Term Paper: Marijuana Alcohol Prohibition, Enforced Through a Landmark

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Marijuana

Alcohol prohibition, enforced through a landmark Constitutional Amendment ratified in 1919, lasted over a decade. Not enforced through Constitutional Amendment but by a series of legislation targeting a blanket group of narcotics, the prohibition of marijuana in the United States has lasted nearly a hundred years. Unfortunately, neither American lawmakers nor the voting public learned from the mistakes made with the passing of prohibition laws. Although alcohol consumption in America dropped significantly by 1921, within a few years after the 18th Amendment was passed, per-capita drinking levels rose and a thriving black market permitted the flow of libations around the nation (Thornton). Moreover, Prohibition did not end the moral degeneracy that temperance advocates had hoped for; rather, by pushing alcohol production, sales, and consumption underground, the American government contributed to a rise in organized crime and corruption symbolized by the Mafia and colluding law enforcement officials. The overall failure of the Prohibition Act caused Congress to reconsider and in 1933 pass the 21st Amendment to decriminalize the production, distribution, and consumption of alcohol. Instead of following suit with moderate and realistic laws related to marijuana, American lawmakers instead targeted marijuana first on a state-by-state basis and later nationwide, first through the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act and later the Marihuana Tax Act, passed in 1937. The war on drugs therefore began as Prohibition ended. Cynics could easily argue that law enforcement needed an easy scapegoat to make up for the repeal of alcohol prohibition.

Like alcohol, marijuana has been used as a mind-altering substance throughout the world and since the beginning of human civilization. However, marijuana played a far different role in European-American society than alcohol. The wild cannabis weed has provided human beings with strong fibrous rope and fabric for centuries and, known as hemp, was used functionally throughout colonial American history. So entrenched was cannabis to the early American economy that the colonial Virginia legislature mandated that farmers grow hemp in 1619; moreover, hemp was allowed to be exchanged as legal tender in colonial Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland ("Marijuana Timeline"). Even its functional form as hemp has been overlooked in light of prohibition and the only hemp products available on the market today are overpriced and marketed primarily toward counterculture.

As an intoxicant, marijuana played a miniscule role in colonial North American society until the late nineteenth century. The blossoming of bohemian culture throughout Western Europe and the Eastern United States led to the fashionable use of intoxicants like marijuana especially in artist and musician circles. Yet perhaps no circumstances sparked the use of marijuana in the United States as robustly as the influx of Mexican immigrants after the turn of the century. Recreational marijuana use remained confined to Mexican-American communities but by the late 1920s the drug had also become popular with jazz musicians and urban bohemians in part because it was relatively cheap (Bonnie & Whitebread).

Marijuana was therefore associated with counterculture and creativity far before hippies promoted pot during the1960s. The prohibition on marijuana originally impacted minorities and the poor in disproportionate numbers and continues to pose an enormous problem for the poor and disenfranchised. America's War on Drugs escalated after President Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and increased penalties for marijuana-related offences. Criminalizing marijuana has caused the American legal system to appear severely imbalanced and even ludicrous with the majority of new convicts being non-violent offenders whose sentences often far outweigh those of murderers (Beatty, Holman & Schiraldi). A disproportionate number of poor African-Americans and other minorities serve the bulk of marijuana-related offences, in keeping with the standards set by the government during the 1930s. Marijuana prohibition reflects racial and class discrimination, ignorance, and stupidity.

The American public was generally unaware of the existence of marijuana as an intoxicant before the smear campaign began. Public opinion was swayed as law enforcement officials and lawmakers exaggerated the evils of marijuana by pointing attention to its being used by "undesirable" elements of society. "To put it another way, the middle class had successfully frustrated alcohol prohibition because the public opinion process came to reflect its view that the law should not condemn intoxication," and yet on the other hand "because marijuana use was primarily a lower class phenomenon, the middle class was generally unaware of the proposed legislation" that would classify marijuana as a dangerous, even evil substance (Bonnie & Whitebread, Sect. IV).

Schedule What?

The prohibition of marijuana was initially based on faulty evidence linking use of the drug to violent crimes. Whereas marijuana still retained its value among the medical community, however, by 1970 it would become classified as a Schedule I narcotic: a delegation many experts believe to have "no rational basis" and which clearly violates the American Constitution (Hupy). Schedule I narcotics ostensibly fulfill the following three criteria: first, "the drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse"; second, "drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States," and third, "there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision." The cannabis sativa plant has therefore joined the ranks of insidious synthetic chemicals the names of which most Americans cannot even pronounce. Yet research has revealed a startling fact that flies in the face of the DEA classification of marijuana as a Schedule I intoxicant: "No evidence exists that anyone has ever died of a marijuana overdose," ("Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Marijuana Use"). Numerous studies, disavowed outright by federal institutions, lawmakers, and government-sponsored organizations, allude to the enormous potential of marijuana as a curative substance. The Schedule I classification not only categorically denies the medicinal uses for cannabis but also ipso facto prevents further scientific research on the potential benefits of the drug.

The classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance therefore flies in the face of scientific integrity and common sense. Recent attempts to decriminalize the medical use of marijuana in some states have at least drawn attention to the fact that marijuana has definite curative properties. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), one of the most vocal decriminalization organizations in the world, claims that the American Medical Association (AMA) opposed the initial ban on marijuana in the 1940s because evidence had already existed as to the beneficial properties of the plant ("Medical Use"). The DEA claims that the AMA now repudiates the relevance of marijuana to the modern pharmacopoeia ("Exposing the Myth of Smoked Medical Marijuana"). It is highly likely that the current AMA opposition to medical marijuana use stems partly from mutual collusion with big pharmaceutical corporations, whose interest in vast array of costly synthetic medicines might suffer from the introduction of patients to a common weed.

More recent studies confirm what the AMA believed more than 60 years ago. Twelve states currently have in place programs to permit the medical use of marijuana because of the efficacy of scientific studies proving the drug's potential benefits. Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington have all enabled the medicinal use of marijuana through a doctor's prescription although their policies vary widely. However, state-by-state progress toward a realistic reform of marijuana laws has been thwarted by new federal legislation: "the federal government can prosecute medical marijuana patients, even in states with compassionate use laws," ("Medical Marijuana"). Fortunately, state laws usually take precedence over federal laws regarding the prosecution of marijuana-related offences.

Medicinal uses of marijuana include pain relief especially in cases of nerve damage; nausea relief; relief from glaucoma; relief from movement disorders and spasticity; and the increase in appetite among patients with HIV, AIDS and other debilitating illnesses ("Medical Use"). NORML also mentions new research pointing to marijuana's potential ability to "protect the body against some types of malignant tumors," ("Medical Use"). In spite of support for medical marijuana research and medical marijuana use by the government of Canada and other nations, the United States continues to enforce the prohibition of cannabis. The DEA publishes a pamphlet "exposing the myth" of smoked medical marijuana, available on their website. Moreover, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to review published scientific papers regarding the medicinal benefits of marijuana in spite of urging from major national and international health organizations ("Medical Use"). A 2004 American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) survey revealed that a whopping 72% of Americans over the age of 45 believe that "adults should be allowed to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if a physician recommends it," and 59% believe that marijuana does indeed have medicinal benefits (Kalata).

An editorial in the Los Angeles Times reads:

Marijuana's medical benefits have been described by people ranging from the 1st century Greek physician Dioscorides, who prescribed cannabis to treat gout, to former President Ronald Reagan's political director, Lynn Nofziger, who told reporters last week that marijuana was the only drug he could find to help his daughter control the vomiting and diarrhea she suffered during cancer… [END OF PREVIEW]

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