Lessons Alcohol Prohibition Should Teach Us About Cannabis

Health and morality are two intertwining concepts that continue to concerns about substance use, be it alcohol, cannabis, tobacco, sugar or other “harder” drugs. Health seems like an objective measure, based upon science and rational processes of investigation. Yet at the same time, no matter how objective health information may be (and we can debate that another time), this information is then used to insist or suggest a certain mode of behaviour on the individual. Health has become the new morality.If you need examples of health as a moral tool, think of the way pregnant women are assailed not to drink any alcohol whatsoever; how overweight people are judged if they have a hamburger and fries or how people scoff at smokers. Anywhere. Transgressing established health expectations (alcohol-free pregnancy, pleasure-free obesity, tobacco-free everything) can result in shaming, isolation and condemnation, sometimes passive, sometimes aggressive.

This health/morality nexus is fundamental to cannabis legalization. The main concern of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his team was to make sure cannabis legalization followed a “public health” model, and also that it would protect children – two approaches that seem beyond criticism. Who can argue with doing something in a way that promotes health and protects our children?

Having drafted legislation that would legalize cannabis sales, created frameworks for its legal manufacture and increased criminal offences over some types of sale, for example to minors, Mr. Trudeau then punted the nuts and bolts of the implementation to the provinces. This was considered by many as a bold abnegation of the federal government’s duty, but it was in fact a constitutionally valid way of allowing the provinces to make their own choices. Residents in each province have different expectations about access to booze. Why should we assume that people in one province will accept purchase of cannabis the same way as people in another?

Yet, the moralistic rhetoric continued. When the Ontario government introduced the first locations for Ontario Cannabis Stores, people in Toronto freaked out because one of them was close to a school. Well, it was close-ish. Even after liquor prohibition, with the massive concern, the temperance movement had voiced to the proximity of liquor stores and beverage rooms to schools and churches, 450 metres was not an issue. Being across the street, or a block away was a concern. Yet, this idea that a store 450 metres from a school was going to somehow destroy the lives of children, however ridiculous, had tremendous moral power, and long legs to pedal the media cycle.

The moral fear of cannabis reaches into its manufacture. In Hamilton recently, a proposal to expand a medical marijuana facility was faced with opposition from councillors who noted that cannabis plants should not be supplanting agricultural products that “feed cities” in the green belt. They did not seem to be so opposed to farmers tearing up peach, plum and other tender fruit to grow grapes for wine. Cannabis, however, carried much more moral weight and perceived danger.

The moral fear meant that the restrictions on cannabis are so severe to be nearly dysfunctional. Since the main way of consuming cannabis has been to smoke it, the “public health” model has imposed the harshest elements of liquor and tobacco legislation on the use of cannabis. Tobacco cannot be smoked inside public spaces; alcohol cannot be consumed outside of private residences and licensed spaces.

According to Ontario’s law, as with liquor, cannabis will not be consumed in public at all; indoor or outdoor public spaces are all prohibited. This suggests again that cannabis must be worse than either tobacco or alcohol, although the type of “worse” is debatable since by every measure (except criminal), cannabis is not as socially or physically as dangerous as tobacco or alcohol.

This issue of smoking in public has been the first step toward treating cannabis as something other than a sort of hybrid of the worst elements of alcohol and tobacco. We see it with the federal government bending on the issue of selling consumables. If the main way of ingesting cannabis is to smoke it, and you don’t want to smoke indoors around children, how do you get high? We also see it with the previous Ontario government’s suggestion that they might legalize “cannabis lounges” so that people can consume their personal stash in a semi-public, licensed space.

For the American alcohol tradition, the end came in the form of an unlikely alliance of social progressivism and religious conservatism. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, in conjunction with the Anti-Saloon League, led the charge against the legal sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, and were instrumental in the passing of the 18th Amendment in 1920. What resulted was a story that most of us have heard before.

