One hundred years ago on January 17, the United States federal government instituted a ban on alcohol, issuing in a 13-year era known as the “Prohibition Period.” Largely considered a political failure, 1920-1933 saw increases in organized crime, federal prison populations, and drug usage.
This time period also saw the ban of another kind of drug: cannabis. Between 1916 and 1931, 29 states in the US had outlawed cannabis, and in 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act banned it nation-wide. Although the prohibition of cannabis has lasted far longer than the ban on alcohol, it has seen many of the same societal consequences that the ban on alcohol produced.
During Prohibition, street thugs replaced legitimate bars, but as more and more money kept pouring in, they had to quickly get organized. Prohibition prompted the formation of organized crime in major cities and the demand for illegal alcohol became so high that mobsters like Al Capone earned upwards of $100 million per year.
Similar to the way organized crime flourished during the prohibition on alcohol, organized criminal groups, such as the Cartels, have benefited financially from the ban on cannabis. Operating in a market where legal businesses have been barred, organized crime has been able to set the prices for cannabis products and pocket the income, while the United States is unable to regulate or collect the potential the tax revenue. Even now, illegal cartels earn billions of dollars per year distributing black market cannabis in the United States alone.
Although the reach of these criminal cartels is global, the federal illegality of cannabis in the US is an inviting market for cartels and gangs coming from Latin America. As much as 30% of cartel revenue came from illegal cannabis sales, but since states have begun to legalize, cannabis prices and demand have decreased – much to the dismay of would-be black market cannabis distributors.
Federal Prison Populations
Although alcohol’s “Prohibition Period” saw a decrease in the amount of alcohol consumed in the US, it also issued in an increase in federal prison populations. According to economist Mark Thornton, by 1932 the federal prison population saw an increase of 366% compared to pre-prohibition prison populations, and approximately two-thirds of all prisoners in 1930 were convicted of alcohol and drug prohibition violations.
The ban on cannabis has seen similar consequences, with over 8 million cannabis arrests reported between 2001-2010. Of those arrests, around 88% of those were for possession only, rather than drug trafficking or distribution. Approximately $3 billion dollars per year are spent by states attempting to enforce cannabis laws and according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, drug offenses significantly surpass other imprisonable offenses in terms of incarceration.
The prohibition of alcohol also saw an increase in harsher alternative drug usage, with drug usage often determined by what drugs are available to the consumer. An example of this can be found in modern counties in the United States which choose to continue prohibition practices. Although alcohol has now been legalized for almost a century, some counties, more common in southern states like Kentucky or Oklahoma, are designated as ‘dry’ and prohibit alcohol sales, and in some cases consumption. Some research indicates that although alcohol consumption in these counties may be down, use of other drugs, e.g. meth, are increased.
Similarly, research on cannabis usage and availability has seen comparable results. In areas where cannabis is illegal or unavailable, indications in the rise of synthetic cannabinoid usage has been detected. Synthetic cannabinoids, which promise to mirror the effects of cannabis and are rumored to be legal and fail to show up on drug tests, have dangerous side effects and usage has even resulted in multiple deaths. Other research has suggested that cannabis legalization has the opposite effect and may actually decrease use of other drugs. States with legal medical marijuana programs have seen a substantial decrease in the number of doctor prescribed opiates and a reduction in opioid deaths by almost 25%.
Prohibition may also be to blame for the increases in THC potency of cannabis products on the market. The prohibition on alcohol produced similar increases in the potency of alcohol, with pre-prohibition alcohol sales comprising mostly of beer, while alcohol sales during prohibition were primarily high-potency, concentrated whiskeys and liquors. As the product becomes harder to distribute and risks increase, it becomes beneficial to condense or concentrate the product because the smaller the merchandise, the easier it is to smuggle and circulate. While almost every drug on the market has seen an increase in potency, it is notable that these increases may have been spurred by the drug’s illegal status and prohibition.
Future of Prohibition
Even though legalization of cannabis is becoming more common, it is likely that some areas will not welcome cannabis use and will continue prohibition practices. Although the prohibition of alcohol ended decades ago, some areas in the United States still hold onto the era’s laws a century later. This will likely be the case with cannabis as well. Though Colorado is widely regarded as a haven for cannabis use, 37 of the state’s 64 counties ban cannabis businesses altogether.
While the future of cannabis prohibition in the United States is yet to be seen, there are significant parallels between cannabis and alcohol bans. While alcohol consumption decreased, alcohol’s “Prohibition Period” instigated considerable societal drawbacks — many of which translate to the prohibition of cannabis. As states continue to legalize, some of these drawbacks will fade away, but it’s likely that cannabis prohibition will have left its mark on the United States for many years to come.