisely opting for regulated sales, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba once again ratified alcohol prohibition. Then, suddenly, in 1922, the tide began to turn.

During the late fall and early winter of 1922, a petition was circulated by Alberta’s Hotelmen’s Association, pleading for government control of the liquor trade and the return of licensed parlors and bars. It contained 51,000 names.

A third alcohol plebiscite was set by Alberta Premier Greenfield, March 9th, 1923, the day after he received confirmation that the Hotelmen?s petition was legitimate and in order. Manitoba set a date in June for their third plebiscite – Alberta’s followed in November. This time the Wets won. Their victory soon echoed in Saskatchewan in 1924.

What happened at the end of 1922 to turn people’s attitudes around so quickly – despite the US going the other direction – getting the public vote “wet”?

The answer, surprisingly enough, may have been the shooting death of Constable Steven Lawson of the Alberta Provincial Police.

Born in England in 1880, Steven O. Lawson came to Canada in 1903, and went west in the spring of 1904. After trying his hand at ranching, he joined the Macleod police on May 7th, 1907, where he later became chief of police. At the outbreak of war, he enlisted and served overseas. On his discharge, he became police chief of Fernie in 1920 and served with that force until his enlistment in the Alberta Provincial Police on March 12th, 1922.

He was stationed at Coleman, a little mining town west of Blairmore that straddled the main highway used by rumrunners. He was added to the APP as one of fifty men specifically placed to suppress the liquor traffic.

Stephen Oldacres Lawson (1880-1922)Stephen Oldacres Lawson (1880-1922)As the story goes, on September 21, 1922, Lawson and his partner received a tip from a stool pigeon that a popular rumrunner named Emilio Picariello – AKA “Mr. Pick” – was going to Fernie for a load of liquor. Another anonymous tip let the APP know that Pick was returning with his load. Constable Lawson observed Pick and his crew going both directions.

With Pick were his mechanic and his son. When they arrived at their hotel, some APP officers were waiting in ambush. The moment Pick was served with a search warrant, he sounded his horn and was off with his crew to go back across the BC border. Waiting in the middle of the road was Constable Lawson.

Pick’s son refused to stop for Lawson, so the Constable shot him – in the hand. Later that evening, Pick’s son was arrested and held prisoner.

Pick and Florence Lassandro, the wife of an associate, went to confront Lawson. They drove up to the police barracks in Coleman, and Steven Lawson approached them in their car. According to Lassandro’s statement to the court, an argument ensued, which turned into a fight.

Pick insisted that Lawson was going to accompany him to retrieve his son from jail. Lawson refused, claiming not to know where the boy was. Pick seized Lawson’s gun in order to enforce his command. Lawson resisted. The gun went off several times. Lassandro panicked and shot Lawson. He died a few minutes later.

Emilio Picariello and Florence Lassandro were tried, found guilty and executed on May 3rd, 1923. Florence Lassandro was the first and only woman to be executed in Alberta.

A day before they died, another policeman died enforcing alcohol prohibition laws. Constable Charles M. Paris hopped onto the running board of a high-powered McLaughlin roadster, only to have the roadster smash into a wooden fence. Constable Paris was killed instantly.

At least 250 people died either enforcing or evading the prohibition laws from 1915 to 1933. Awareness regarding this prohibition-related violence – combined with the “Moderationist” movement and certain economic arguments – ensured alcohol prohibition’s loss of public support.

According to one historian: “This case, highly publicized, was instrumental in bringing an end to the eight years of prohibition in Alberta.” (1)

According to another: “It is entirely possible that many persons, appalled by the tragedy and the violence that seemed to accompany all efforts to enforce Prohibition, both in the United States and Canada, willingly signed the petition in order to prevent more disorder and breaking of laws.” (2)

After the shooting deaths of four Mounties in Alberta last week, much of the mainstream press jumped on the fact that the gunman was growing pot plants. The media initially ignored the fact that the gunman was being investigated over stolen car parts – not pot plants, and that he was a convicted child molester who served just two and a half years in jail. (3) Had our society taken molestation more seriously and pot gardening less seriously, he might have still been in custody.

The media also missed the lesson of alcohol prohibition – going as far as putting it in quotation marks when cannabis activists referred to it -as if to say the connection was suspect. When one newspaper listed Lawson’s name as one of the dead Alberta police of yesteryear, they didn’t even mention he died enforcing alcohol prohibition laws. (4)

It is a mistake to argue that activists are exploiting the tragedy of dead police by using such an occasion to call for an end to prohibition. It is neither “shameful” nor “disrespectful” to try and avert further tragedy by drawing lessons from history. (5)

If history has a lesson, it is that such tragedies are often the shocking incidents required for the public to get over its paternalistic morality and wake up to the reality of prohibition-related violence and of the price of trying to control the private behavior of others – a pointless sacrifice of the lives of those who we rely on for our security.