Prohibition led to mass poisoning from consuming industrial alcohol that had been poisoned by the government to deter consumption, or from types of liquor improperly distilled. Simultaneously, it  criminalized an industry that had once been a vibrant part of society. It obliterated the small-batch beer industry and spawned America’s first home-grown organized crime syndicates, while setting the stage for the alcohol monopolies that still dominate the industry to this day. Ultimately, in 13 years, the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st, but not before the suffocating constraints of Prohibition radically warped American culture forever.

For cannabis, things went quite a bit differently. It wasn’t social progressivism or religious devotion that inspired its prohibition, though anti-cannabis agents would claim to be motivated by both. In reality, cannabis was not the cause of many social ills at the time, nor was it even being used by a large number of Americans in a recreational context. By 1900, the practice of regularly smoking cannabis for recreation was relatively limited to immigrant populations in the American Southwest, a fact that proponents of Prohibition would twist to their own purposes.

At the turn of the 20th century, a national conversation was taking place in the textile and paper industries, centered around the potential use of hemp as a substitute for timber in the manufacture of paper. Hemp is superior in almost every way to wood pulp as a base for paper, being cheap, durable, and extremely sustainable. The industrial application of a relatively new machine called a decorticator had very recently made it possible to consider using hemp instead of wood pulp on a mass scale, by automating the process of stripping the fiber from the plant. Previously, harvesting hemp fiber involved a process called “retting”, where hemp would be left to rot in the sun until the fibers could be stripped from the stalk by hand. The decorticator eliminated the waiting period and preserved much more of the original material, and its advent threatened to revolutionize paper-making forever.

At the time, a newspaper baron named William Randolph Hearst controlled much of the press in the American Southwest. One of the wealthiest people ever to live, Hearst truly valued the economic advantages of vertical integration. Hearst not only owned all the newspapers, he also owned all the printing hardware, and most importantly, the timber forests used to generate pulp for newsprint. Being able to pipeline the resources needed directly to his presses saved him spectacular amounts of money, which he employed to build movie theaters, menageries, and heated indoor swimming pools on his estate, the last of which he literally paved with gold.

Obviously Hearst, as well as other major economic world players embroiled with timber interests, such as the du Pont family and Andrew Mellon, felt threatened by this possibility, and collectively, they began to explore their options for preserving their wealth. Unfortunately for them, while timber was huge in America, it wasn’t the whole industry that was threatened, but more specifically the subsector of the industry devoted to paper processing. Hearst in particular stood to lose in a way that no other single agent in America did, and because he couldn’t stop the technology by attacking it as such, he decided to attack the plant it would depend on.

Ultimately these “titans of industry” would bring their collective political and economic resources to bear on cannabis at the most fundamental level, hoping that prohibiting the growth of the plant for psychoactive purposes would stifle its potential as an industrial resource as well. Hearst leveraged the influence that his social positioning gave him, and was one of the first people to deliberately use news publication to influence public opinion on a mass scale for his own profit. This “yellow journalism”, as it came to be called, was a series of techniques that Hearst used to taint public opinion of not just cannabis, but many different domains of life, most notably running article after article extolling Cuban virtue and demonizing the Spanish, to fan the flames of conflict that would become the Spanish-American war.


Ultimately, between the vast influence of Hearst and men like him, the willing complicity of Harry J. Anslinger, our nation’s first drug czar, was easily obtained. Despite feeling that cannabis was not a threat to the fabric of American society, four years into his tenure he changed his tune dramatically, waging a nationwide campaign against the plant. Perhaps the looming threat of Bureau of Narcotics budget cuts as the Depression wore on spurred this shift. Maybe it was the pressure exerted by Hearst and the timber lobbies, or the simple realization that their interest turned cannabis into a potential political blue chip.

Regardless of his reasons, Anslinger abruptly ramped up his campaign aggressively, playing into exactly the same kind of racist stereotyping that Hearst had been invoking. In fact, the very word “marijuana” is a joint effort between Hearst and Anslinger used to connect cannabis to immigrant populations. The only medical professional present at the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, a representative of the American Medical Association, strongly criticized their use of the term even at the time, indicating that it was basically a smokescreen to keep the people of the time from understanding that there was even a connection between hemp and the plant being targeted. Many people who had reason to oppose the Act were unaware of its existence, and Anslinger’s campaign was very, very successful.

