Marijuana’s and alcohol’s differing paths toward domestication

Note:  This commentary ran in the Coeur d’Alene Press on November 30th, 2016 (link).  It is available in French, translated by Mathilde Guibert, here.


Report being burned in Virginia’s Capitol’s furnace, April 26, 1938

It’s interesting to contrast marijuana’s current cultural journey toward legalization with beverage alcohol’s experience in 1933 and the years immediately following, when national prohibition was repealed.  Today, recreational marijuana use is being legalized piecemeal and state by state, thus creating a number of nettlesome problems for neighboring states that still ban it.  Alcohol’s prohibition, on the other hand, was done away with in one fell swoop, with the passage of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Well, not quite.  Many states also had statewide prohibition laws or even state constitutional provisions.  These had to be repealed too.  And that process, of course, took some time.  But alcohol’s wave of historical change in the 1930s was arguably more compelling than marijuana’s is today.  For one thing, three-quarters of the U.S.’s states had to have already approved the 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition, before Repeal could become the law of the land.  Nationally, Repeal was a cultural done deal in 1933 even though a minority of states, chiefly in the nation’s southern and midwestern “Bible Belt,” were reluctant to abandon their statewide measures.

In our present circumstance, regarding marijuana, a patchwork of varying state laws and dispositions may become an argument for a new national consensus, perhaps ultimately facilitating broader legalization of pot across the nation.  Regarding alcohol, on the other hand, it was a patchwork of state laws in the years preceding the passage of national prohibition that caused dry states to cry out for relief from alcohol’s availability in neighboring wet states.    

One social byproduct of the current push for pot’s legalization that might have been expected to occur hasn’t – at least not yet.  Consider alcohol’s 1930s experience, again.  Sweeping social changes, such as Repeal, fall across the different institutions of society with different forces and different implications.  The nation’s primary and secondary education institutions, for example, were particularly flummoxed by Repeal.  Children, after all, were not going to be extended the right to drink in the post-Repeal era.  Moreover, the temperance movement, over the course of several decades preceding the passage of the 18th Amendment, had proved remarkably successful in introducing bone-dry pedagogy into American public schools – under the rubric of required health and physiology classes or units.  Such instruction lapsed into a period of desuetude during national prohibition’s 14-year reign, it being felt that teaching the evils of an already outlawed commodity was a much less pressing social desideratum.  But such laws largely resumed their use and vigor with the 21st Amendment’s ratification, after 1933.  Their revivification, in turn, set up a grinding cultural friction between the old fire-and-brimstone pedagogy about Demon Rum and the much wetter cultural context of the post-Repeal 1930s.  A fierce battle ensued in a number of U.S. states over the post-Repeal content of alcohol education, perhaps most notably in Virginia.  The battle was arguably a cultural war over alcohol’s post-Repeal symbolic definition and cultural legitimacy, after the 21st Amendment re-established that commodity’s commercial legitimacy.


Mary H. Hunt, the WCTU’s great champion of Scientific Temperance Instruction, did rather well for herself in profits from textbook sales

In 1936, Virginia’s legislature asked two university professors, specialists in physiology and pharmacology, to carry out a scientifically sound review of current knowledge regarding alcohol’s effects on the human organism.  The two professors did just that, and they prepared a draft report on their findings for the legislature.  But when word leaked out that their report questioned whether moderate drinking had bad health consequences, Virginia’s post-Repeal dry community once again rushed to the barricades.  So fierce was the uproar, the barrage of angry letters, and the outraged pronouncements about this draft report that Virginia’s legislature voted to burn the state’s 1,000 existing copies – unread! — in the capitol furnace.  However brightly the report’s pages burned that day, however, the tide of post-Repeal history in America would in due course, and after no little cultural “work,” bring broad changes to health instruction about alcohol in the nation’s public schools.

What’s notable about the cultural shift going on nowadays regarding marijuana is that no similar upheaval about marijuana instruction – or drug abuse instruction in general – in public schools seems to be at hand.  “Scientific temperance instruction” was a darling of the powerful Woman’s Christian Temperance Union even after Repeal.  And there is no quite similar interest group standing firmly behind, say, the D.A.R.E. (“Drug Abuse Resistance Education”) instructional program — the franchised, law enforcement-implemented drug abuse instructional program frequently in play in U.S. public schools.  Yet, some sort of struggle over marijuana’s symbolic meaning and status probably still lies ahead of us.  It will be interesting to compare and contrast that struggle, in turn, with alcohol’s crooked path toward domestication and greater symbolic legitimacy in the years following Repeal in 1933.

— Ron Roizen

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