Prohibition and Marijuana: History Does Repeat

Decriminalization or to not decriminalize. That is the big question. Will the decriminalization of marijuana be the next revolution of America? Marijuana prohibition has been in effect since 1937, with trends that closely resemble those of alcohol prohibition-meaning an increase in crime, distrust, and dissension. If the goal of marijuana prohibition is to stop Americans from using it, then it has failed, just like the other prohibition failed to make America a “dry” country.
It is important to go back and look at the factors leading to marijuana prohibition-especially the stages of exaggeration, silence, and the imposition of severe penalties-before looking at the effects of prohibition during the last half-century. Let me first point out that I am an advocate of marijuana, and will not argue that marijuana is not harmless. Research shows that marijuana damages short term memory, distorts perceptions, impairs judgment and complex motor skills, alters heart rates, and has the potential to trigger severe anxiety, paranoia, and lethargy (www. ndsn. com).
Yet I also feel its effects are in many ways less harmful than those of alcohol and tobacco-for instance, alcohol’s potential to cause cirrhosis and tobacco’s links to lung cancer and heart disease. Both are considered carcinogenic. In addition, alcohol is cited as a factor in half of this country’s highway fatalities, half of all arrests made for any criminal charge-including homicides-and one-fourth of all suicides. In 1972 the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse estimated the social costs of America’s alcohol habit to be $15 billion a year (www. ndsn. com); it has steadily increased since then.

When comparing tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana, there is strong evidence that marijuana has the least addictive power (www. peretto. com). However, this does not hide the fact that all three can have a strong impact on an individual. As with all drugs, they are capable of disrupting home life, affecting job performance, and causing withdrawal from society. In my opinion, all drugs share this power on equal terms because of the emotional problems of the people who use them; no single drug has more potential for harm than any other in terms of social impacts.
While hemp has been grown in America since 1611 (Grinspoon, 1971, p. 1), the practice of smoking marijuana did not become widespread until the 1920’s-a period of strong drug intolerance during the “great social experiment” of alcohol prohibition. Marijuana use was highest among people who also used opiates, primarily recent immigrants. In the 1930’s, the common belief that immigrants were inhumane and violent included a strong belief that marijuana was part of the cause. Since it was associated with opiates, marijuana was quickly defined as a narcotic (Thies, C. F. , 1993 p. 71), and by 1931 all but two states had passed anti-marijuana legislation.
The final two did so by 1937, the same year the federal government created the Marijuana Tax Act . For which no tax stamps were ever issued. Not once during this period of prohibitive legislation was any research conducted on marijuana and it’s effects, nevertheless it was almost universally assumed that marijuana was a narcotic, caused psychological dependence, provoked violent crime, and led to insanity. The first of three strategies used to fight marijuana was silence. It was believed that if youth didn’t hear about marijuana, they wouldn’t become curious and experiment with it.
Therefore, in the 1930’s discussion about marijuana was forbidden in all public schools, and from 1934 to 1956 the Motion Picture Association of America banned all films showing the use of narcotics (www. legalize. com). The strategy did not work as well as hoped, so anti-marijuana groups adopted the next strategy: exaggeration. The goal was to scare potential marijuana users. Even such respected periodicals as the American Journal of Medicine went along with this strategy, publishing such warnings as: “Marijuana users will suddenly turn with murderous violence upon whoever is nearest to them.
They will run amuck with a knife, axe, gun, or anything else that is close at hand, and will kill or maim without reason”. F. T. Merrill of the Opium Research Committee wrote: “While numerous crimes [have been] traced to its abuse, its peculiar virulent effect, leading sometimes to insanity, makes its use dangerous to the individuals and to society in general . . . [it] leads to uncontrollable irritability and violent rages, which in most forms cause assault and murder” (Grinspoon, 1971, p. 17).
