© Michael Duvall / StockPot Images

Cannabis consumers and activists often ask the question: what if marijuana had never been made illegal in the first place?

Obviously, the variables that could result from that change in history are infinite. But we can conjecture about a few things.

My path to writing this piece began with this article from OZY entitled “Is Marijuana the New Martini?” The article discusses how people are replacing things like alcohol and prescription drugs with cannabis now that it is legal in some form in most states in the U.S. From the article linked above:

A study of more than 2,000 Canadian medical marijuana users published in Harm Reduction Journal in January found that 69 percent said they were using it as a replacement for prescription drugs, while 44.5 percent said it substituted alcohol. About a third of the prescription drugs for which cannabis was used as a substitute were opioids, and 59 percent of those surveyed said they completely stopped using opioids in favor of pot. A 2014 report found that states in the U.S. with legal medical cannabis had a 24.8 percent lower annual mortality rate from opioid overdoses.

If this is the effects of legalization, what would be different if marijuana had never been prohibited? What if, say, Harry Anslinger had taken a nasty fall on the steps of the Capitol Building and broke his neck in the mid-30s? What if states hadn’t started prohibiting cannabis in the early 1900s? What if they did, but without Anslinger and federal action, they saw the error of their ways and re-legalized decades ago? What if people actually liked Richard Nixon and he got the U.S out of Vietnam immediately and he had *less* problems with black people and hippies so he didn’t push for the Controlled Substances Act?

How many alcoholics wouldn’t have been created? How many lives that were destroyed by alcoholism would have remained relatively intact? How many beatings wouldn’t have been endured? How many deaths avoided?

If people had always had the option to legally use cannabis as medicine, how many of those people would have lived longer? How many would still be with us?

How many people would have avoided the criminal justice system? How many people would have provided for their family with a job in the legal cannabis industry?

While there is no way to ever quantify prohibition in terms of numbers, I doubt anyone would dispute that the answer to all of the questions above is “millions”. Some may even say “tens of millions”. In any case, we are talking about a seismic shift in the lives of many people, all from one tiny change in history. So many lives that would have been better off if marijuana prohibition had never existed.

I’ve never been a person who is big on “what ifs”, but in this case, I think a little trip back in time can provide helpful perspective to those fighting for legalization today.