And so things begin to become a little more clear. The stigma associated with alcohol use built gradually over time, and culminated in its Prohibition, after the end of which a more and more robust and tolerant culture has developed. In the case of cannabis, the stigma was manufactured for economic purposes, and engendered in America with the beginning of its Prohibition, meaning that rather than being at the center of a controversy from the outset, cannabis faced almost universal condemnation because of the slander it had endured.

It’s difficult to predict what the next four years will look like for cannabis users. While President-elect Trump has made a number of contradictory statements on the subject of legalization, his pick for Attorney General, Sen. Jeff Sessions, holds some radical viewpoints, once claiming, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

This isn’t the first event of this nature in U.S. history. Producing insurmountable suffering and hardship, the so-called ‘Prohibition Period’ between 1920-1933 – referring to the 13-year ban on alcohol – was largely regarded as a large-scale political failure. Cannabis prohibition has yielded similar consequences, with both events leading to an influx in organized crime, attacks on minorities, and ironically, a rise in drug use.

Because cannabis only became popular after it was made illegal, it’s a lot more difficult to determine exactly how much of an impact its prohibition has on crime rates. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, over 8 million Americans were arrested for cannabis-related crimes between 2001 and 2010. To this day, half of all drug arrests are marijuana-related, with enforcement costing taxpayers around $3.6 billion a year.

The crime doesn’t stop at the border, though. Cannabis trafficking has historically been the bread and butter of Mexican gangs. According to the Washington Post, cartels reaped in a total of about $8.6 billion from the plant in 2006 alone. Mexico’s Drug War has resulted in staggering tragedy; some experts estimate that by 2013, 120,000 people had died as a direct result of it. A few years ago, illegal cannabis sales made up 20-30% of overall cartel revenue. Thanks to legalization efforts, however, these numbers have dropped significantly. A change in government policy has real potential to destroy a financial cornerstone of violent criminal organizations.

Research suggests that drug choices are heavily influenced by availability – the more readily a person can access a drug, the more likely they are to use it. Applying a blanket ban on a substance, however, can produce harmful consequences. A modern look into Kentucky’s ‘dry’ counties – which still practice prohibition – suggest that while these areas experience a reduction in alcohol usage, they also experience a terrifying rise in the prevalence of meth labs.

Unfortunately, a ban on cannabis also seems to signal a rise in use of more harmful drugs. egalizing cannabis leads to lowered rates of drug abuse. A nationwide study recently concluded that MMJ states experienced a reduction in opioid deaths by nearly a quarter. Another study found that doctors allowed to prescribe medical cannabis wrote an average of 1,826 fewer opiate prescriptions per year.

There’s an obvious cultural stigma associated with Prohibition, and that stigma gains power and cultural cachet with each passing day that Prohibition remains in place. Alcohol was only prohibited for 13 years, and the alcohol industry in America was forever changed and warped. Cannabis prohibition has endured for well over half a century, and its culture was so fledgling to begin with that it has been relegated to the margins of society in a way that far outpaces the stigma of alcohol.

If this was the beginning of the difference in the way the two are perceived, that’s an understandable thing. Figuring out how, and why, cannabis prohibition was so much more enduring than alcohol prohibition deserves a closer look. During the early years of Prohibition, Mexican immigrants moved to the United States to flee their homes, bringing with them marijuana. Before, marijuana was only consumed for medical purposes, but the Mexicans introduced recreational use into American culture. Many people began turning to marijuana as an alternative to alcohol, “It was especially popular as an alternative to alcohol, which was illegal [in the 1920s]. In some respects, the [widespread] use of marijuana may have been an ironic and unintentional outcome of Prohibition. I don’t have firm evidence to justify that claim. But it does make sense.” The popularity of marijuana only increased the fear of the drug, so 29 states had outlawed marijuana by 1931. Now, 29 states have legalized medical marijuana and many more are pushing for recreational use.


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