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Women and Prohibition
An Essay in Support of the Women's Visionary Congress
by Annie Harrison
v1.1 - Jul 25, 2007
Citation:   Harrison A. "Women and Prohibition: An Essay in Support of the Women's Visionary Congress". May 2007.
American women have a long history of gathering together to discuss social and political reform. The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was the first women's rights convention held in the United States. Delegates signed a Declaration of Rights and Sentiments declaring that men and women were created equal and called for women's suffrage.

When women organized to secure their political rights in the late 19th century, their top concern was the question of prohibition. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was organized in 1874 by women seeking to address the violence and family problems caused by alcohol.

In the summer of 2007, the Women's Visionary Congress brought together a group of female scholars, researchers, activists, healers and artists who are reexamining drug prohibition and the therapeutic uses of entheogens. This event was intended to encourage discussion of these issues and continue a long tradition of women exercising their rights to shape effective social policies.

Together with the Anti-Saloon League, the WCTU successfully lobbied for alcohol prohibition and championed the passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. The WCTU also played a central role in organizing women's suffrage leaders. By 1920, the suffragettes were victorious and celebrated the passage of the 19th Amendment granting U.S. women the right to vote.

Ten years after the 18th Amendment outlawed alcohol, it became clear to many women that prohibition had created a new set of problems that affected their families. Convinced that prohibition was causing widespread crime, corruption, binge drinking and other social ills, Pauline Sabin founded the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR) in 1929. The WONPR attracted many former Prohibitionists and had an estimated membership of 1.5 million by 1931.

Emboldened by their new political power, the women of WONPR organized a pivotal bloc of women voters and activists who campaigned successfully to overturn prohibition. The 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment that ended alcohol prohibition in 1933. The repeal of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution was unprecedented in American history.

Seventy-four years later, American women are now concerned about the violence, corruption, racially biased enforcement and broken homes caused by the War on Drugs. We see the consequences of drug prohibition mirror and even exceed the harms caused by alcohol prohibition.

Alcohol prohibition was overturned during the Great Depression and this is also an auspicious historical moment for women to play a larger role in rethinking drug policy. We now have the first woman serving as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the first female president of Harvard University and a well-financed woman Senator running for U.S. president. While women in the U.S. House and Senate consider new approaches to the War in Iraq, other women are seeking alternatives to the War on Drugs.

Women who support drug law reform point to a choked criminal justice system, overflowing prisons and an incarceration rate higher than any other nation in the world. We worry that tax dollars are diverted from education and healthcare to pay for the enforcement of drug prohibition.

Polls show that women sometimes vote against drug law reform initiatives because they are concerned about their impact on families. Despite the billions of dollars spent fighting the drug war, many women see that young people still have easy access to drugs and are lured into the trade by drug profits inflated by prohibition.

Women find that they are also personally impacted by drug prohibition. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the most serious offense for 65% of women in federal prisons and 31.5% of women in state prisons is violation of drug laws. WONPR points out that the mothers of nearly 200,000 children are incarcerated and that children with a parent in custody are twice as likely to spend time in prison themselves.

Amnesty International notes that from 1986 to 1996, the number of women sentenced to state prison for drug crimes in the U.S. increased ten fold and has been the main element in the overall increase in the imprisonment of women. Black women are more than twice as likely as Latino women, and four times as likely as white women, to serve time in prison.

Because we are often caregivers, women are closely following promising investigations into the therapeutic potential of entheogens and the development of new drug therapies. Research has shown that these substances may be beneficial for the treatment of physical pain, depression, and anxiety. The first FDA-approved study to investigate the effectiveness of MDMA-assisted therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder is currently underway. With Iraqis suffering daily violence and American troops returning home wounded and traumatized from war, it is imperative that potentially healing substances such as MDMA be investigated.

It is essential that women be included as subjects in this research to accurately determine the potential benefits or harms of entheogens. Women are speaking out to defend the preservation of ecosystems that support entheogenic and healing plants, with known and unknown benefits.

Many women also advocate for the right of patients to use medical cannabis to ease chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer and to provide other forms of relief, without the threat of criminal sanctions. Cannabis has been used medically to treat women's uterine conditions for many centuries and is still a common remedy for menstrual pain. Some women argue that because women's lifespans often exceed those of men, access to effective pain relief is part of a woman's right to make choices about her own body.

Women have played a pivotal role in every stage of the prohibition debate. During the 1930s, our grandmothers and great grandmothers organized to overturn alcohol prohibition when it became a threat to their families and communities. Contemporary women are now seeking alternatives to the damage caused by the War on Drugs.

Revision History #
  • v1.0 - May 2007 - Annie Harrison - Original version.
  • v1.1 - Jul 25, 2007 - Erowid - Minor edits, published on