As of April 20, 2019, marijuana has been decriminalized or legalized for recreational or medical use in all but a handful of U.S. states. For many in the craft brewing community, which this site is dedicated to, that’s great news. Legal cannabis growers are embracing their craft brewing brethren with open arms, and for many the widespread legalization of marijuana has gone together with the craft brewing movement like peanut butter and jelly (or milk and cookies, or cake and ice cream, or sandwiches, or like linguine with cheese… lots and lots of cheese).
Personal opinions on the morality of these sweeping policy moves aside, cannabis legalization has happened quickly and with widespread public support. In fact, the majority of Americans – Republicans and Democrats alike – are now in favor of decriminalizing cannabis. In Colorado and Washington, the two states that pioneered legalized recreational cannabis starting back in 2012, DUI and drug arrests are down. Legal access to medical marijuana is correlated with a meaningful decline in the likelihood of death or hospitalization due to opioid abuse, and revenues from legal cannabis sales are funding important public services.
Indeed, millions of Americans are glad to see the dark ages of cannabis prohibition fading into the rear view – but it’s also important to recognize we aren’t out of the woods yet. National cannabis legalization may be on the horizon as a faint glimmer of hope, but the federal government has an unfortunate track record of being pigheaded when it comes to standing by unpopular prohibition policies.
America is full of innovators. We invent, improve, retool, and reinvent – all while maintaining a loyalty to the core values of liberty and freedom that gave rise to our great nation in the first place. In order to make sure our next moves are successful, however, we must look to the past. For the cannabis community, this means getting every lesson that can be learned from one of America’s most notorious failed social experiments: alcohol prohibition.
Federal alcohol prohibition in the United States began on January 19, 1920. Technically, it lasted just over a decade. Although in practice, it really never took place it all – at least in the sense that it was such a complete and abject failure that almost nobody complied with the policy.
Without a doubt, the federal government intended to completely eliminate alcohol consumption when Congress enacted the now-repealed Eighteenth Amendment; its effect was something far different. Instead, individuals began learning to distill alcohol, manipulate medical providers for whiskey prescriptions, and even join religious organizations for a taste of sacred wine. And of course, if none of these options were available, a Prohibition-era beer lover could always reach for a pint of black-market brew.
The impacts of the speakeasy culture that thrived during Prohibition may seem romantic in retrospect, but at the time they were incredibly dangerous. During that period in U.S. history, drinking black market beer and liquor meant taking your life in your own hands. On average, adulterated alcohol killed nearly 1,000 Americans per year – and unfortunately, the potential harms caused by black market cannabis are not much different.
On its own, cannabis is reasonably safe, at least insofar as marijuana consumption itself is non-lethal. However, tainted or synthetic marijuana can lead to severe unintended consequences. In fact, people across the nation are falling ill, and even dying, as they consume products laced with various toxins. To wit: a dispensary in Los Angeles was recently accused of selling marijuana contaminated with a fungicide used to treat golf turf. This sort of reckless and exploitative behavior is typically only possible under circumstances of prohibition where safety and quality go unchecked by public officials. But fortunately, this happened in California – a jurisdiction with legal weed.
The LA pot shop that sold the fungicide-tainted marijuana was an unlicensed dispensary, but because of the state’s established regulatory and enforcement institution, officials were able to identify the offending storefront quickly, inspect it, and bring an action against it for violations. California regulators are actively working to ensure that consumers are not harmed by sales of the adulterated cannabis from any dispensary, and any law impeding this important work will only hurt people.
“It’s never acceptable for a consumer product to hurt people,” says John Kent, Director of Emerging Markets, Procurement, and Analytics for Himitsu CBD. “Cannabis products can improve our lives in lots of ways, but first and foremost quality has to be a top priority.” And in most cases, quality can only be guaranteed by oversight.
When states can oversee cannabis sales, they can also identify and prevent any unauthorized – and potentially harmful – sales. In the first year of transitioning from a medical-cannabis-only state to one that has recreational marijuana sales, California has ramped up quality and safety enforcement in its cannabis industry substantially. Los Angeles officials brought criminal charges against over two hundred cannabis businesses in the first year of recreational legalization alone, shuddering businesses that would otherwise harm people, while potentially going completely undetected.
After the end of alcohol prohibition, the federal government began regulating the alcohol industry heavily. This was a heavy lesson learned, in part, from the serious public safety hazards caused by black market alcohol consumption. Advocates for cannabis legalization should look at these regulations as a guide for what may come during this era of New Prohibition.
Among other things, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (lovingly known as ATF), as well as individual state bureaus, have created rules and laws regulating the manufacture and sale of alcohol. This vigilant oversight has led to the decrease of illnesses, and death, related to consumption of tainted alcohol, and it should serve as a model to improve the safety of legalized cannabis moving forward. Likewise, regulatory oversight of the marijuana industry would improve consumer awareness and promote accuracy in the manufacturing, labeling, certifications, and other features of cannabis products.
But lest we forget – in American politics it all comes down to the money. Public safety may have been a key impetus behind repealing the Eighteenth Amendment, but the real reason alcohol was re-decriminalized was the Great Depression.
Without a doubt, there were plenty of reasons to repeal alcohol prohibition. There had been a rise outbreaks of bootlegging-related violence and illnesses attributable to the consumption of tainted alcohol. But at the end of it all – despite the human suffering and loss of life – it was dwindling tax revenues that ultimately drove the politicians to repeal Prohibition.
It has been estimated that as a result of the United States criminalizing alcohol, the country lost an estimated $11 billion in alcohol-related tax revenue. This was a serious hit, particularly given that the country was locked in the grips of the Great Depression. Then presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt even campaigned on the premise that legalization of alcohol would increase federal tax revenue and ease mass unemployment. Roosevelt, in fact, was quoted as stating that the legalization of beer alone would, “increase the federal revenue by several hundred million dollars a year.”
With Millennials and Gen-Z-ers aging into a world economy affected by the recent Great Recession and an ongoing global trade war, it’s easy to draw an economic connection between widespread support of cannabis legalization and that of alcohol prohibition repeal. Many politicians are reluctant to endorse cannabis consumption outright, but rather tether their support to medical usage, tax revenue, and social justice campaigns.
With the 2020 elections right around the corner, national cannabis legalization may be on the horizon. Some presidential hopefuls are giving the normalization of cannabis prominent showcases in their campaigns, emphasizing not only the potential for federal tax revenue, but also focusing on the selective enforcement of anti-cannabis laws when it comes to race and economic status. Such candidates have both acknowledged the public’s desire for cannabis reform and, like Roosevelt, recognized the need to reframe people’s recreational desires into a larger, more beneficial national cause.
All in all, there is a great deal the cannabis community can learn from alcohol prohibition. The fleeting failed social experiment that triggered a national prohibition on alcohol consumption is one thing, however; the near-century long drought of accurate, truthful information about the health and safety impacts of cannabis are something different altogether. Merely changing the laws to legalize cannabis will not instantaneously address all of the potential problems raised by the substance. But, just as it did for alcohol, the responsible legalization and regulation of cannabis will open the door to better markets.