Why Is Alcohol Legal But Not Cannabis?

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Last Updated - 05/12/2024

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Updated 05/12/2024

Key Takeaways

  • Alcohol prohibition in the US lasted from 1920 to 1933, ending with the 21st Amendment due to economic and social implications.
  • Cannabis faced criminalization early in the 20th century, with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classifying it as a Schedule I substance.
  • California’s Proposition 215 in 1996 was a turning point, legalizing medical cannabis and influencing other states to follow suit.
  • Societal perceptions and stigmas have heavily influenced the legal status of alcohol and cannabis, with alcohol being widely accepted despite health risks.
  • The economic impact of alcohol and cannabis is significant, with both industries contributing to job creation and tax revenue.
  • Health risks associated with alcohol include liver disease, cancer, and cognitive decline, while cannabis risks include psychiatric issues.
  • As of 2024, 24 US states have legalized adult-use cannabis, with public opinion favoring legalization reaching 88%.
  • The global legal status of alcohol varies, with some countries enforcing strict laws or prohibition, while others have liberal policies.
  • The DEA is reviewing the classification of cannabis, which could lead to rescheduling and impact the future legal landscape.

History of Alcohol and Cannabis Legislation

The history of alcohol and cannabis legislation in the United States has been influenced by a series of complex events and societal attitudes. During the early 20th century, alcohol was prohibited but is now legal. On the other hand, despite some early medical use, cannabis faced extensive criminalization.

  • In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act made drug use a crime, and California followed suit by making cannabis possession a crime in 1915. Later on, there were stronger efforts to regulate drugs, including the War on Drugs campaign, which led to a significant increase in incarcerations for drug-related offenses.
  • The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was a significant legislation that federally regulated marijuana for the first time. This reflected growing concerns over drug abuse. 
  • In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act classified cannabis as a Schedule I substance and reinforced its illegal status, despite the Shafer Commission’s recommendation to decriminalize personal use in 1972. 
  • California’s Proposition 215 in 1996 marked a turning point as the first state law legalizing medical cannabis use, setting a precedent followed by other states.
  • Cannabis law has seen further reform with the passage of the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act in 2022, the first standalone cannabis reform bill enacted at the federal level. 

In contrast, alcohol prohibition, known as the Prohibition Era, only lasted from 1920 to 1933, when the 21st Amendment repealed it. Since then, alcohol has become an integrated part of American society and economy.

The Prohibition Era (1920–1933)

The Prohibition Era began with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in January 1919. The amendment outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. This led to a series of unintended consequences that shaped the nation’s approach to alcohol regulation. The Volstead Act, championed by Representative Andrew Volstead, provided the legislation required to enforce the amendment but faced widespread resistance and proved difficult to enforce.

Despite initial signs of success, such as reduced arrests for drunkenness and a reported drop in alcohol consumption, the demand for alcohol remained. The era saw the rise of organized crime as bootleggers and speakeasies flourished, and the illegal alcohol trade became rampant. Gang violence escalated in large cities like Chicago, where figures such as Al Capone rose to infamy. The Prohibition Bureau, led by Eliot Ness, notably targeted such figures, yet the struggle to curb the illegal liquor trade continued.

The economic downturn following the 1929 stock market crash further undermined support for Prohibition. The government lost critical tax revenue from the legal alcohol industry, which had been the nation’s fifth largest. Consequently, the public’s disillusionment with the policy grew, and by the early 1930s, the movement for repeal gained momentum. The Twenty-first Amendment was ratified in December 1933, ultimately repealing Prohibition and marking an end to the ‘noble experiment’.

Prohibition’s legacy is complex; it influenced both the societal attitudes toward alcohol and the regulatory frameworks that govern its sale and consumption to this day. The era also highlighted the challenges of enforcing morality through legislation and the economic and social implications of such policy decisions.

Cannabis Prohibition and Criminalization (1937–)

The criminalization of cannabis in the United States has roots that intertwine with historical, social, and political factors. The early laws against cannabis coincided with significant immigration from Mexico to the US during the 1910 Mexican Revolution, leading to racially tinged narratives that linked the plant to crime and addiction. This association was further entrenched by the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which, under the guise of taxation, effectively criminalized cannabis possession, sale, and cultivation.

Despite the plant’s long history of various uses, the early 20th century marked a shift in perception, with cannabis becoming increasingly embroiled in racial and social stigmas. The ‘Reefer Madness’ era of the 1950s further demonized cannabis, portraying it as a societal and moral threat. These cultural shifts were mirrored in restrictive laws that shaped the early legal landscape of cannabis use in America.

However, the journey of cannabis legislation has not been linear. The 1970s saw a burgeoning consensus against punitive laws targeting marijuana users, suggesting a shift towards more lenient attitudes. Yet, federal resistance remained strong, with ongoing efforts to maintain cannabis’s illegal status despite emerging medical applications and growing public support for decriminalization.

Throughout the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st, individual states began to challenge the federal stance, gradually legalizing medical cannabis and, more recently, recreational use in various jurisdictions. This evolution reflects a dynamic legal arena where cannabis laws continue to be a hotbed of debate and reform, highlighting the complex interplay between societal values, medical insights, and legal frameworks.

Health Implications of Alcohol vs. Cannabis

The health impacts of alcohol and cannabis have been widely studied, with both substances showing potential for harm as well as therapeutic benefits.

Health Risks Associated with Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol consumption poses significant health risks that can manifest both in the short and long term. 

