• Gregory Z. Smith


Updated: Mar 30, 2019

One hundred years ago today, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, and just over a year later, on January 17, 1920, it went into effect. Almost fourteen years later, on December 5, 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment repealed it. That period, when the consumption of alcohol was prohibited in the United States, is known as "Prohibition." Ever since then, it has often been cited as a failed effort.

Now, a similar dilemma faces us with the use of cannabis being criminal under federal law, but increasingly being decriminalized at the state and local levels.

Many consider both alcohol and cannabis similar intoxicants, and yet one is legal and the other is not. The frequent question is often, "Didn't we learn anything from Prohibition?"

While I steer clear of alcohol and cannabis use myself, my views on the subject of prohibition have remained essentially the same since I wrote a paper my freshman year in college in favor of legalizing marijuana. That was almost fifty years ago, but I still remember the professor's comment that I'd written the most convincing argument in the class in favor of legalization.

The critical piece for me is that we continue to make the mistake of believing that certain behaviors can be changed by law. Some may be, but others defy the logic of "Don't do it if it is illegal!" Basically, while we all seem to know that intoxication can be problematic, destructive, even lethal, we seem to believe that the ill-effects only happen to other people. Then, in generally trying to curtail those ill-effects, we do a poor job of educating our young people and the existing consumers of such drugs of the dangers.

When we were discussing drug use in the classes I taught, I started pointing out to my students that they were going to have to be the ones to make the choice. Legal or not, they were going to have to be the ones assessing the benefits and detriments of drug consumption on their health and their aspirations for their lives. They would be the ones faced with the questions, and they would have to know what they believed was right for them, regardless of what the law or their friends told them.

We all know people who tolerate certain drugs (and I include tobacco and alcohol as drugs) better than others do. We are all different. So, some people try cigarettes and walk away uninterested, while others are very quickly so addicted they struggle horribly when they eventually decide to quit. Similarly, there are people who can drink in moderation with no problem while they have family members or friends who become alcoholic. There are no simple, universal answers, and I have to venture that this is true of cannabis as well.

Thus, when asked if I favor the City of Las Cruces seeking ways to decriminalize cannabis, I point out that Prohibition of alcohol was fairly quickly repealed because it was so flagrantly ignored in some communities, and it would seem that prohibition of cannabis is being similarly ignored (while contributing to a large number of non-violent criminals being incarcerated). Still, there are some serious issues that have to be considered with decriminalizing at a state or local level, and I have some reservations about heading down that path without a change in federal law.

I have supported the City Council having a work session on the subject, and I look forward to learning more about the options available to us at our work session on April 8. I also look forward to in depth discussion of what statistics and research have to say. We need to be smart going forward.

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