From 1920 to 1933, America conducted its “Noble Experiment.” I’ve never been able to dig up a good reason for that moniker, yet every written piece on Prohibition in the United States makes that reference. It took over 2 years for the required number of states to approve the 18th Amendment banning the “manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors” but conspicuously not their consumption. On the back end, 10 months and 10 days were all that was needed to adopt the 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition. (Fun facts, the two amendments in between both involve elections – sort of. The 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote (1933), and the 20th Amendment moved the inauguration of elected federal officials from March to January, and limited the President’s term in office to a maximum of 10 years (1935). Funner Fact, the 20th Amendment is the only amendment to the Constitution that has not be challenged in front of the Supreme Court of the United States.)
So why this history lesson? I’ve been struck by the similarities of what went on with alcohol then to what goes on with marijuana now. Although you may not realize it, and movies depicting life in the wild west might suggest otherwise, America wasn’t a drunken wasteland prior to Prohibition. Alcohol was a part of daily life and contributed to life’s problems, but not to the extent temperance supporters had suggested. The final push for Prohibition came not as a result on the revivalists activities but ostensibly to shift the use of grains to the manufacture of food verses drink during the first world war. In fact, twelve states had already adopted prohibition laws before the 18th Amendment was out before Americans for ratification.
That doesn’t mean Prohibition was universally accepted. For a while, ten states refused to enforce prohibition laws after ratification, and Prohibition never did result in a total ban on alcohol. Sacramental and ritual wines were excluded and any individual could, on a physician’s order, buy up to 10 ounces of alcohol as often as every 10 days at a licensed pharmacy. (It is probably just coincidental that the Walgreen pharmacy chain grew from twenty stores to over 500 in the 1920s. Breweries were permitted to manufacture and distribute “near beer” that contained less than 0.5% alcohol. Distilleries sold malt syrup and wineries grape concentrates with instructions for home dilution and fermentation. If the westerns depicting bawdy saloons were overly fanciful, movies featuring Prohibition era speakeasies may be have overly kind. Black market alcohol was estimated to be a $100 million business (equal to about $1.5 billion today).
The repeat of prohibition was strictly economic. Prohibition had cost the federal government $11 billion in tax revenue ($191 billion today). But the repeal was also not universally accepted. Several states maintain prohibition laws, the last, Mississippi, finally reversed its prohibition status in 1966. There are still to this day various counties in ten separate states that continue to ban the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcohol.
Where are the comparisons to marijuana? There aren’t many except for a few million people clamoring for its legalization, states unevenly enforcing federal prohibition against it, local jurisdictions “decriminalizing” it, shyster shamans touting it as a medicinal, unregulated relative compounds sneaking their way into the marketplace, and states drooling over lost tax revenue that they never lost because they never had it in the first place.
You might assume from that last paragraph that I’m not a fan of legalizing marijuana. Yes and no. Are there medicinal benefits. There are indeed benefits of cannabinoids but not of the whole plant. And there are means to extract these cannabinoids, refine them, and compound them into consistently reproducible absorbable forms. And they are in fact already on the market and no I don’t mean CBD (although that has some limited use). For the rest of it. No. Alcohol and marijuana other are both addictive hallucinogens and any purported medicinal benefit from either is related to that. There is nothing that a bowl of marijuana will do that a shot of whiskey can’t. Except for one thing. I’ll explain it to you very simply.
Let’s say the two of us are sitting on my porch. I want a beer and you don’t. I drink the beer. Nothing happens to you. You might have to listen to me sing the entire ABBA canon a cappella, but once we finish that you can get up and walk or drive home unimpaired. Let’s swap out a joint or a bowl for that can or bottle. Given enough time imbibing in your marijuana and I will be just as likely to test positive at the next random drug test on the job.
Don’t believe in passive absorption? Go ask a flight attendant with lung cancer who never smoked. But you better find one quick. There are a great many of them who will be among the 7,300 will die from passive smoke related lung cancer this year. Next year too. And so on and so on and so on.
Do we need another Noble Experiment? That’s not for me to decide. I’m not a legislator. Sort of like it shouldn’t be for a legislator to decide what makes for good medicine. Cheers.