Stumbling around the streets of New York City in the early nineteenth century, a man holds a bottle of hard liquor in his hand, his wife and children trapped helplessly at their small home with no money to spare for food or clothing. Their living conditions and those of so many other families become so extreme, that they begin to push for complete prohibition of alcohol. Ripped posters nailed to the sides of buildings flap in the breeze, showing anti-alcohol propaganda. The substance has become demonized, the destroyer of families.
Substance Prohibition: Then and Now
Today, marijuana is facing the same demonization. On a federal level, it is regarded as a dangerous drug and stands unendorsed both as a medical and recreational drug. The Trump administration has even promised to crack down on marijuana users, and to attempt to ban the substance altogether. This prohibition would lead to many of the grave consequences that America experienced during the time where alcohol was prohibited.
I have recently developed an interest in drug policy, and would like to attempt to create a solution to decrease the annual number of deaths due to the Opioid Crisis by providing an alternative to addictive opioids, and to avoid the harmful consequences that America faced during the Temperance movement. My interest in this legalization issue is especially timely, because of the exacerbation of the War on Drugs and the United State’s current president’s stance on drug use and monitoring.
Behind the Temperance Movement
From 1920 to 1933, the consumption, production, and distribution of alcohol was prohibited. This was known as the Temperance Movement, or Prohibition. Though official legal prohibition of alcohol began in 1920 with the passing of the eighteenth amendment, awareness of the damage caused by the substance began to spread for about one-hundred years prior. Prohibition was intended to “reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America” (Thornton). However, ironically, it managed to do just the opposite.
Women were a driving force in the passing of the Temperance laws because their husbands’ alcoholism often caused them to face harsh domestic abuse. In addition, poverty was exacerbated, because men, who had access to all of the finances, were spending their income not on their families, but on their alcohol addictions. Factory owners were also in support of prohibition, “because of the new work habits that were required of industrial workers – early mornings and long nights” (Kelly).
Consequences of Prohibition
Prohibition seemed at first to be working. Data showed that “alcohol consumption dropped by 30 percent and the United States Brewers’ Association admitted that the consumption of hard liquor was off 50 percent during Prohibition”(Kelly). However, these recorded statistics obviously did not truly represent society’s drinking habits. This was because, the stricter the laws surrounding consumption of alcohol became, the more ways alcohol addicts found to avoid them. With this, the “character of drinking had changed” (Dorr). Alcoholism had become much more secretive. The bootlegging (illegal alcohol production and distribution) business boomed. Organized crime was born, and citizens could make a fortune by risking it all to produce and sell alcohol. By 1933, crime rates were high and the prohibition of alcohol had caused many deaths by ill-made moonshine, illegally produced alcohol. The government had aimed to enforce a law that was simply impossible to enforce. It is unrealistic to expect that each person’s alcohol consumption could be monitored. The passing of the twenty-first amendment served to repeal the eighteenth, prohibition, officially deeming the Temperance movement a failure.
What’s Happening Now?
Approximately a century later, our government is attempting to use the same method of prohibition to prevent marijuana use even though prohibition has proved unsuccessful once before. With my newly developed interest in this topic, I have based my research off of a few guiding questions that I have created: What is the government’s reasoning behind monitoring marijuana use when, simultaneously, there is an abundance of people dying yearly from hard drug overdose and abuse? Why focus on prohibition of a low-risk drug when there are many more dangerous drugs that could benefit greatly from increased monitoring? Why did prohibition fail in 1933, and why will attempts to prohibit marijuana in our current time fail as well?
Demonizing the Drug
What might be holding the Trump administration and the rest of the United States from accepting marijuana as a medical and recreational drug? There is some worry about the side effects, though they are minor, of marijuana. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, “Marijuana affects brain development. When people begin using marijuana as teenagers, the drug may impair thinking, memory, and learning functions and affect how the brain builds connections between the areas necessary for these functions” (What is Marijuana). However, even though marijuana has neither the addictive aspect nor dangerous side effects of many other drugs, marijuana has been grouped together in association with opioids, addictive and dangerous painkillers, which are being abused, overprescribed, and illegally distributed. Marijuana has been classified as a Schedule 1 Drug. According to the Drug Enforcement Association, “Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence”(Drug Schedules). Other Schedule 1 Drugs include “heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone, and peyote”(Drug Schedules). As previously mentioned, marijuana can affect memory and brain development. However, are those side effects worse than or equivalent to those of heroin? According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, “studies have shown some deterioration of the brain’s white matter due to heroin use, which may affect decision-making abilities, the ability to regulate behavior, and responses to stressful situations…. Repeated heroin use often results in heroin use disorder—a chronic relapsing disease that goes beyond physical dependence and is characterized by uncontrollable drug-seeking, no matter the consequences”(What are the long-term effects of heroin use?). Heroin, a schedule one drug, ruins the user’s life within the first few times it is used, whereas marijuana does not share side-affects of this magnitude.
