There are striking parallels between alcohol prohibition during the Great Depression and marijuana prohibition during our current Great Recession. The lessons learned from the repeal of Prohibition have a lot to tell us about the marijuana policy choices that we now confront.

The Eighteenth Amendment was supposed to put an end to the evils of alcohol. Instead it created a gigantic black market, with unprecedented levels of crime and corruption, and transformed a nation of drinkers of safe beer into one of drinkers of often contaminated whiskey.

The increase in dosage level, from beer to whiskey, is an example of the "iron law of prohibition" (the harder the enforcement, the harder the drugs to which people turn). The increase occurs because black marketeers want to maximize the amount of illegal substance per unit volume, and buyers want the biggest bang for their buck. In a similar way, the prohibition of other substances shifted opium smokers to morphine injectors to heroin injectors, led to the shift from chewed coca leaf to inhaled cocaine to smoked crack, and has given rise to higher levels of THC in marijuana.

Here are some statistics. Unemployment is around 10 percent--not around 25 percent during the Great Depression. Over a hundred million Americans have used marijuana--more than 40 percent of the adult population. The war on drugs is mainly a war on marijuana. In 2008, police made 850,000 marijuana arrests, with nearly 90 percent of those for possession. That figure compares to 595,000 violent crime arrests.

Two main reasons for the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933 were that during the Great Depression there wasn't enough money available for an endlessly escalating war on alcohol, and that it is unsustainable in a democracy to prohibit a substance used by a majority of the population. Despite the obvious futility of enforcement, politicians avoided the hot button issue of repeal until the voters spoke up in the 1932 election. It may well take a similar signal from voters before politicians gain courage on marijuana.

Many people mistakenly believe that the 21st (Repeal) Amendment legalized alcohol throughout the United States. Rather, it merely ceded to the states the right to determine their own laws concerning alcohol; the sale of alcohol is still banned in many parts of the country. States became laboratories for experimenting with a variety of methods for reaching the same goals as Prohibition, namely the protection of children and families, public health, and public safety.

Ending marijuana prohibition will not require amending the Constitution. All that congress has to do is change a law, turning the responsibility for regulating marijuana over to the states. (The Obama Administration has already deferred to the states' policies on medical marijuana, without significant public or political resistance.) A variety of policy choices would follow. Some states might opt for even more punitive policies than currently exist; some might keep things more or less as they are; some might allow only for the medical use of marijuana; and some might choose to make marijuana legal for adults, regulate and tax it like alcohol and tobacco, and devote at least part of the revenue to urgent needs (perhaps including drug abuse prevention and treatment).

California, which has a multi-billion dollar black market marijuana industry, is insolvent; the "Tax, Regulate and Control Cannabis Act of 2010" is a ballot initiative that offers an opportunity both to raise substantial revenue and to cut the law enforcement budget. If the measure passes this November, it might signal the kind of voter support needed to turn marijuana regulation over to the states.

Regulating and taxing marijuana instead of prohibiting it--by undercutting the black market--can be expected to reduce crime and corruption, as occurred following the repeal of Prohibition. And just as the United States gradually returned to a preference for beer after the Twenty-first Amendment, this policy can be predicted to lead over time to a decrease in the potency of marijuana.

Policy wonks will have a field day comparing the results in different states. Those who claim that punitive policies are effective because they send the message that marijuana use is wrong--despite decades of evidence to the contrary--will be able to see if the data support their case. Some social scientists argue that government policy is irrelevant to marijuana use, and that over time the same fluctuating range of use will continue both in states that treat marijuana like alcohol and in other states with different policies. Other social scientists believe that prohibition stimulates use by giving marijuana the allure of forbidden fruit, and point to lower rates of use in the Netherlands than in the United States. With marijuana regulation turned over to the states, these three theories can be tested and the facts will be there for all to see.


Readers interested in a broad ranging discussion of drug policy issues can find it in my edited book Drugs and Society: U. S Public Policy.


Image Sources:
A photograph of hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) in Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, credited to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Justice, finial figure of the Old Bailey.

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