During my research I found a medical handbook written in 1970 that continued to report these myths as fact, going so far as to imply that the words “hashish” and “assassin”–which do have a common root in terms of word history–have a cause and effect relationship. In the same manual the word “amuck” was associated to a characteristic of the drug; according to its author, the word, which means “to kill,” “was the word the natives of Malay would shriek as they dashed down the street, maddened by hashish, in a murderous frenzy” (Williams, 1970, p. 140).
From the official California police officers’ guide of the same period came this warning: “Marijuana is the immediate and direct cause of the crime committed . . . the user is very often dangerous to handle or control, has no fear, feels no pain, and may commit crimes of violence. Penalties for marijuana use fluctuated with popular belief regarding its level of danger. If people believed the effects were particularly bad, the penalties were stiff, but during some decades public attitudes were more lenient, therefore penalties were reduced. Drug use declined, fear increased, and so did penalties throughout the 1950s.
One of the first federal mandatory prison sentences was established at that time: 10 years minimum for marijuana possession, and a mandatory death sentence for selling marijuana to a minor (Theis, C. F. ,1993 p. 46). During the 1960s and 70s, penalties declined as use increased, with eleven states decriminalizing possession for personal use (Thies and Register, 1993, p. 389). Then, in the 1980s, drug use declined and penalties rose. The “three strike” program was established, under which a mandatory life sentence without parole must be given for third-time offenders.
Judges no longer have the power to use their own discretion in sentencing, but are required to base their punishment on the “most serious readily provable charge”, including a mandatory death sentence for anyone found guilty of managing a major marijuana plantation of 60,000 plants. It appears that the current attitude toward marijuana prohibition is based on the belief that relaxed policies lead to greater use. Statistics argue otherwise: nationwide, marijuana use in 1984 was measured at 26. 3%, and in the eleven states that decriminalized marijuana, it was 27. 3%. In 1988 the percentages were 15. and 16. 1, respectively.
In those eleven states, decriminalization meant that individuals were no longer arrested for simple possession. In ten of those states there is a $0-100 fine for possession-the result of a threat by the federal government to withhold highway money for states that did not have minimum punishment standards (Thies and Register, 1993, p. 387). Going outside the country for another example of how legalization does not lead to greater use, Holland has witnessed a 40% decrease in marijuana use since the Dutch government legalized it in 1976 (Grinspoon, L. 1971, p. 4).
During the same time period, marijuana use has decreased in the United States, so it cannot be definitively argued that either stronger penalties or decriminalization is better at affecting the number of people who use marijuana. It seems clear that social policy, and not legal policy, had the greater effect in Holland. Accusations of marijuana’s addictive powers are also under attack from well-designed research studies. During the Nixon administration (1972), the federal government reviewed existing studies and concluded that marijuana did not possess physically addictive traits.
The great majority of articles published in medical journals since that time have agreed. For example, Dr. Jack Henningfield of the Addiction Research Center (part of the National Institute on Drug Abuse) and Dr. Neal Benowits of the University of California ranked heroin, cocaine, nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, and marijuana in terms of their power to induce psychological dependence. Nicotine was first, marijuana last. Marijuana also ranked last in terms of producing a physical tolerance to the drug, and was deemed least likely to produce signs of withdrawal upon quitting (Theis, C. F, 1993, p. 92).
It seems as though the primary result of the three-pronged attack using strict penalties, silence, and exaggeration has been increased ignorance. Regardless of research findings refuting long-held claims about marijuana addiction since 1972, the old arguments of the 1930s continue to be used when establishing new soft drug laws. People’s tendency to hold onto their initial beliefs means that most of their knowledge on the topic of marijuana is based on what their parents taught them.
While it is the responsibility of all parents to teach their children values, this is not an acceptable basis for creating law. If the purpose of prohibition is to eliminate the use of a substance, then marijuana is certainly another example of how prohibition fails. In 1979, 68. 2% of all 18-25 year olds had tried marijuana at least once, and 35% said that they were regular users (U. S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1991). While those respective numbers have decreased to 50% and 13%, its clear that marijuana is still readily available and used by a large number of Americans.
