The New York legislature is considering a bill to decriminalize marijuana, and as history demonstrated during the era of alcohol prohibition, state refusal to criminalize can bring down marijuana prohibition across the country.

Senate Bill 137 (SB137) was introduced on Jan. 7 to alter established law enforcement priorities in the state of New York if it’s passed into law. It was introduced on Jan. 7 by State Sen. Daniel Squadron (D-District 26) and will need to pass through the Senate Code Committee before it can receive a full vote in the state senate.

The bill states that “unlawful possession of marihuana is a violation punishable only by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars.” However, repeated violators would face stiffer fines with each subsequent offense and eventually could face jail time. The decriminalization statute applies only to people carrying up to 25 grams of marijuana on their person.

SB137 seeks to end the discriminatory sentencing that has become the hallmark of the federal drug war. Minorities typically receive more time in jail or prison than their white counterparts when committing similar crimes. Decriminalization would make it so that low-level marijuana users of all backgrounds and colors are less likely to be trapped in the prison-industrial complex.

Between medical marijuana, decriminalization and legalization measures, over half of the states have rebuked the federal drug war in some form. The marijuana issue acts as a metaphorical ‘gateway drug’ to the idea of state and local resistance to federal laws. With this issue, it is possible to show the residents of your state that local control better serves the needs of the people than the top-down federal approach that has failed for so many decades.

There is also a precedent throughout American history indicating measures such as SB137 will prove successful in thwarting federal policy. When the federal Volstead Act was passed in 1919, it prohibited alcohol for possession, consumption, and distribution. Proponents of prohibition assumed that liquor would become a thing of the past with the passage of this federal edict. Individuals and states acted in widespread defiance of the federal law, and that eventually led to the policy coming to an end. People simply ignored the law. By 1925, in New York City alone, there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs.

In addition to proliferation of speakeasies and large numbers of Americans openly flouting alcohol prohibition, state-level resistance played an important factor in bringing down alcohol prohibition as well. According to the comprehensive book Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History, 28 states stopped funding prohibition enforcement by 1928, and local police were “sporadic in their enforcement efforts.” Some states even went as far as enacting laws to ban law enforcement from enforcing prohibition.

State legislators were not shy in expressing their disgust and disdain with the federal laws. In a 1925 address to Congress, Maryland State Senator Cabell Bruce stated:

National prohibition went into legal effect upward of six years ago, but it can be truly said that, except to a highly qualified extent, it has never gone into practical effect at all…

It (prohibition) has brought about close working relations between the bootlegger and thousands of the most intelligent and virtuous members of American society who feel no more compunction about violating the Volstead Act than the Free Soiler did about violating the fugitive slave law…”

Sen. Bruce had it right. Prohibition was one of the worst policies ever devised. It not only failed to stop people from drinking, it also gave rise to organized crime, not unlike the drug cartels enabled by modern marijuana prohibition. But thanks to individuals and states refusing to go along with the federal policy, and the feds inability to enforce it with the resources available., it was brought to an end. Even Washington D.C. bureaucrats ultimately had to admit their policy was a failure and brought alcohol prohibition to an end.

They will do the same with the modern-day incarnation of alcohol prohibition – the “War on Drugs” if states continue to defy the feds. Activists just have to keep working at the lower levels of government to force the feds to capitulate.

Although the passage of SB137 in New York would not mean an immediate end to the war on marijuana, activists should embrace any opportunity to help New York take control of its own drug policy, regardless of what the feds think it should do. State refusal to criminalize can bring down federal prohibition and passage of this legislation will add yet another piece to the puzzle.


If you live in the state of New York, contact your state legislators immediately. Tell your state senator to co-sponsor SB137. Tell your state representative to introduce similar legislation in their chamber. That is how you can make a difference in the fight against cannabis prohibition.

If you live in different state, contact your state legislators and urge them to introduce a supporting bill to SB137 such as our P.E.A.C.E (Preventing Excessive Allocations for Cannabis Enforcement) Act.

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