An Ohio woman, new to cannabis activism, recently proclaimed that “the prohibition days are over.” About 460,000 Americans currently incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses may disagree, but we are beginning to see cannabis prohibition weakening, and it looks familiar.
Prohibition isn’t limited to substances like alcohol or cannabis. As a species, we’ve tried to prohibit religions, race, knowledge, music, clothing and words. All of those attempts at prohibiting a specific thing have never solved the intended problem, because the problem is usually complex and requires a multifaceted solution.
But we keep trying. And we are reminded again that prohibition does not work.
The prohibition of alcohol represents the U.S. previous attempt at banning a widely-consumed substance. As with all of the aforementioned objects of prohibition, the roots of alcohol prohibition stemmed from an effort at fixing broad social issues, usually wrapped in a religious or moral judgement. According to an analysis by the Cato Institute, the prohibition of alcohol was meant to, “reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America.”
Many of those societal burdens were in fact magnified by prohibition. Black market alcohol distributed through bootlegging was rampant, and the advent of modern organized crime can trace its origins back to bootlegger Al Capone. After an initial drop in alcohol consumption, Americans drank more alcohol compared to pre-prohibition, and they drank stronger types of alcoholic beverages that were cheaper to make and transport. As a black market substance, there was no regulation supervising the production of alcohol, and many people died from alcohol not properly distilled. Will Rogers famously once said, “governments used to murder by the bullet only. Now it’s by the quart.”
After the passage of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, the latter of which gave prohibition its teeth, the war on alcohol was launched. As a result of a 24 percent increase in crime, spending on law enforcement skyrocketed. By 1930, half of all prisoners were incarcerated for violating prohibition.
The crime and corruption also spread to the government, and the regulatory body directly responsible for enforcing prohibition. The strength needed to keep alcohol prohibited gave the government a broader range of power and led to a huge increase in the number of federal employees. Bootleggers and organized crime syndicates colluded with employees of the Bureau of Prohibition to such an extent that the entire bureau had to be scrapped. Commissioner of Prohibition Henry Anderson stated, “the fruitless efforts at enforcement are creating public disregard not only for this law but for all laws. Public corruption through the purchase of official protection for this illegal traffic is widespread and notorious. The courts are cluttered with prohibition cases to an extent which seriously affects the entire administration of justice.”
Overall, alcohol prohibition didn’t reduce crime, it increased it. It didn’t solve social problems, but caused more. It didn’t reduce spending on poorhouses and prisons but increased it, by 1000 percent between 1915 and 1932. It did not improve public health by prohibiting Americans from consuming alcohol, but lead to more deaths thanks to crime and lack of quality control in a bootlegged product.
In the story of alcohol prohibition, the word “alcohol” could be replaced with “marijuana” and read as a sequel. Mexican immigrants bringing “marihuana” to the United States during the beginning of the last century also brought a new culture the public interpreted as shocking. Unable to ban an entire race outright, the government chose to vilify one of their cultural traditions. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 made cannabis expensive enough to virtually prohibit it, and gave the government the excuse to control Mexican immigration.
What followed was a whirlwind of anti-marijuana propaganda through “Reefer Madness.” The first person to lead the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was Harry Anslinger, and his distaste for cannabis set the tone for marijuana prohibition that has lasted to this day. “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use,” he said.
“This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others. Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
These comments alone represent some of the lasting stereotypes of cannabis users. They are ethnic and/or social minorities with differing tastes that challenge the mainstream, and lack morality based on their activities. In response, the government has fought these perceived problems with an increase in enforcement, which costs taxpayers billions, incarcerates Americans for nonviolent crimes, and does little to combat the sale and consumption of cannabis.
The end of alcohol prohibition was a state-by-state effort after years of failure, and the end of cannabis prohibition is on track to do the same. After years of funding the war on drugs that cost taxpayers trillions, the public is not longer as eager to fund a failing enterprise. Claims of marijuana’s addictive and destructive qualities have been proven false not only by science, but by the continued use of the public without a health crisis forming. Statistics from states that have legalized continue to reinforce the relative safety of cannabis as a recreational substance.
It took 13 years for alcohol prohibition to end, but cannabis prohibition is in its 80th year. Once again, it’s time to admit prohibition was wrong.