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The End of Prohibition

January 17th, 2014 · No Comments

At the beginning of 2014, sales of cannabis (marijuana) to adults became legal again in Colorado. It was legal there until 1927. Personal possession and cultivation have already been legal again for one year in both Colorado and Washington, following referendums in which a majority of voters supported ending prohibition in both states. In late December, Uruguay become the first sovereign country to officially permit regulated sales of Cannabis to adults again.

What I find remarkable about these legislative changes is how relatively little fuss they caused. Unlike the 1980s, where political crusades led to increasingly harsh drug laws in many countries, with little regard for human rights, the cost of enforcement and lack of effectiveness, the responses this time have been largely dispassionate and rational. In the US the federal government has adopted a wait and see attitude, deciding to give the states space to enforce their laws as they see fit, as long as cannabis does not cross state lines. Other states are likely to follow in the next couple of years.

America has experimented with Prohibition before, as production and sales of alcohol were illegal from 1919-1933. As we know, alcohol prohibition was an abysmal failure, handing organized crime a huge business opportunity. The US then repeated that mistake with the 1937 “Marihuana Tax Act”. When the US Supreme Court finally declared it unconstitutional in 1969, President Nixon soon replaced it with the Controlled Substances Act. He ignored the recommendations of the Shafer Commission that he had tasked with investigating its harmfulness and the best way to regulate it. The Shafer commission had recommended to decriminalize it.

Over the last decades several countries and states (including the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal) have decriminalized cannabis without legalising sales. Retail sales in Dutch coffee shops are only tolerated, but technically still illegal. Suppliers of coffee shops still operate in a Black Market and can be prosecuted. Spain chose a different model, permitting personal cultivation at home as well as within cannabis social clubs. The model in Uruguay and Colorado goes one step further and is similar to how production and sale of alcohol is handled in many countries.

While there are still international conventions, such as the 1961 Single Convention that restrict national drugs laws of signatory states, they will ultimately have no permanent effect, as they permit member states to withdraw and rejoin with reservations. Bolivia did that a few years ago, to be able to legalise its traditional use of the coca plant. Any other country can do the same for cannabis.

The legal changes in Uruguay, Washington and Colorado reflect a generational change. As people who gathered personal experience with cannabis and had found it less harmful than alcohol gradually aged into their 40s, 50s and 60s, cannabis is less associated with a particular generation. It became increasingly difficult to demonize this herb. Medical use of cannabis further contributed to changes in attitudes.

It makes no sense to use heavy handed criminal law to try to deny adults the use of a less harmful alternative to alcohol. Even if we acknowledge that cannabis use is not entirely benign, laws that would be harsh enough to have a deterrent effect will almost certainly cause more harm to individuals when enforced than use of the substance itself might have. This realization will take longer in some countries than in others, but it will come. Legal discrimination against users of cannabis for recreational, spiritual and medicinal purposes will one day go the way of racial discrimination and homophobia. It took a century from the US civil war to the end of formal segregation in southern states. It has taken decades to dismantle discrimination against homosexual couples. One day we will look back on the war on cannabis users the same way and wonder how come it lasted for so long.

Tags: politics

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