  • Addiction and dependence: Unhealthy drinking behaviors can lead to the development of alcohol use disorder (AUD), which affects nearly 30 million people in the US. 
  • Liver damage: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism outlines several detrimental effects of alcohol on various organs and bodily functions, including the liver. The liver, particularly vulnerable to alcohol, can develop conditions such as steatosis, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis due to heavy drinking.
  • Pancreatic damage: Alcohol’s impact on the pancreas can lead to pancreatitis, a painful and potentially dangerous inflammation. The brain is not spared; alcohol disrupts communication pathways, affecting mood and behavior, and can lead to long-term cognitive decline.
  • Cancer: Alcohol consumption is strongly linked to an increased risk of several types of cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also highlights the risk of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems.
  • Mental health conditions: Long-term alcohol use can lead to mental health issues, including the worsening of anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. 

The World Health Organization emphasizes that no level of alcohol consumption can be considered safe and that the risk of harm increases with the amount consumed.

Recognizing the myriad health risks associated with alcohol is essential for informed decision-making and risk reduction strategies. While alcohol consumption is culturally ingrained in many societies, understanding its potential to cause severe health issues is crucial for public health initiatives and individual choices alike.

Health Risks Associated with Cannabis Use

The medical benefits and potential risks of cannabis have been the topic of recent scientific assessments and legislative discussions. Some studies suggest that cannabis has a lower risk profile compared to other controlled substances. Federal health officials have acknowledged these findings and suggest that cannabis could be reclassified as a Schedule III substance, which would place it in the same category as drugs like Tylenol with codeine. This means that cannabis could have medical advantages and a lower risk of physical and psychological dependence.

Despite these developments, concerns about the health risks associated with cannabis use have not been entirely dismissed. Studies indicate that there can be a link between heavy marijuana use and an increase in emergency room visits due to psychiatric effects, such as anxiety disorders. 

This is compounded by the fact that the potency of marijuana has been increasing over the years, which may correlate to more pronounced psychiatric problems and chronic vomiting among users. While the future of cannabis regulation appears to be moving towards a less restrictive classification, it is essential to remain aware of the health risks it may pose, such as high-potency strains and their potential impact on mental health.

Shifting Societal Perceptions on Alcohol vs. Cannabis

The legality of alcohol and cannabis has been influenced by societal perceptions and stigmas. These perceptions have changed over time due to political, social, and cultural factors. The Prohibition Era is an example of a time when alcohol faced strong societal pushback, yet it was eventually made legal again. This suggests that societal norms and legislation have a complex relationship. In contrast, cannabis has been criminalized for a longer period, which can be traced back to early laws that reflect deep-seated stigmas and misinformation.

Societal Views on Alcohol and Their Influence on Legality

In the United States, alcohol has been associated as a way to reduce anxiety after a stressful event or a long day at work. It is often embedded within various cultural norms that do not necessarily lead to negative consequences. This acceptance is linked to the symbolic meanings attached to alcohol, such as celebration, commiseration, and relaxation after work, contributing to its continued legality despite the known health risks.

Access to alcohol may be easier in minority communities due to the higher concentration of liquor stores, which raises questions about targeted marketing and social determinants of health. This suggests that alcohol availability may not be distributed equally across different communities.

Alcohol use disorders (AUDs) can cause people to be unfairly stereotyped as being unpredictable, dangerous, and morally weak. This can make it difficult for them to seek help. However, people’s views on AUD have changed over time. Nowadays, younger generations are more likely to seek help and treatment earlier, including through peer-led mutual-help services.

Evolving Societal Views on Cannabis

The societal perception of cannabis has undergone significant transformation over the years, moving from widespread stigma to increasing acceptance. This shift is reflected in legislative changes and the evolving legal landscape of cannabis use. 

In recent years, the stigma surrounding cannabis has been eroding, as seen in mainstream media and public discourse. Predictions for 2024 indicate a trend towards further legitimization and integration of cannabis into society, with potential federal policy reforms on the horizon and states continuing to adjust their legal frameworks.

Recent statistics show that a substantial portion of the US population now has access to some form of legal cannabis, with 54% living in a state where recreational use is legal and 74% living in a state where both recreational and medicinal use is legal. 

The cannabis industry is also gaining wider acceptance, as indicated by its growing economic potential and projections of significant growth by 2030. This industry’s development is not just limited to its economic aspects but also includes social equity. New legalization efforts aim to address past injustices of the War on Drugs by earmarking licenses for drug war victims.

Although cannabis is becoming more accepted, there are still people who resist it. However, conversations and laws are changing, and it seems like cannabis could become a normal part of society without stigma. The future of cannabis legalization and how it fits into communities will depend on how people view it. As the laws around cannabis continue to change, it’s important to consider how people feel about it and how it will affect society.

Legal Trajectory and Future Trends of Alcohol and Cannabis

Alcohol and cannabis have had a complicated legal history, and their legal status continues to change. While alcohol is legal in most parts of the world, cannabis has undergone significant legal changes in the past decade, particularly in the US.

As of 2024, adult-use cannabis remains illegal under federal law. However, it has been legalized in 24 states, including Washington, DC This reflects a growing trend toward acceptance and regulation of the substance. This shift is accompanied by broader societal support, with public opinion favoring cannabis legalization reaching a record 88%.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is currently reviewing the classification of cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act. This could lead to a rescheduling of the substance and further integration into the medical and pharmaceutical landscapes. Legislative efforts continue to shape the future of cannabis legality, with bipartisan support for bills that could remove cannabis from the Schedule I category and empower states to regulate marijuana independently.

While the alcohol industry remains a significant economic force, cannabis is rapidly gaining ground. With Gen Z and Millennials increasingly turning to cannabis and a growing number of states embracing its legalization, the future points towards a continued reevaluation of cannabis legality.


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