A week ago, the seemingly unthinkable happened: marijuana became legal in one of the United States: Colorado. Today, the governor of New York is rumored to be standing on the precipice of joining 20 other states plus the District of Columbia in legalizing marijuana for medical purposes.
So far, so good…no bodies are littering the street, no crimewaves are crashing on Colorado’s shores, nothing.
In the wake of Colorado, and in the midst of New York’s potential change, a frank conversation about marijuana prohibition in this country is long overdue. A conversation where neither side is vilified, nobody assumes a moral higher ground, and facts take precedence to conjecture and scare tactics.
In politics, and marijuana prohibition is as political an issue as there ever was, there is an age-old adage: follow the money. The money trail surrounding marijuana and its innocuous cousin hemp is lengthy. During the Colonial Era, every colony grew hemp. According to one report, hemp was the largest agricultural crop worldwide in 1883. The first laws against hemp in this country were pushed by the all-powerful cotton lobby in southern states. Hemp, with its myriad of industrial uses, directly threatened cotton and could be grown almost everywhere.
Over the intervening years, marijuana, and hemp by association, were made illegal both on the state and federal level, mostly on moralistic grounds. Laws prohibiting marijuana reached their first apex in the early 1970s, with both Nixon’s war on drugs and New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws. The 1980s and 1990s saw both laws and sentences for convictions continually ratcheted up and up. These are the facts. One of the areas we should discuss, again openly and honestly, is has this prohibition worked?
In 1937, it was estimated that some 55,000 Americans used marijuana. One recent study determined that 25 million Americans have used marijuana in the past year. A similar proliferation of the number of alcohol drinkers was seen during alcohol prohibition. It’s estimated that during prohibition, there were more speakeasies in New York City than there are bars today. When alcohol prohibition was in effect, it also brought about a tremendous rise in organized crime and spin-off crimes like prostitution, illegal gambling, and narcotic trafficking. People who associated with the speakeasies to drink were thus exposed to these other crimes. Alcohol, because of prohibition, was the original gateway drug.