Why did the U.S. ever end Prohibition? Certainly, alcohol has all the trappings of a morally-dangerous and socially-damaging substance that should be banned, per the arguments of those who currently clamor for the banning of morally-dangerous and socially-damaging substances . Alcohol has little or no proven medicinal value. Its abuse can ruin the lives and hinder the development of children who use it. Its overconsumption can kill. It can contribute to social, financial, or emotional problems in adults. It should not be consumed before driving or operating heavy machinery. It distorts perception and emotion. It is often improperly used as a crutch by those who can't deal with real life.
Most of these effects are very similar to marijuana and scores of other illegal drugs, and underline the arguments defending their illegality. But alcohol, with many of the same features, is still legal in the U.S.
It turns out that alcohol is legal for the simplest, most nostalgic, and most American reason of all. Despite its risks and harmful side-effects, adults are reserved the right to drink because they are independent adults in a free country. For all of the empty rhetoric about economics and black markets, the end of Prohibition was due to a single principle: even if drinking may be bad for society, government has no right to keep the people from doing it. The ability to get drunk is an inalienable right that we have forever confirmed with the 18th Amendment.
No one can - nor should try to - challenge the fact that alcoholism is a social disease, that youth drinking creates a net loss to society, that nearly all alcohol consumption is physically unhealthy, and that there is little medicinal or health benefit to the substance itself.
Instead, our laws rightly disregard these points, while true, in favor of the higher principle that adult Americans should have the guaranteed ability to do potentially harmful things that they also enjoy.
When will U.S. drug policy become so enlightened?
Marijuana has fewer documented harmful effects than alcohol. It is not physically addictive. It has yet to kill a single person. And it actually has medicinal benefits. according to the medical opinion of thousands of doctors who prescribe cannabis for their patients.
But in most ways, and for the discussion of public policy, marijuana is identical to alcohol. Both are intentional distortions of reality. Both can induce positive or negative effects, depending on the self-control of the user. Both have the capability for misuse to cause personal or social harm. Both should be of limited access to minors. Both are also recreational activities enjoyed by millions of people over thousands of years of recorded history.
Despite plenty of restrictions, alcohol is still legal thanks to the 18th Amendment. The same principles should inspire the decriminalization of cannabis.
America's laws, like all just laws, should be consistent. Which legal principle do we believe in enough to stand behind? Do we believe in paternalism and prohibition, or will we decriminalize cannabis?