Ken Burns’ Prohibition: Lessons not learned

(As a note, everything here is my personal opinion and not that of The Columbian as a whole -SueVo)

I recently watched Ken Burns 2011 “Prohibition” series about alcohol on Netflix, and if you’re interested in pot, I’d highly recommend it.


The parallels between marijuana prohibition and alcohol prohibition are hard to ignore. And yet, after alcohol prohibition failed miserably and ended in 1933, the federal government in 1937 launched an equally failed prohibition against marijuana that continues today.

Alcohol prohibition, according to Burns’ series, began with concerns from well-meaning religious and left-wing groups about the dangers of alcohol addiction on the body and on the tradition of male-only saloons, where brawling, violence and public drunkenness were common.

Banning alcohol was a grand experiment – to see if removing access to the drug could prevent the early deaths, health issues and violence that many associated with it.

But after the ban, many people continued to use alcohol – feeling that the law didn’t apply to them and was only a problem for the lower classes. And to get alcohol, illegal distribution networks were created, mobsters and backyard brewers alike joined in and a general disrespect for all laws began to spread.

And Prohibition didn’t fix any of the overriding problems. More people started binge drinking, even worse violence moved into the streets.

The underlying phrase that runs through much of Burns’ series: You can’t legislate morality.

To end the ban, politicians and a coalition of women began to loudly speak against Prohibition’s failure. Eventually, the “wets” (supporters of ending Prohibition) overwhelmed the “drys” (Prohibition supporters) and the 18th Amendment banning alcohol was repealed.

But was Prohibition a lesson learned? It seems not.

The federal government created a ban on another drug, cannabis, not long after the alcohol ban was repealed. The feds banned it through The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. That act required a tax stamp before allowing possession, creation or distribution of marijuana. And to ban it, the government just didn’t issue many, if any, stamps.

Things got even more strict when marijuana became part of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 and the War on Drugs began.

Why was it banned? There are dozens of theories out there. Some say the Drug Enforcement Agency needed a new revenue source after alcohol prohibition ended. Others say it was a plot by the paper and other industries to stop production of industrial hemp as a cheaper alternative. Still others say it was an attempt to crack down and discriminate against minorities and the lower classes.

And what happened through the federal marijuana ban? People continued to use the drug, countless people – especially minorities and those in the lower classes – were jailed, and illegal and violent distribution networks were created to supply those who thought the law was just plain stupid.

When alcohol Prohibition was repealed, new groups popped up to help those struggling with addiction – among them Alcoholics Anonymous. And the general public, most of whom did not have an addiction problem, were once again allowed the personal liberty to decide for themselves whether they wanted to drink or not.

When marijuana prohibition ends – and really it needs to end federally in my opinion – that same help and personal liberty should also follow.

Once again, legislating morality has failed.

When I watched Burns’ series, I found myself itching to see an extension of it – or a new series – taking a similar look at marijuana prohibition.

That doesn’t exist yet, but there are quite a few documentaries out there that do take a look at the problems. “The Culture High,” which is also on Netflix, is the one that has resonated with me the most so far.

As talk of marijuana legalization spreads through the country and through the states, I found President Obama’s recent remarks to be a bit out of sync.

In an interview with Vice discussing the concerns of young voters, he said this about marijuana:

“It shouldn’t be young people’s biggest priority,” Obama said. “Let’s put it in perspective. Young people, I understand this is important to you, but you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace. Maybe way at the bottom you should be thinking about marijuana.”

But young peoples’ concerns about marijuana aren’t just about a bunch of kids wanting to legalize it so they can party. Their concerns are, much like older generations, also over a failed attempt to legislate morality. Those concerns are about a system that has jailed a far greater number of minorities and the poor than it has the white upper class. And they’re concerned about a failed War on Drugs that costs billions of dollars each year and has little to show for it.

In some ways, the problems with marijuana prohibition underscore most of the other things Obama said young people should be more focused on.

Climate change? Some argue that a healthy industrial hemp industry can help save forests and reduce carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere.

The economy and jobs? In Clark County alone, the marijuana industry has created more than 125 jobs in the last six months – that’s not including the economic benefits to other industries that sell to marijuana businesses, like gardening supplies, food products and other equipment.

War and peace? Marijuana is the backbone of a failed and expensive war to legislate morality. Ending it would hopefully allow citizens that have been jailed for minor drug offenses to return home.

Not to mention an end to the hypocrisy might actually restore some respect for the laws of this country.

Personally I think Obama’s comments are disrespectful to young people and their legitimate concerns – although I think those comments were based more on a fear of taking an unpopular political stance than on an underlying disrespect.

Back in the early 1930s, politicians with the same fears of taking a stance on alcohol ended up getting the boot, slowly but surely.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who initially waffled before finally declaring with certainty that Prohibition was a failed policy, left a lasting legacy in ending it after he found his backbone (although that’s far from the only thing in his long list of achievements). In many minds he remains one of the country’s greatest presidents – including in the mind of Barack Obama, who has quoted Roosevelt from time to time.

Obama has a similar chance to end a failed policy. Discounting the concerns of young people is not a good way to secure a similar legacy.

Again, these are my personal opinions and not those of the paper.

What do you all think? Let us know!

-SueVo (sue.vorenberg@columbian.com)