Legislation and Policy

Lessons from Prohibition

Colby McCoy
Written by Colby McCoy

In 1937, cannabis officially became ‘persona non grata’ to the United States government — a marked shift from the cozy relationship between cannabis and America that had existed since the 17th century. A relationship so cozy in fact that the Virginia Assembly once passed legislation requiring that every farmer have a hemp crop. Needless to say, cannabis is about as American as apple pie.

The history of cannabis’ prohibition is quite an interesting and even informative one for us to look at in the 21st century. Because unfortunately, cannabis still remains an illegal substance in the eyes of the federal government — even when recreational cannabis legislation is passing in multiple states from East to West.

So, what can we learn from cannabis’ prohibition?

  1. Acknowledge the Power of Propaganda

The U.S. government didn’t just turn on the lights one morning and decide banning cannabis was the goal of the day. If one looks closely they will find that cannabis’ prohibition slowly became reality over the course of a decade. Cannabis was effectively banned in 1937, up to that point the United States had been ravaged by the Great Depression and was the recipient of a large influx of immigrants from Mexico — who introduced Americans to recreational “marihuana.”

Although Americans were already familiar with cannabis, the term ‘marihuana’ was entirely foreign to the collective conscious. During the 1930’s a concerted anti-drug campaign was launched specifically targeting ‘marihuana’ and Mexican immigrants.

The U.S. government’s campaign hinged on the claim that ‘marihuana’ was linked to increased crime rates and violent behavior in ethnic minorities. Coupling this campaign with the release of the infamous “Reefer Madness,” cannabis began to be viewed as an illicit substance in the eyes of the public.

By using selective propaganda the U.S. government was able to shift America’s position on cannabis as a medicine and recreational substance. Never underestimate the power of propaganda.

  1. Drug Bans Without Solutions are a Recipe for Disaster

As a result of the prohibition more than 15 million cannabis arrests have been made since 1995 — a staggering 659,700 individuals were arrested in 2017 alone. According to federal government figures from 2012, the last year in which these figures exist, approx. 40,000 people were in federal or state prisons on cannabis charges. That statistic alone is higher than all imprisoned individuals in eight EU countries.

It is a well known fact that the American justice system is far from perfect and has a history of targeting certain minority groups. This is especially the case when it comes to cannabis where African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested than whites. The U.S.’s War on Drugs and cannabis in particular have had a devastating effect on minority communities across the country.

In most cases those who have been previously arrested for cannabis possession will have to disclose this information on a job application making assimilation into society that much harder.

We continue to perpetuate the cycle of incarceration many are experiencing today by continuing the cannabis prohibition.

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Colby McCoy

Colby McCoy

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