Alcohol prohibition did little to stop Americans from
guzzling booze, though it helped make gangsters rich, cops and courts busy, and
encouraged foreign imports of "medicinal whiskey" (sound familiar?)
That experiment was short-lived -- ratified in 1920, the
18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was repealed in 1933 -- and particularly
short-lived in comparison to the country's experiment with outlawing marijuana -- which turns 100 years old today.
In stark contrast to fermented grapes and grain, the
intoxicating qualities of the cannabis sativa plant were unknown to Americans outside of a few Southwest border towns in 1911,
according to Dale Gieringer of California NORML. Gieringer spent the better
part of 10 years trying to find evidence of marijuana use among 19th-century American writers (local boy Jack London experimented with hash, but he
is an exception).
"There is no record of any public concern over marijuana
at this time," Gieringer told SF Weekly
. "Only after
cannabis was prohibited did it come into widespread popularity." Pot got plenty of attention in 1911 -- and thereafter when
Massachusetts passed a law to ban "hypnotic drugs" such as opiates. "Marihuana" or "Indian hemp" was added to that list,
despite its widespread anonymity as well as a clause in the Massachusetts ban that allowed drug stores to sell medicinal pot. That included the widely available tinctures used to alleviate migraines and menstrual cramps,
according to Gieringer.
Ironically, these antimarijuana laws fostered a new mystique around the drug, which began seeping into the
mainstream in the 1920s; it was popularized by jazz musicians and other hip folk.
Since then, the record has been established: An international
compact in 1961 supported the banning of cannabis, which the federal government
did outright with the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Pot use and arrests have increased steadily since; marijuana arrests in the United States have nearly tripled since 1990.
years was long enough for American policymakers to realize that alcohol
prohibition was a failed experiment, so it's particularly obscene that
marijuana prohibition has now been going on for a whole century in parts of the
U.S.," said Tom Angell, a spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition,
group of former cops fighting to decriminalize pot. "Though it is encouraging
to see more and more lawmakers -- both on the local and national level --
starting to call for an end to the madness."
There's more irony here. The fact is that the earliest antimarijuana
laws were passed by pharmacy boards and progressive-era advocates of government
regulation, Gieringer says.
There's a present-day parallel: California legislators and law-enforcement
officials have toyed with the notion of banning Salvia divinorum
, which is
illegal in nine states.
"Cops said, 'We gotta get out ahead of this and
stop it before it starts,'" Gieringer says, adding, "I was saying, 'Your record of
being able to stop things is not very good."
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