(CNN) — Turn on a television show or open a magazine in the United States today and you’re bound to see someone with a drink in hand — something unthinkable nearly a century ago.
Advocates of marijuana hope that someday that drug will emerge from its current “prohibition” period, the same way alcohol did, and become not only legal but as socially acceptable as having a drink.
Could that happen? Depends who you ask. Advocates point to the November ballot in Colorado and Washington, where voters approved legal pot for everyone, not just for those who have a medical reason.
Detractors of marijuana legalization say there are serious health consequences, and argue the drug is often a gateway to more harmful, addictive substances.
However pot’s future is going to play out in this country, its recent path to limited legalization has interesting parallels to alcohol, which was banned by the federal government in the 1920s and early 1930s. The Prohibition era gave rise to an underground market for booze, produced by unregulated bootleggers and moonshiners, and consumed in back-alley speakeasies.
A few years after Prohibition’s repeal, the federal government banned marijuana, hardly as popular and socially acceptable as alcohol. It would be decades before supporters of pot would mobilize and successfully get the drug legalized in some states.
Advocates and detractors for both drugs seem to have read from the same playbook,stoking fears based on prejudices and questionable scientific studies.
Rather than discuss issues of substance, opponents of marijuana in the early 20th century preferred to exaggerate its effects and pin its use on foreigners and black entertainers.
It was a familiar tactic that had panned out well in pre-Prohibition days.
In a 1914 speech before the House, Rep. Richmond Hobson of Alabama warned that booze would make the “red man” savage and “promptly put a tribe on the war path.” He added, “Liquor will actually make a brute of a Negro, causing him to commit unnatural crimes.”
Twenty-three years later, while arguing for marijuana prohibition, Harry Anslinger also played on Americans’ fear of crime and foreigners. The Bureau of Narcotics chief spun tales of people driven to insanity or murder after ingesting the drug and spoke of the 2 to 3 tons of grass being produced in Mexico.
“This, the Mexicans make into cigarettes, which they sell at two for 25 cents, mostly to white high school students,” Anslinger told Congress.
The term marijuana itself was intended to stoke alarm, as many Americans in the 1930s were already familiar with other terms for the drug, according to Michael Aldrich.
“(The drug’s opponents) preferred the word marijuana instead of cannabis or hemp because people thought it was some new devil drug from Mexico,” said Aldrich, the curator of what is now Harvard University’s Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library, a collection of psychoactive drug-related literature.
“All of a sudden, there’s this new thing being introduced by outside people,” Aldrich, who is credited with writing the first dissertation on marijuana myths and folklore. “It was all a bunch of crap.”
‘Reefer Madness’ vs. ‘Medicinal marijuana’
In the shaky, handwritten opening lines of the 1936 movie “Reefer Madness,” marijuana is described as a “violent narcotic” that first renders “sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter” on its users before “dangerous hallucinations” and then “acts of shocking violence … ending often in incurable insanity.”
Watching the movie today (available on YouTube) might provoke “uncontrollable laughter” — even from those who oppose marijuana legalization. Yet the movie’s message was based in part on scientific studies that were considered legitimate at the time.
There were similar claims about alcohol in the years leading up to Prohibition. While the Anti-Saloon League painted drinking as un-American and immoral to convince counties and states they’d be better off saloonless, they also leaned on hokey research, according to Garrett Peck, author of “The Prohibition Hangover.”
The ASL used “quack medical experiments” to demonize beer, wine and liquor, Peck said. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union went into classrooms purporting to demonstrate the effects of alcohol by pouring it directly onto sheep and cow brains, quickly transforming the pink organ to a grayish hue, he said.
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