3:13 pm - Monday December 16, 4047

Problems with Criminalized Marijuana

Is Marijuana the Bootleggers’ 21st Century ‘Moonshine’?

Prohibition Researcher Cites Historic Parallels

Whether they realize it or not, residents of Colorado and Washington
have traveled back in time – 80 years, to be exact.

The first two states to decriminalize recreational marijuana are
sharing in the national experience of 1933: the end of Prohibition.
And the similarities are uncanny, says Prohibition-era researcher and
author Denise Frisino.

“As with Prohibition and the criminalization of alcohol production and
sales, after marijuana possession was banned in 1937 there were many
unintended negative consequences,” maintains Frisino, author of
“Whiskey Cove,” (www.whiskeycovebook.com), a novel based on firsthand
interviews with Prohibition-era bootleggers in the Pacific Northwest.

“The most obvious is the proliferation of corruption and organized
gangs. After Prohibition became effective in 1920, America saw the
rise of unprecedented crime.”

And, as was true in the 1920s, increasing crime means a greater need
for – and expenditures on – law enforcement and judicial services.
Enforcing the Prohibition cost the federal government more than $300
million.

In the interest of learning from history, Frisino cites these
additional parallels to Prohibition and our contemporary problems with
criminalized marijuana:

• Public safety: During Prohibition, there was no regulatory oversight
on the production of alcohol, which meant some illegally brewed and
tampered with liquors were downright dangerous. “Bad booze actually
killed people,” Frisino says. On average, 1,000 people a year died
from drinking tainted alcohol. Marijuana, too, can be dangerous when
dealers lace their product with chemicals to make it seem more potent.
One benefit of decriminalization is that the quality of substances can
be monitored. In Colorado, the growing process is strictly monitored
from seed to sale.

• Tax revenues: The federal and state governments lost $11 billion in
tax revenues during Prohibition, which was especially painful for
states like New York, where nearly 75 percent of revenue came from
liquor sales. Today, with the country still reeling from the Great
Recession, legalization of marijuana will provide some much-needed
extra tax income for Washington and Colorado.

• Medical uses: Like marijuana, alcohol has medicinal uses. Physicians
of the early 20th century prescribed it for a variety of ailments.
During Prohibition pharmacies could sell medicinal liquor, which led
to a spike in the numbers of pharmacies as bootleggers set up shop.

• Common criminals: As with marijuana, outlawing alcohol turned many
average Americans into outlaws. During the 13 years of Prohibition,
jobs were lost and families crumbled as breadwinners went to jail and
became stigmatized as lawbreakers. The number of federal convicts
increased 561 percent, according to Mark Thorton’s, “Policy Analysis:
Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure.” In 2004, more than 12 percent of
the drug offenders in federal and state prisons were convicted of
crimes involving marijuana, according to the Bureau of Justice
Statistics. And that’s just prisons – it doesn’t include local jail
populations.

The Prohibition era holds valuable lessons about the unforeseen
outcome of criminalizing “vices,” Frisino points out. Rather than
reducing alcohol consumption, which was the goal, it actually
increased from 1929 to 1933, she says. In addition, legitimate jobs
and businesses were destroyed and even restaurants and other
entertainment businesses suffered.

“History teaches us that going about change by criminalizing certain
behaviors can have a very negative impact on society,” Frisino says.

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