For Northwestern students, Prohibition is a touchy subject, especially with campus being located so near the home of prominent Temperance advocate Frances Willard.
Yet while banning the manufacture and sale of alcohol was an apparent exercise in futility, it had more of an effect than most people are willing to allow.
Anita Bedell, Executive Director of the Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, believes that the impact of the movement has been greatly underestimated. “There are things [people] don’t talk about when they talk about it,” she said. “It cut down on the amount on the amount of alcohol that was consumed. There were a lot of people who did follow the law.”
Now Prohibition and government-controlled substances are in the spotlight again, and in light of the recent ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana for recreational use, the temptation to cite and manipulate is back. However there are a couple of key differences between the illegal status of marijuana and the Prohibition of the 1920s.
First, Prohibition came into being because of amendment to the Constitution. And an amendment to the Constitution is not the same as a law passed by Congress. For an amendment, the proposed change has to be deemed necessary by two-thirds of both Houses of Congresses- and then has to be ratified by three-quarters of state legislatures.
To give a basic idea of what that would look like today, there are 435 members in the House of Representatives and 100 members of the Senate. So in order for an amendment to the constitution to even be considered, 66 Senators and 287 members of the House of Representatives would have to agree on the proposed change. And that’s just the first step. For the amendment to actually take effect and be added to the Constitution, at least 37 states would have to ratify the amendment and enforce it.
That means that even with the differences between 1919 and the present-day United States, the 18th Amendment had a lot of support. While it’s tempting to dismiss it as the misguided product of a futile ideology, it’s important to note that it had enough backers to make its way onto the Constitution and remain there for more than ten years.
As of today, no marijuana laws, either for or against legalization, have that kind of support.
Second, the 18th amendment prohibited the manufacture and the sale of alcohol, but still permitted it to be used for medicinal and religious purposes (incidentally causing the number of alcohol prescriptions to skyrocket).
Marijuana hasn’t had that kind of leeway; it’s classified under Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, listed as having potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical usage.
Francis Fu, SESP sophomore and head of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy at Northwestern, doesn’t agree with that categorization.
“We know that marijuana has many medical purposes,” she said. “And because of the federal government’s classification, we can’t do any research on it. It promotes a lot of myths about marijuana as a drug, both very negative and very positive. A lot of adolescents will say ‘Oh, marijuana isn’t a bad drug, compared to alcohol; you can smoke as much weed as you want and never die from it.’ That’s over-exaggerating the positive effects of marijuana.”
Fu blames this misinformation on the lack of substantial research on marijuana.
“Based on the existing research, it has been shown that marijuana is a less harmful drug than alcohol… alcohol is the number one drug that contributes to sexual assault, to violence, to drunk driving… There are other negative consequences to our drug laws besides health effects.”
She referred specifically to the high number of people who are jailed for drug violations, and the fact that with marijuana’s status as an illegal drug, there is no way to regulate it or make sure that it is safe.
Interestingly, the prohibition of alcohol manufacture in the 1920s produced similarly high numbers of prisoners- and without federal inspections on alcohol, the quality of the product declined. The number of people in prisons rose, and the outlawing of alcohol merely ensured that criminals would step up to fill in the demand.
Yet it’s worth noting that while Prohibition was in place, drinking rates dropped significantly.
Clifford Clark, a professor of history at Carleton College, said in an email that drinking rates in America were so lowered by the implementation of the 18th Amendment that it took them an estimated fifty years to return to the levels they held before Prohibition. While statistics on the health and wellbeing of people at the time vary, it’s apparent that the ban on alcohol did have an impact on society beyond annoying everyone who’d enjoyed long nights at the bar.
Of course, the 18th amendment was ultimately repealed.
“The way it was written, it was meant to fail,” Anita Bedell said of the amendment. “Part of the reason they killed it is that they wanted money from the tax on alcohol.”
Oddly enough, tax revenue was listed as a specific factor in Washington’s Initiative 502; a twenty-five percent tax on the selling price of marijuana was set in the initiative. It’s a high number that could generate quite a bit of income- if the federal government doesn’t step in.
The Drug Enforcement Agency made it clear in press statements that the drug is still illegal under the Controlled Substances Act, and that it is waiting for the Justice Department to review the ballot initiatives.
When the 18th amendment was repealed in 1933, it was taken down by state convention. If marijuana is to obtain legal status, it will likely have to go through court channels.
“If we do happen to legalize it and give an open and honest education about drugs in general, that will also decrease the abuse of other drugs,” Fu said, “Because right now, we only educate adolescents about alcohol.”
And alcohol was only prohibited for ten years. Marijuana has been illegal for over thirty. While the difficulties of Prohibition lay in enforcement, the difficulties of marijuana laws lie in determining just how effective they are- and what impact altering them will have.