Prohibition Repeal Echoes in Marijuana Legalization?

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With voter approval of two ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington for the legalization of marijuana, the two states have taken the unprecedented step of directly challenging the drug's over 40-year federal ban. The success of the measures have drawn national attention, and represents a major victory for the marijuana legalization movement.

Legalization advocates frequently draw parallels between their efforts and the repeal of the 18th Amendment, also known as the Volstead Act, the failed government effort to ban the consumption and sale of alcohol. And there are certainly similarities in the legal histories of government treatment of marijuana in the modern day and alcohol in the Prohibition Era.

Both substances were banned through an act of Congress. The 18th Amendment was passed by Congress in 1917 and ratified by the states in a little more than a year. Prohibition went into effect on Jan. 17, 1920. Alcohol prohibition became law due to the political power of the Temperance Movement that traced its roots to the early 19th century. The movement saw alcohol as a "great evil to be eradicated — if America were ever to be fully cleansed of sin," according to PBS.org.

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Signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970, the Controlled Substances Act established the schedules system and designated marijuana a Schedule I narcotic. This act essentially marked the beginning of the prohibition era for marijuana, though cannabis usage had been tightly restricted if not outrightly criminalized in some states prior to this law's passage. Similarly, the anti-marijuana movement was initially rooted in a moralizing argument that marijuana is "a deadly, addictive drug that enslaved its users and turned them into violent, deranged freaks," as described by the Daily Beast's Martin E. Lee.

Both during the Prohibition Era and now, shifts in public opinion regarding alcohol and marijuana respectively reinvigorated national debates of the appropriateness of criminalizing these substances.

In the case of alcohol prohibition, public opinion was arguably never on the side of supporting the law, though following its repeal, the stigma associated with alcohol consumption appeared to have subsided. Although polling data on attitudes toward alcohol during Prohibition isn't available, by the end of the decade following its repeal, 58 percent of Americans survey by Gallup in 1939 claimed to be an alcohol consumer.

Marijuana prohibition was not greeted by nearly the same level of public push-back following its passage into law. In fact, in 1969, 84 percent of American surveyed by Gallup poll answered that marijuana should not be legal. In 2011, more than 50 years after that first poll was taken, a majority of Americans favored legalizing marijuana, a long but dramatic shift. The year earlier, 70 percent of American surveyed "favored making it legal for doctors to prescribe marijuana in order to reduce pain and suffering," according to Gallup.

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If marijuana prohibition does follow alcohol prohibition into the history books, it seems to be following more or less the same path to repeal. In a blog post following the Election Day results, Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, states regarding the repeal of Prohibition: "Alcohol prohibition fell when a sufficient number of states enacted legislation repealing the state's alcohol prohibition laws."

State legislatures' decisions to rescind alcohol prohibition helped pave the way for the 18th Amendment to be repealed by Congress, but there were also holdouts among states in the Union that maintained prohibition laws on the books decades after its repeal on the federal level.

With California first allowing the sale of medical marijuana to chronically ill patients in the 1990s, and now Colorado and Washington fully legalizing the drug, marijuana legalization advocates are understandably hopeful that history is repeating itself.

For starters, before the 18th Amendment was repealed, it was only irregularly enforced and, in its twilight years, practically ignored altogether. Although the even-handedness of marijuana arrests and prosecutions could certainly be called into question, marijuana drug enforcement has been a centerpiece of the ongoing war on drugs initially waged by the Controlled Substances Act. As Reason Magazine reports, the DEA issued the following statement after the Election Day result:

"The Department's enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged. In enacting the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. We are reviewing the ballot initiatives and have no additional comment at this time."

Even with the legalization of marijuana in two states, federal authorities have reaffirmed that marijuana remains an illicit substance for which violators of the law can be prosecuted, no matter what state they live in.

Furthermore, neither of the two major political parties have adopted marijuana legalization within their political platforms. Conversely, the 1932 campaign waged by Franklin D. Roosevelt included the repeal of Prohibition in the Democratic party platform. The movement to repeal Prohibition began with the states, but the nail in the coffin of the law only came through an act of Congress with the passage of the 21st Amendment. At this juncture, neither party has given any indication of adopting a similar stance in the modern day when it comes to cannabis.

Photo: A makeshift bar is set up on the streets of New York City following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Credit: Getty Images