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Originally published Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 5:04 PM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Washington voters might overturn state liquor stores as they ended prohibition

Columnist Bruce Ramsey offers a bit of history from Washington state's "dry" past. Voters implemented Prohibition by initiative in 1914 and then overturned it in 1932 — again by initiative. Voters might get a chance in November to close the state liquor stores.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

For those who signed petitions for marijuana legalization, which almost made the ballot, and for liquor privatization, which did: a story about Prohibition.

In Washington, drought came in — and went out — by initiative.

It came in with Initiative 3, a 1914 measure to ban the manufacture and sale of alcoholic drinks. This page opposed it, vehemently. Our publisher, Alden Blethen, was Seattle's most outspoken "wet." The leader of the "drys" was a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Mark Matthews, whose bronze bust now peeks through the trees in Denny Park.

In November 1914, Initiative 3 took 53 percent of the vote. Washington went dry in 1916 and "bone dry" — making importation illegal — in 1919. In 1920 the whole country did the same.

Thus was born the bootlegger.

Seattle was home of one of the most famous bootleggers, Roy Olmstead. He was a lieutenant in the Seattle Police, but was fired in 1920 after Prohibition agents recognized him unloading liquor at Browns Bay, north of Edmonds. Olmstead set up a business to ship liquor from Canada in a fleet of small boats. People called him "the good bootlegger" because he brought no prostitution or gambling, just liquor. It was quality liquor, and cost just $2 more for a fifth than in British Columbia.

Olmstead's organization sometimes brought in 200 cases a day, unloading them from Elliott Bay into trucks marked "Meat" and "Fresh Fish." He bought a big house in the Mt. Baker district and owned a new radio station that is now KOMO. The city and the state left him alone. It was the federal agents who arrested him after tapping his phones.

Prohibition is always and everywhere at war with privacy. So it was with Olmstead. The issue in his case was whether the phone tapping without a warrant violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment, which protects "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects." Olmstead's lawyer argued that listening in on his phone was like opening his mail.

In Olmstead v. United States (1928), the U.S. Supreme Court said the Fourth Amendment does not cover electric wires — a ruling that stood for 40 years before the Court thought better of it. Now the line people quote from the Olmstead case is by one of the dissenters, Justice Louis Brandeis. He said the wiretapping violated Olmstead's "right to be let alone — the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men."

Prohibition was not about letting people alone.

By the early 1930s the American people had had enough of Prohibition. There is a picture in Norman Clark's 1964 history, "The Dry Years," of a Seattle protester holding a sign saying:

"The Country's Dry? What a Lie."

In 1931, Olmstead was released from federal prison on McNeil Island. He became a practitioner of Christian Science.

In 1932, Washington repealed its Prohibition laws. Voters did it a year before the nation did, and in our state's characteristic way, by initiative. In November 1932, 62 percent voted for Initiative 61, overturning the state's prohibition of alcoholic drinks.

The voters did not bring in the state liquor stores. The Legislature did that, and probably the Legislature would never disturb them. This November, however, the voters just might.

It is Washington's way.

Bruce Ramsey's e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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