As we bear witness to the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana across the country, it is worth observing this moment in context, relative to other major events in America’s prohibition history. Federal drug policy has been, and remains, anything but rational, with drug laws frequently created and altered either in appeasement of monied interests, or to uphold dubious theories on race and morality. The prohibition of Marijuana is a case study in our country’s failure to match common sense with policy, but efforts to legalize cannabis represent a significant turning point, one from which – hopefully – we can learn as a nation.
The concept of drug prohibition is grounded in reality, of course. Drugs with addictive properties and associated health risks carry the potential for destruction and societal decay. Similar concerns, along with strong pressure from a variety of religious organizations, prompted the ratification of the 18th amendment in 1919, and the prohibition of alcohol sales during the 1920s. Alcohol’s popularity was scarcely affected by prohibition, however, and a black market quickly emerged, fueled by a creative and resourceful underworld of bootleggers and rum-runners. Ultimately, a coalition of alcohol industry lobbyists and other wealthy supporters forced the repeal of national prohibition, effective in 1933.
The lifting of prohibition was, curiously, unrelated to any compelling shifts in America’s understanding of addiction or disease. Toby Seddon, a law professor and criminologist, spoke to Rolling Stone earlier this year. “If you go to an emergency room or a hospital on a Friday night, it’s just full of drunk people. If you go to a police station on a Saturday night, the cells are full of people who drank too much and got into fights or caused trouble,” Seddon said. “Nobody thinks this is weird. It’s normalized.” Seddon completed a wide-ranging historical review of drugs and prohibition, and he attributes decisions regarding our legal classification of drugs to two factors: Money and race. According to this interpretation, social acceptance of booze was made possible by a powerful alcohol industry, along with mainstream participation among white, upper classes.
Clear illustrations of Seddon’s themes may be drawn from today’s opioid crisis as well. Before the late 1990’s, opiates were used sparingly and cautiously, primarily in hospital settings and in scenarios involving end-of-life care. The recent and dramatic rise in opioid prescriptions was a direct result of a sophisticated and well-funded re-branding campaign by powerful pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma, the creator of Oxycontin. With a frighteningly minimal amount of research to back up their claims – a since-discredited, 5-sentence letter to the editor in the New England Journal of Medicine was widely cited by the industry – companies like Purdue downplayed the addictiveness of their painkillers and turned a blind eye to “pill mills” and other egregious examples of overprescription.
By 2015, drug overdoses had surpassed car crashes – for the first time ever – as the leading cause of accidental deaths in America. Heroin use had become endemic within hundreds of suburban and rural communities previously unknown for high rates of addiction or drug-related deaths. Critics were quick to comment on the influence race appeared to be having upon America’s reaction to the opioid epidemic, including Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic, who observed that “an opioid epidemic among mostly white people is greeted with calls for compassion and treatment, as all epidemics should be, while a crack epidemic among mostly black people is greeted with scorn and mandatory minimums.” Similarly to the lopsided sentencing disparities applied to powder and crack cocaine in the 1980s, the inequity of favoring rehabilitation over incarceration for white “victims” of heroin addiction has been hard to ignore.
While prescription opioids weren’t legally “prohibited” before Oxycontin hit the market, special interests had effectively legalized “medicinal heroin” by manipulating established norms in medicine. Cannabis and medicinal marijuana have never enjoyed endorsements from a powerful industry, despite widespread support among medical professionals. “[N]ot a day goes by when I’m not recommending cannabis to patients for nausea, loss of appetite, pains, insomnia and depression,” says University of California, San Francisco integrative oncologist Donald Abrams. “It works.” Abrams is among the 82 percent of oncologists who supported legalizing medical marijuana nationally in a 2014 Medscape survey. Although researchers have demonstrated marijuana’s potential to treat a variety of conditions – to include chronic pain – the support of health care providers is weak currency compared to the bureaucratic and ideological obstacles within the federal government.
Of all the stories behind America’s banned substances, the history of marijuana’s prohibition is among the most bizarre. Marijuana was used as a medicine in the United States up until 1942, when it was removed from the official pharmacopoeia. Cannabis suffered its worst setback, however, in 1972, when Watergate co-conspirator and then-Attorney General John Mitchell formally classified the drug as Schedule 1, a position it has occupied – alongside cocaine and heroin – ever since. For an explanation, many, including Scientific American magazine, have invoked the words of Nixon aide John Erlichman, from an interview he reportedly gave in 1994. “You want to know what this was really all about?” asked Erlichman. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” Erlichman put it bluntly: “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Under the rules governing Schedule 1 drugs, access by medical researchers to Marijuana has been severely limited, if not entirely restricted. The lack of scientific data has repeatedly been used by politicians, ironically, to deny requests by physicians to authorize any use of marijuana medicinally. Of late, what separates marijuana from other drugs are the methods by which it is finally escaping the grip of prohibition. Rather than relying upon money or social privilege, recreational and medicinal cannabis have achieved legalization under local and state jurisdictions as a result of direct democracy – popular votes – as well as independent, clinical research.
In his 2003 book Reefer Madness, author Eric Schlosser included a memorable story about former Indiana congressman Dan Burton. In addition to the notoriety he earned crusading against vaccines, Burton was an aggressive opponent of legalization, going so far as to recommend life sentences for certain marijuana-related offenses. While in office, Burton’s son, Dan Jr., was arrested on his way to Louisiana with eight pounds of weed in his trunk. Undeterred, he was arrested again six months later after police found a shotgun and 30 plants in his apartment. As Schlosser tells the story, “Federal prosecutors declined to press charges against Burton’s son; Indiana prosecutors gained dismissal of the charges against him; and a Louisiana judge sentenced him to community service, probation, and house arrest.” Dan Sr. refused to speak publicly about the incidents.
Congressman’s Burton’s story was emblematic of the hypocrisy, and – on frequent occasions – the sheer absurdity of American prohibition. With cannabis, recent efforts to ease restrictions upon the medical community, and upon ordinary citizens, offer some hope that the general public is in fact capable of seizing control over drug policy back from the Dan Burtons of this country, and returning that control back to doctors, patients, and American voters.