Consequences of Demonization
The association of marijuana as a schedule one drug has contributed to the negative stigma surrounding it. However, “A review of more than 10,000 studies that was published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine this year — found that there is strong evidence that marijuana is effective at dealing with chronic pain in adults relative to a placebo” (Gebelhoff). So, by overzealously associating marijuana with opioids, a more dangerous pain medication, patients and their doctors are being deprived of a less risky alternative to dangerous opioids, marijuana, and the opioid crisis is rapidly worsening.
Another issue that the attempted prohibition of marijuana contributes to is the massive numbers of incarcerated persons in the United States. This number is growing rapidly, largely due to the number of people arrested for illegal possession and use of marijuana. The enforcement of this law “disproportionately harms young people and people of color, sponsors massive levels of violence and corruption, and fails to curb youth access” (Drug Policy Alliance). The prohibition of marijuana was largely fueled by racism. People of color, both in the past and presently, are unfairly targeted for possession of marijuana in much greater magnitudes than white people, even though they possess virtually the same amount of marijuana on average. According to the ACLU, “In the state with the biggest [black population], Iowa, blacks are 8.34 times more likely [than whites] to be arrested [for possession of marijuana]. D.C. has the second biggest; in the District, blacks are 8.05 times more likely to be arrested”(Matthews). The racially-fueled arrests of people of color who possess marijuana in the United States only divides our country further. In our present day, the issue of prohibition manifests itself in the failure of the Trump administration to endorse safe, legally made marijuana as a painkiller, rather than attempting to crack down on users of the drug.
A Possible Solution
The solution to the problem of marijuana prohibition must involve the passing of official legislation. In order to prevent skyrocketed crime rates and similar effects of alcohol prohibition from building in our society, the Trump administration must endorse it as a safe and legal consumer product and present it as a medical tool. If the administration endorsed the drug or announced an attempt to create legislation to legalize marijuana on a federal level, less people would be incarcerated for minor crimes, like possession of marijuana, less doctors would be forced to prescribe addictive opioids, and crime rates would decrease. In addition, the quality would go up, as it would more commonly be legally manufactured, and less consumers would be harmed by laced or dangerous marijuana. If it were treated like any other consumer product, there could be proper inspection protocols, just as there are for food in order to confirm that it is safe. Granted, the number of marijuana users throughout the United States would likely go up as a result of legalization in all fifty U.S. states, the aforementioned advantages of legalization and endorsement would outweigh the consequences of an increased amount of users of the drug. Consequences of legalization could include underaged users being more able to easily access the drug, and thus undergoing the long-term consequences of marijuana use. Although, again, at least these young users would be less likely to purchase and use unsafe marijuana. Overall, the advantages of legalization far exceed the magnitude of the minor consequences that would result.
Want to Do More?
Watch this informative video by John Oliver. In addition, please take a minute to complete the poll below. You can also post on the discussion board at the bottom of the page to speak to others who may have different opinions!
John Oliver’s Perspective on Marijuana:
Now that you have read this cite, I have created a place to discuss the topic of marijuana as a medical and recreational drug throughout the United States. What are your thoughts?
Dorr, Lisa Lindquist. “Why Prohibition Failed.” We’re History, 18 Dec. 2015,werehistory.org/why-prohibition-failed/.
“Drug Schedules.” Drug Enforcement Administration, Drug Enforcement Administration, www.dea.gov/druginfo/ds.shtml.
Gebelhoff, Robert. “Opinion | The Trump Administration’s War on Marijuana Will Make the Opioid Crisis Worse.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 2 Nov. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2017/11/02/the-trump-administrations-war-on-marijuana-will-make-the-opioid-crisis-worse/?utm_term=.857287fe1016.
Kelly, Kerry C..“The Volstead Act.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, www.archives.gov/education/lessons/volstead-act.
“Marijuana Arrests by the Numbers.” American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, www.aclu.org/gallery/marijuana-arrests-numbers.
“Marijuana: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO).” Performance by John Oliver, Last Week Tonight, HBO.
“Marijuana Legalization and Regulation.” Drug Policy Alliance, www.drugpolicy.org/issues/marijuana-legalization-and-regulation.
Matthews, Dylan. “The Black/White Marijuana Arrest Gap, in Nine Charts.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 4 June 2013, www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/06/04/the-blackwhite-marijuana-arrest-gap-in-nine- charts/?utm_term=.d34020a5ef14.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Marijuana.” NIDA, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/marijuana.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What Are the Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use?” NIDA, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/what-are-long-term-effects-heroin-use.
“Temperance Movement Political Cartoon.” Google Search, Pinterest, www.google.com/search?q=anti%2Balcohol%2Bpropaganda%2BUSA&rlz=1C5CHFA_enUS724US725&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj3pa-m5KPaAhVMMd8KHagdAdYQ_AUICigB&biw=1280&bih=632#imgrc=ZohQS-y–o8h8M:
Thornton, Mark. “Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 157: Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure.” Cato Institute. https://object.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa157.pdf
29 Legal Medical Marijuana States and DC – Medical Marijuana – ProCon.org,medicalmarijuana.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000881&print=true.