Alcohol prohibition came to an end as a result of the Great Depression, and it is now beginning to look as if marijuana prohibition will come to an end as a result of the Great Recession. The parallels are striking, and they offer suggestions for the way forward.
Prohibition ended despite the need to repeal an amendment to the Constitution. The colossal scale of black market-induced crime and chaos produced by the War on Alcohol persuaded the American public that enough was enough. We seem to be at a similar point in the War on Marijuana—and all that is needed this time is to repeal a federal law.
In a previous column, I discussed a number of parallels between the two prohibitions, and proposed turning marijuana regulation over to the states. The recent votes in Colorado and Washington to make possession of small amounts of marijuana legal for adults has pushed that agenda forward, so I would like to continue the discussion.
The key law enforcement issue for Colorado and Washington is the disagreement between state and federal laws. How should the state attorneys general and U.S. attorney general resolve the conflict? Clearly, it would not be acceptable to the states for the federal government to close down and prosecute transactions that are legal within and taxed by them.
What happened during alcohol prohibition? You may remember, from movies about the period, dramatic raids by “the Feds.” Why “the Feds”? Why not local police? Among the reasons for the lack of local enforcement were the scarcity of resources during the Depression and resistance to an unpopular law. In other words, if the local police were unwilling or unable to enforce Prohibition, the Feds had to take on the task. Ultimately, it became clear that they lacked the resources to do so for the entire nation.
Last year there were over 750,000 marijuana arrests in the United States, about 99 percent of which were made by state and local authorities, and there were over 1.4 million people imprisoned for marijuana offences, about 88 percent of them incarcerated by state and local authorities.
So a possible strategy for the Colorado and Washington attorneys general would be for them to say to the federal government, “We will no longer enforce federal marijuana laws that conflict with our laws; but we will continue to enforce other federal laws regarding marijuana. We expect you to respect that decision; and if you do not, we will refuse to cooperate with you on all marijuana-related matters—including interstate and international enforcement.” Since the Feds do not have the money or manpower to take marijuana enforcement over from the states, as they did not for alcohol enforcement during Prohibition, they may decide to leave well enough alone.
[For those who are interested, I was interviewed today about marijuana legalization in Washington, Colorado, and Uruguay on Florida Caribe, WSLR 96.5FM, www.wslr.org. The podcast is available at http://bit.ly/T3ZIVN. My interview begins 26 minutes into the program and lasts an additional 28 minutes.]
Map of Colorado (Wikimedia)
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