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60 Years of Prohibition

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Marijuana Prohibition 1937-1997
A report prepared by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the "Marijuana Tax Act of 1937."

Executive Summary

Part I.
Marijuana cultivation in the United States can trace its lineage some 400 years. Cultivation of marijuana for fiber continued in American through the turn of the 20th century.

Marijuana first earned recognition as an intoxicant in the 1920s and 1930s. During this time, exaggerated accounts of violent crimes allegedly committed by immigrants intoxicated by marijuana became popularized by tabloid newspapers and the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Congress approved the "Marihuana Tax Act of 1937" based almost entirely on this propaganda and misinformation.

Part II.
Marijuana remains the third most popular recreational drug of choice in the United States despite 60 years of criminal prohibition. According to government figures, nearly 70 million Americans have smoked marijuana at some time in their lives. Of these, 18 million have smoked marijuana within the last year, and ten million are regular marijuana smokers.

The vast majority of these individuals are otherwise law-abiding citizens who work hard, raise families, and contribute to their communities. They are not part of the crime problem and should not be treated as criminals.

Part III.
The Clinton administration is waging a more intensive war on marijuana smokers than any other presidency in history. Presently, law enforcement arrests a marijuana smoker every 45 seconds in America at a tremendous cost to society. This represents a 60 percent increase in marijuana arrests since Clinton took office. Over ten million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges since the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse issued its recommendation to Congress in 1972 to decriminalize marijuana.

Because of harsh federal and state penalties, marijuana offenders today may be sentenced to lengthy jail terms. Even those who avoid incarceration are subject to an array of additional punishments, including loss of driver's license (even where the offense is not driving related), loss of occupational license, loss of child custody, loss of federal benefits, and removal from public housing. Under state and federal forfeiture laws, many suspected marijuana offenders lose their cars, cash, boats, land, business equipment, and houses. Eighty percent of the individuals whose assets are seized are never charged with a crime.

Marijuana prohibition disproportionately impacts minorities. Blacks and Hispanics are over-represented both in the numbers of arrests and in the numbers of marijuana offenders incarcerated. Blacks and Hispanics make up 20 percent of the marijuana smokers in the United States, but comprise 58 percent of the marijuana offenders sentenced under federal law last year.

Part IV.
Nonviolent marijuana offenders often receive longer prison sentences than those allotted to violent offenders.

Most Americans do not want to spend scarce public funds incarcerating nonviolent marijuana offenders, at a cost of $23,000 per year. Politicians must reconsider our country's priorities and attach more importance to combating violent crime than targeting marijuana smokers.

Part V.
Marijuana prohibition costs taxpayers at least $7.5 billion annually. This is an enormous waste of scarce federal dollars that should be used to target violent crime.

Part VI.
Marijuana prohibition makes no exception for the medical use of marijuana. The tens of thousands of seriously ill Americans who presently use marijuana as a therapeutic agent to alleviate symptoms of cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, or multiple sclerosis risk arrest and jail to obtain and use their medication.

Between 1978 and 1996, 34 states passed laws recognizing marijuana's therapeutic value. Most recently, voters in two states -- Arizona and California -- passed laws allowing for the medical use of marijuana under a physician's supervision. Yet, states are severely limited in their ability to implement their medical use laws because of the federal prohibition of marijuana.

Part VII.
America tried alcohol prohibition between 1919 and 1931, but discovered that the crime and violence associated with prohibition was more damaging than the evil sought to be prohibited. With tobacco, America has learned over the last decade that education is the most effective way to discourage use. Yet, America fails to apply these lessons to marijuana policy.

By stubbornly defining all marijuana smoking as criminal, including that which involves adults smoking in the privacy of their own homes, we are wasting police and prosecutorial resources, clogging courts, filling costly and scarce jail and prison space, and needlessly wrecking the lives and careers of genuinely good citizens.

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