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Friday, April 29, 2011

Marijuana Prohibition Turns 100 Today. What Is There to Celebrate?

Posted By on Fri, Apr 29, 2011 at 7:00 AM

click to enlarge Celebrate the birth of prohibition -- get high!
  • Celebrate the birth of prohibition -- get high!
Alcohol prohibition did little to stop Americans from

guzzling booze, though it helped make gangsters rich, cops and courts busy, and

encouraged foreign imports of "medicinal whiskey" (sound familiar?)

That experiment was short-lived -- ratified in 1920, the

18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was repealed in 1933 -- and particularly

short-lived in comparison to the country's experiment with outlawing marijuana -- which turns 100 years old today.


In stark contrast to fermented grapes and grain, the intoxicating qualities of the cannabis sativa plant were unknown to Americans outside of a few Southwest border towns in 1911, according to Dale Gieringer of California NORML. Gieringer spent the better part of 10 years trying to find evidence of marijuana use among 19th-century American writers (local boy Jack London experimented with hash, but he is an exception).

"There is no record of any public concern over marijuana at this time," Gieringer told SF Weekly. "Only after cannabis was prohibited did it come into widespread popularity." Pot got plenty of attention in 1911 -- and thereafter when Massachusetts passed a law to ban "hypnotic drugs" such as opiates. "Marihuana" or "Indian hemp" was added to that list, despite its widespread anonymity as well as a clause in the Massachusetts ban that allowed drug stores to sell medicinal pot. That included the widely available tinctures used to alleviate migraines and menstrual cramps, according to Gieringer. Ironically, these antimarijuana laws fostered a new mystique around the drug, which began seeping into the mainstream in the 1920s; it was popularized by jazz musicians and other hip folk.
Since then, the record has been established: An international compact in 1961 supported the banning of cannabis, which the federal government did outright with the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Pot use and arrests have increased steadily since; marijuana arrests in the United States have nearly tripled since 1990.
 
"Thirteen years was long enough for American policymakers to realize that alcohol prohibition was a failed experiment, so it's particularly obscene that marijuana prohibition has now been going on for a whole century in parts of the U.S.," said Tom Angell, a spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of former cops fighting to decriminalize pot. "Though it is encouraging to see more and more lawmakers -- both on the local and national level --  starting to call for an end to the madness."

There's more irony here. The fact is that the earliest antimarijuana laws were passed by pharmacy boards and progressive-era advocates of government regulation, Gieringer says.

There's a present-day parallel: California legislators and law-enforcement officials have toyed with the notion of banning Salvia divinorum, which is illegal in nine states.

"Cops said, 'We gotta get out ahead of this and stop it before it starts,'" Gieringer says, adding, "I was saying, 'Your record of being able to stop things is not very good."

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Bio:
Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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