Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Seeking views on important under-appreciated lessons from US history with alcohol Prohibition

As I explained via this post on one of my other blogs a few month ago, I thought it wise to devote at least a few early weeks in my Fall 2013 seminar on "Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform" to a review of the legal and social history of alcohol Prohibition.   I am doing so because (1) public health scholars tell me that that use, abuse and addiction surrounding the drug of marijuana has more parallels to alcohol than to tobacco, and (2) there are many legal and social themes and lessons from the US temperance movement and the years during and surrounding the Prohibition era that merit significant coverage in my new class before we jump into modern marijuana law and policy.

I have kicked of my class activites by urging all my seminar students to watch with me the full wonderful 2011 Ken Burns' PBS documentary on Prohibition, as well as cruise around this terrific website from the History Department at Ohio State (which includes this especially interesting account with visuals concerning campaigns by the "drys" in Ohio).  I also have urged students to read parts of the terrific 1970 article by Richard Bonnie & Whitebread, Forbidden Fruit and the Tree of Knowledge - An Inquiry Into the Legal History of American Marijuana Prohibition, 56 Virginia L. Rev. 971 (1970) (available here).

There are, of course, lots of important obvious lessons to take away from US history with temperance movements and alcohol Prohibition.  For example, in this page from the PBS website under the heading "Unintended Consequences," historian Michael Lerner concludes a lengthy discussion with these observations:

The greatest unintended consequence of Prohibition however, was the plainest to see. For over a decade, the law that was meant to foster temperance instead fostered intemperance and excess. The solution the United States had devised to address the problem of alcohol abuse had instead made the problem even worse. The statistics of the period are notoriously unreliable, but it is very clear that in many parts of the United States more people were drinking, and people were drinking more.

There is little doubt that Prohibition failed to achieve what it set out to do, and that its unintended consequences were far more far reaching than its few benefits. The ultimate lesson is two-fold. Watch out for solutions that end up worse than the problems they set out to solve, and remember that the Constitution is no place for experiments, noble or otherwise.

I suspect my students and others are quick to take away from the US history here that we should seek to avoid governmental cures that are worse than the disease and also avoid too much constitutional experimentation.  But, as the title of this post suggests, I am eager to explore (in this space and with my seminar students) what might be deemed important under-appreciated (or at least under-discussed) lessons from not just Prohibition itself, but also from the broader alcohol temperance movements that stretch back many centuries and arguably still have some enduring echoes and impacts today.

History of Alcohol Prohibition and Temperance Movements | Permalink


DAB: Take a look at Last Call: The rise and fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. It details many unintended consequences.

Posted by: Keith Y. | Aug 30, 2013 1:25:18 PM

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