When someone thinks about the term “prohibition,” where first comes to mind usually is the era of illegal alcohol from 1919 to 1933 in the United States. Unbeknownst to many, similar legal bans were in effect during this same time period in other countries around the world, including Russia, Iceland, Norway and Finland. But prohibition in America was unique, as alcohol consumption was so intertwined in the American popular culture. Today, we see many of the same effects playing out over the use of marijuana.
The prohibition movement was first initiated by the American Temperance Society (ATS), which was primarily made up of women concerned at the effect of then-widespread alcoholism on their husbands. The ATS turned into an overwhelmingly effectively lobbying force behind state and the federal bans on drinking. Later, at the end of the 1800s, the movement was later taken up by The Prohibition Party, working with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to educate the public on the need to control drink.
By the early 1900s, prohibition became a hot button political topic. Those in favor of Prohibition – the “dries” – were generally religious, associated with Methodist, Baptists, or other churches. In the 1916 presidential election, the last before prohibition went into effect, both parties and candidates, including Woodrow Wilson, purposefully ignored the topic, since both Democrats and Republicans were split throughout the country and had candidates on each side of the issue.
The prohibition controversy was undoubtedly similar to the modern day debate over the potential legalization of marijuana. Both Democrats and Republicans have internal devisions on the issue, and individual candidates sometimes divorce themselves even from their own personal experiences. Many candidates admit to smoking marijuana in their past, but will still stand against its legalization. Practically every presidential candidate in the last two decades has admittedly smoking marijuana, including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton (though famously not inhaling), and John Kerry.
Marijuana and alcohol both have their negative sides. Alcohol, when consumed in excess, can cause danger to others in the form of drunk driving, or general public intoxication. It can also lead to the use of more addictive and dangerous intoxicates. Marijuana too, many believe, can to be a stepping stone or gateway drug to other substance abuse like cocaine and meth. Still, alcohol and marijuana are generally considered to be less severe intoxicates, with both considered to have about the same potency. And while alcohol has an addictive nature and can eventually lead to alcoholism, many experts believe marijuana to not be addictive.
Going back to the prohibition era, the law forbidding alcohol consumption, sale, and storage in the United States eventually was repealed after its enforcement proved nearly impossible, creating networks of organized crime and widespread violations. Police and prohibition agents generally ignored violations by wealthier citizens while cracking down on everyone else. A lower low class citizens could get into trouble for housing a bottle. Presidents Wilson and Harding both kept large alcohol supplies with them in the White House during prohibition.
In our modern era, the law against marijuana have produced similar inconsistencies — though without the social class inequalities. People of all class levels use marijuana, like alcohol in the ‘20s, and they are all treated fairly similarly. Some law enforcement is lenient in bringing cases for marijuana possession, other not. Furthermore, marijuana charges can only be brought for possession, because there is no field sobriety test as there is for alcohol. With that said, there was no such test in the prohibition days, and those charged, like marijuana now, had to have been in possession.
A substantial political rationale for legalizing marijuana is that it would allow the government to become involveed and regulate the business, as it has done with alcvohol since prohibition ended in December 1933. Legalizing marijuana would allow the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to oversee its quality and use, and monitor the over-25,000 products derived from marijuana, including many hemp products.
Perhaps the most often-mentioned reason for allowing marijuana is its medicinal use. Many believe the drug helps those with a variety of health conditions, including pain control for diseases like cancer. Although there have been some abuses where permitted, eighteen state so far have decided to experiment with legalizing it for this lmited purpose.
Whether you believe in the legalization of marijuana or not, the parallels between the modern debate and America’s earlier experiment with prohibition in the 1920s are striking. Many legalization advocates point to the mistake of alcohol prohibition to support their view, and they make a very strong argument.
Edwin Ivanauskas is an unabashed history nerd who studied economics and marketing at the University of Utah.