We know that the United States Constitution is a document with built-in provision for change. That’s what all of these amendments are for in the first place. Rarely, though, has this been on display as rapidly as during the 14-year swing between the passage of Prohibition in 1919 and its repeal in 1933. The text of the Twenty-first Amendment is reads (in part):
Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
With it, our national experiment in banning liquor, beer, and wine was over. Though individual states were still welcome to make whatever laws they wished regarding booze, the United States itself would not get involved. Prohibition was considered a failure, and over time various state laws too began to change in a more freeing direction.
The idea of Prohibition was an interesting one which had noble goals. Unfortunately, however, it also had the practice of hundreds and thousands of years of human culture weighing against it. Humanity has consumed intoxicating beverages since its first discovery of fermentation, and making a law against something which seemed so natural was probably always fraught with peril.
The goal of the government in initiating Prohibition was a moral one. It was about protection. Those that rebelled against it wanted something else: the freedom to do what they wanted.
This tension–freedom versus protection–is one that animates a great deal of our American political discourse. Think of the way the gun control debate is sometimes framed. Consider the arguments made over the NSA monitoring scandal. And, of course, in light of the 21st Amendment and the upcoming “Weed Bowl” between Colorado and Washington, the issue of marijuana legalization.
That marijuana does not have the same ubiquity throughout history as does alcohol is obvious. This fact alone explains some of the anguished controversy over its legalization when compared with our brief dance with Prohibition. Further, others have claimed–even though I believe this is debated–that it can function as a “gateway drug.” Some note its effects are more severe than moderate amounts of alcohol–making a certain kind of inebriation the immediate effect of its use. For those opposed to drunkenness for moral and safety reasons, this is argument enough. But then, of course, there are others (President Obama included) who say that it is no more dangerous that alcohol.
In some ways, the debate comes down to, once again, the issue of freedom versus protection. Are we free to do whatever we want? Strictly speaking, no. There are lots of things people want to do that are illegal. Murder. Rape. Theft. Insider trading. Refusing to pay income taxes. Downloading child pornogaphy. But then there are also freedoms (ownership of certain firearms or drinking big sodas in New York City) made illegal that have caused many citizens to balk. All of these laws are passed for a reason, but some are seen to cross a line that makes them illegitimate.
Clearly, the United States has decided that certain things are OK to limit, whereas others are not. So, in addition to asking “how much freedom is too much freedom?,” the follow-up question of which things are legitimate to regulate persists.
The easy answer? Saying that “you can’t legislate morality.” Though true at a certain level, all governments do this with their policies and lawmaking (explicitly and implicitly) all the time. While laws can never change the inner person, they can direct action in directions moral and immoral by what they allow or disallow. Morality is legislated if you legalize marijuana; it is also legislated if you continue to ban it.
No answers here today, just a host of issues worth considering as the legacy of the 21st Amendment greets us in the Age of Pot.