The Prohibition of Marijuana: Lessons Learned | Green Bits

by Aly Payne,

In psychology, there’s a term called reactance. The idea is that when people feel that their freedom is impeded by another telling them they cannot do something, they attempt to reassert their independence by rejecting compliance and doing the exact thing that has been restricted.

Is it any wonder then that alcohol prohibition failed miserably, or that the near 50-year war on drugs has only increased substance use?

Since 1875, when smoking opium was first banned in San Francisco, governmental officials have attempted to curb or eliminate the consumption of various substances. More than 140 years later, America is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, despite law enforcement’s best efforts.

This fact forces us to ask: Are prohibition and criminalization really the answer?

To provide a meaningful and productive discourse, we will explore the history and effects of alcohol prohibition and the current restrictions on cannabis as well as examine the lessons we can derive from such injunctions.

Let’s go ahead and begin our review of prohibition compliance (or lack thereof) in the 1920s when alcohol was first banned.

Alcohol Prohibition (1920 – 1933)

Dubbed the “noble experiment,” alcohol prohibition took effect in 1920 as the best option to alleviate the tax load generated by poorhouses and prisons, curtail crime, and increase public health. Prohibition outlawed the production, distribution, and retail of alcohol long before it reached its point-of-sale. 

This well-meaning venture, however, would lead to dire and long-lasting consequences.

Driven largely by the Temperance Movement, the beginning stages of prohibition did reduce alcohol consumption. However, this is no conundrum, as restricted access to anything is sure to cause a decline; that is, until people figure out ways around such hurdles. Once individuals found new ways to access alcohol again, consumption levels increased, rivaling pre-prohibition rates. This is where the concept of reactance can be seen in full force.

The channels through which alcohol began to flow once more were crime and corruption. Through the illegalization of alcohol production and sale, entrepreneurs battling the crippling weight of The Great Depression saw an opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty. This directly led to a sharp increase in organized crime. Notoriously violent syndicates such as the Capone’s Five Points Gang and Bugsy Siegel’s Murder Inc. all but monopolized the practice, thinking of themselves as mere businessmen. To put things simply, as famed gangster and bootlegger Al Capone once said: 

“All I do is to supply a public demand… Somebody had to throw some liquor on that thirst. Why not me?”

However, the corruption was not contained to once-impoverished gangsters; it quickly spread into medicine and politics.

A mere six months after prohibition began, doctors were given the right to prescribe “medicinal whiskey” (sound familiar?), ultimately making a whopping $40 million through alcohol prescriptions. Because of the massive sums of money produced by bootlegging (Al Capone’s family reportedly generated $60 million in 1927), even those meant to enforce the law would ultimately break it.

Local officers and agents of the Bureau of Prohibition would frequently succumb to bribes or be allured into the lucrative industry of bootlegging themselves. This was made evident when one member of the “Ohio Gang” – U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty – was tried for illegally providing liquor licenses and pardons to bootleggers.

The average American was also made out to be a hardened criminal merely by consuming alcohol at its point-of-sale in speakeasies. As prohibition progressed, jails and courtrooms became inundated with staggering numbers of cases. This resulted in the judicial system widely leveraging plea bargains to expediently unload hundreds of cases. This is how plea deals became commonplace in American court cases.

As disgraceful as this time seems, this is only a sliver of the actual brutality, corruption, economic handicapping, and unlawful practices going on in the 1920s. Thousands died as a result of prohibition violence and consuming unregulated alcohol.

Ultimately, the law was repealed in 1933 due to its exorbitant cost and unenforceable nature.

At this point, you have likely drawn quite a few parallels between alcohol prohibition and the current legal status of pot, so now seems like a good time to dive into the history of the war on drugs.

Marijuana Prohibition (1970 – Present)

Marijuana has a long and sticky legal history. However, back in 1619, the Virginia Assembly enacted legislation that required every farmer to grow hemp – a variety of the Cannabis Sativa strain.

So, when and why did cannabis get such a bad rap?

In the 1900s, just after the Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920), the U.S. was experiencing a drastic increase in Mexican immigration. Naturally, Mexicans brought their culture with them; part of that culture was cannabis, or as they called it – “marihuana,” used as a relaxant and medicine. At the time, “cannabis” was widely used in the states for a variety of purposes, but the term “marihuana” was alien to Americans. When the U.S. media and government began demonizing Mexican immigrants, citing “marihuana” use as a source of their disruption, citizens were unaware that this substance was the same as the one in their own medicine cabinets.

During the 1930s hearing regarding marijuana, the idea was presented that this substance caused men of color to behave violently and sexually abuse white women. The fear this dialogue sparked led to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which prohibited the use and sale of the plant, but was later ruled unconstitutional. However, in 1970 – a mere 33 years later – this act would be replaced by the still-enforced Controlled Substances Act.

In his 1969 public explanation for the war on drugs, Nixon cited the rise in marijuana and psychedelic use by students as the catalyst for the movement. However, subsequently released recordings of the President paint a much more opinionated and subjective picture.

In a private conversation recorded in the Oval Office – which was common practice up until Nixon’s presidency – then-President Richard Nixon was captured stating:

 “Dope? Do you think the Russians allow dope? Hell no… You see, homosexuality, dope, immorality in general: these are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the Communists and left-wingers are pushing the stuff, they’re trying to destroy us.”

This statement was far from an isolated incident taken out of context; other recordings of Nixon have taken a similar stance against drug use and those who opt to partake in mind-altering substances.

Despite Nixon’s knowledge of marijuana’s mild character. Nixon himself assembled the Shafer Commission – a group of hand-picked, conservative individuals appointed to study the effects of pot. In 1972, the group produced a report which revealed the substance’s relatively benign nature and called for the decriminalization of marijuana possession by pointing out the damage that the enforcement of such policies can do to a society. And damage it has done.

As it stands, more than 2.2 million American citizens, or 1 in every 111 adults, are behind bars serving time for drug-related offenses. In 2014 alone, hundreds, if not thousands, of police hours were spent arresting, booking, and imprisoning nearly 701,000 people for marijuana-related offenses. This equates to one pot-based arrest every 45 seconds.

Moreover, the U.S. national deficit is rapidly approaching $600 billion, yet each year the U.S. continues to sink approximately $51 billion into the war on drugs. The money spent on this war does not end there, however, as U.S. citizens end up footing the bill for the 2.2 million imprisoned Americans costing the taxpayers approximately $39 billion per year.

All of this for a plant that has been proven time and again to be far safer than legal, socially acceptable substances such as alcohol and tobacco. 

Furthermore, just like with alcohol prohibition, restrictions on marijuana have fueled murderous, illegal enterprises like drug cartels who have generated billions through its unlawful nature and killed hundreds of thousands (at best) in the name of profit.

So, what parallels and conclusions might we be able to draw from these two periods of restriction?

Correlations and Lessons

No law will be able to stop people from experimenting with their own consciousness. Placing restrictions and criminalizing natural human behavior only serves to breed crime, corruption, violence, and dangers from unregulated products. It opens a black market for criminal entities to thrive within.

Prohibition of cannabis has led to the exact same circumstances brought about through outlawing alcohol: losses in tax revenue, an encumbered justice system, criminal activity, utter non-compliance, and a myriad of other detrimental outcomes. This is a measurably objective stance as traffic fatalities and violent crimes have decreased in states that have legalized marijuana.

It’s time to stop feeding illegal enterprises and criminalizing otherwise law-abiding citizens. Marijuana use will never end; the time for federal legalization and retail regulation is upon us.