Whether you find yourself at a birthday party, a housewarming gathering, a college party, or a high school party, alcohol will most likely take center stage. We see alcohol everywhere, even when we are not searching for it—ads on the highway for the newest drink on the market, refrigerated alcohol aisles in grocery stores, and commercials or ads on any media we consume. Americans cannot seem to get enough of alcohol, and this is not an inherent problem; it is socially acceptable to enjoy a drink or two (or three) on special occasions or just for the hell of it. There is, however, a contradiction between the commercialization of alcoholic beverages and the criminalization of other intoxicating drugs, specifically marijuana. Why is the proliferation of alcohol legal and socially accepted while marijuana is illegal at the federal level?
In order to answer this question, we must first understand the history of this country’s criminalization of drugs. Alcohol was scrutinized between the 1820s and 1830s in the United States by temperance organizations, which attributed all of society’s evils to alcohol. As the leaders of most of these groups were religiously motivated, alcohol came to be depicted as immoral and usually linked to criminality. These movements dispersed rapidly throughout the United States with plenty of help from the churches, ultimately leading to the federal prohibition of alcohol with the 18th Amendment in 1919. Spoiler: the 21st Amendment in 1933 repealed the 18th Amendment, and the United States has not looked back since. Nevertheless, the temperance movement’s ideas of immorality and evil still exist in our society and now criminalize marijuana users.
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first law in the United States to criminalize cannabis use nationwide (except for industrial use). Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the 1930s, was a primary proponent of the 1937 Act. His opinions of the drug were racially biased, as he claimed that most marijuana smokers were minorities. Even though the scientists he surveyed at the time believed that the drug was not dangerous, Anslinger perpetuated the idea that marijuana induces violence and insanity in minorities as a fear-mongering tactic to promote his agenda. After the Marihuana Tax Act was deemed unconstitutional in 1969, President Nixon replaced it with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 in an attempt to regulate the increased recreational drug use in the U.S. The act, which is still effective today (albeit with some amendments), listed marijuana as a Schedule I drug. Schedule I drugs are defined as drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Marijuana joins this list alongside heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, earning the social title of a “gateway drug.”
Today, the criminalization of marijuana contributes to the continuous war on drugs. The United States is constantly outlawing ways in which citizens acquire marijuana by increasing penalties and incarcerating drug offenders, but these are not solutions that reflect the millions of marijuana users across the nation. Those who smoke it will get the drug one way or another even though acquiring marijuana is illegal in most states. Just recently, Delta-8 THC remains illegal in Texas following the end of a legal battle over the Farm Bill of 2018 which did not specifically discuss whether this variant was classified as a Schedule I drug. Compared to the more common Delta-9 THC (which is also criminalized in Texas), Delta-8 THC does have psychoactive effects, albeit to a lesser degree. Dispensaries across Texas claim that this ruling is unfair and confusing, as they are now forced to rid their shelves of Delta-8 THC after months of selling the product. These are the outlandish actions that lawmakers undertake against the recreational use of marijuana instead of focusing on more pressing issues at hand, such as the yearly estimate of 900 alcohol related deaths on Texas roads.
For decades, marijuana users have been stigmatized and stereotyped as being lazy and unproductive. This characterization has been ingrained into the minds of Americans in an attempt to criminalize the drug and present its users as immoral. However, the answer as to whether marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol is simple: it is not. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, approximately 95,000 Americans die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol use the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States behind tobacco and poor diets/physical health. In contrast, according to the CDC, it is unlikely for someone to die solely due to marijuana use; however, the side effects of the drug (i.e. paranoia, anxiety, panic, fast heart rate) may lead to unintentional injury.
Legalizing alcohol while criminalizing marijuana is therefore hypocritical. The government should also not pick and choose what is immoral; that distinction should be up to the consumer. If an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that marijuana should be legalized, then why has the United States government taken action to block the desires of the consumers? Drugs are drugs, and there is no special exemption for alcohol. Criminalizing marijuana is not about the safety concerns for Americans or the side effects of its use; it is cultural ideas about the drug’s immorality that influence the laws.