Cultural habits have a strong effect on drug legislation. In fact, that might be an understatement–in many cases, a drug’s historical presence in a society is the basis for its legal status.
Consider alcohol, which has existed since inception in nearly every culture. While moderate drinking isn’t much to worry about, it goes without saying that many, many people have compromised the health and safety of others through their alcohol use, be it with drunk driving, intoxication-induced violence, or familial neglect. 30% of Americans admit to having abused alcohol at some point, 40% of murders were perpetrated by someone under the influence of alcohol, and nearly 50% of rapes are committed under the influence, to say nothing of the relationship between alcohol and traffic fatalities, child abuse, theft, etc.
This is not to say that alcohol should be criminalized. However, it does appear that the legality of a drug may not have much to do with the danger it presents to society. One need only return to the (slightly tired, but bear with me) argument that marijuana use has a comparatively neutral impact on crime (7% involvement with homicides, no studied effects on rape) for compelling support of this theory.
So if marijuana is illegal and alcohol is not, legality must be contingent on something besides safety. Historical usage seems to be key, even if it goes unmentioned in legal documents. Consider prohibition in America. Prohibition is commonly cited by those who support alcohol’s legality as evidence that making alcohol illegal doesn’t curb its consumption. Not exactly true, as, during this period, deaths from cirrhosis fell to about 20% of their pre-prohibition levels. However, it is true that alcohol was so well entrenched in American society that demand was still high despite the new law. Therefore, illicit production and incidental crime soared, and the government lost a great deal of tax revenue at an inopportune time (prohibition lasted four years into the Great Depression). In other words, lawmakers tired of attempting to reshape cultural habits.
Let’s compare the history of alcohol to that of marijuana. Ubiquitous as it seems now, marijuana was not widely used in America before the 20th century, despite the prevalence of hemp crops in the colonies. The majority of marijuana users in the early 20th century were farm workers who had immigrated from Mexico, prompting marijuana criminalization. Therefore, widespread cannabis use in America has shallow roots, with a history that doesn’t span more than a few decades. With such a limited history and only 52% of Americans supporting marijuana legalization, demand for cannabis is sufficiently low to make illegality feasible. However, as our marijuana habit grows in age, legislation may be unable to contend with cultural tendencies. Behavior over time, it seems, may be the true backbone of drug law.