Two other detrimental effects of marijuana prohibition are the large amounts of money spent on enforcement and prosecution, and prison overcrowding. The percentage of the American population living in prison has increased from . 061 in 1880 to . 1 in 1920 to . 35 in 1995, with an associated tripling of real tax dollars required to house inmates. Today, 62% of all inmates are in prison for drug offenses-the result of a 1,100% increase in drug arrests between 1980 and 1992, even though marijuana use dropped from 35% to 13% during the same period. The increase in violent offenders incarcerated during that time was only 50%.
Of felons convicted of crimes related to marijuana possession, production and trafficking during this period, 58% had no prior arrest history, 91% were not identified as organizers, leaders, managers or supervisors of drug-oriented organizations, and 92% did not own or possess a gun. In other words, the large majority of these felons should not be viewed as individuals endangering our society. I believe the main point of these statistics is that an enormous amount of money is spent each year on incarcerating non-violent and otherwise law-abiding citizens.
Not including the money spent on prison management and construction, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) now spends $1. 3 billion a year “fighting” marijuana. Overall, federal anti-marijuana efforts have cost taxpayers $30 billion. The result: $2 billion worth of cannabis being seized and destroyed, 4 million people being arrested, and 250-thousand individuals being jailed for more than one year–but no basic change in usage patterns from the 1970″s (www. bergen. com). Is it worth it? Mark Young is a victim of a US District Attorney’s overzealous efforts to enforce federal marijuana laws.
Young, a resident of Illinois, went on a fishing trip in Florida with some old friends, bringing along some marijuana for everyone to enjoy privately. His Florida friends asked Young to introduce them to the grower, which he did, then was cut out of the deal from that point onward. He was later arrested and charged with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana. He had two strikes against him-minor possession charges that were twenty years old-so he faced a life sentence with no possibility of parole, even though he did not benefit at all from the transaction.
The District Attorney offered Young a reduced charge if he testified against his friends and others whom he had no prior knowledge of. He refused, and the DA won his case without having to inform the jury about Young’s two-strike status. The judge had no choice but to pass down a sentence of life without parole. In a prison interview, Young was quoted as saying, “They’ve only proved I’m capable of smoking a joint, or of introducing a guy to another guy who needs some pounds. That’s the most they’ve proved me capable of.
What they [the prosecutors] are doing, they’re destroying these families and passing out life sentences, taking people’s lives, putting children on the street-I mean horrendous acts. I don’t know of anyone that would do anything that malicious for a salary” (Williams J. B. , 1970, p. 46). It is my opinion that the state has no right to interfere with anyone’s private conduct, especially under the guise of protecting anyone from our own folly. The government is free to educate people as much as it wishes on the effects of using marijuana, education being the best way to alter behavior.
However, it must not dictate what behavior an individual can or cannot practice in private. This opinion is the same one given in the 1972 report published by the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse; in their summary, the authors of that report argued that private production and consumption of marijuana should be made legal (National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, 1972, p. 152). They also recommended continued efforts to arrest anyone involved in trafficking or in the commercial production of marijuana.
The report was accepted by the President, Speaker of the House, and President of the Senate, and the argument was later given support by President Jimmy Carter (Theis, C. F. , 1993, p. 45). However, political pressure prevented him from making concerted effort to reform marijuana laws. The original motivation for marijuana prohibition was based on a lack of knowledge. Nevertheless, the hate and fear resulting from initial attitudes still echo in current arguments against marijuana. Despite research to the contrary, a significant number of people refuse to have their beliefs challenged.
And so billions of tax dollars continue to be spent on enforcement and prosecution, while use patterns remain the same-a return on an investment that no private business would ever tolerate. And it is important to remember that statistics describe many casual marijuana users such as M. Y. , and families that are affected by overly strict laws. Prohibition was established due to a misunderstanding, has not achieved its goal, and goes against an American philosophical approach. I believe it is time to reconsider its consequences.

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