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An Analysis of Marijuana Policy

National Research Council of the National Academy of Science, 1982


Since the early 1960s the use of marijuana as an intoxicant by a growing proportion of the American population has been an issue of major national concern. Despite repeated warnings of possible adverse health consequences and persistent efforts by law enforcement agencies to restrict the supply and use of marijuana, available data indicate that experimentation with or regular use of the drug is no longer restricted to a small minority of Americans. In 1979, for example, 68 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 reported having tried marijuana; 35.4 percent reported having used marijuana in the last month. Among adults over age 26, the proportion having ever used marijuana has more than doubled since 1971) from 9.2 percent to 19.6 percent (Fishburne et al., 1980; see Table I, below).

Although "the marijuana problem" may be viewed as of recent origin, marijuana is not a new drug. The cannabis plant has been cultivated and used both for its intoxicating properties and for its fiber (hemp) throughout the world for more than 10,000 years (Abel, 1980). At various times and places attempts have been made to restrict its use as an intoxicant; at other times and places its virtues have been extolled for medical purposes, and it has played a significant role in religious ritual. Because cannabis is easily grown--indeed, it is one of the hardiest of all plant species--its resin has been used for centuries along with tobacco, fermented distillates of grains and fruits (alcohol), and opium derivatives as one means of relieving stresses associated with daily life.

Despite its long history) the use of cannabis as an intoxicant was relatively unknown in the United States until the latter part of the nineteenth century) and even then its use as a drug was restricted to a tiny fraction of the population) primarily immigrants from Mexico. The first efforts to restrict its use in this country did not occur until 1911) when Congress) which at that time was considering proposals for federal antinarcotics legislation) listened to arguments that cannabis should be included in the list of illegal drugs. That effort failed) but during the next two decades a number of state legislatures moved to prohibit the possession of marijuana unless prescribed by a physician. It was not until 1937, when the Marijuana Tax Law was enacted) that the federal government became involved in the attempt to control its use. Even this law recognized the industrial uses of hemp and also exempted the seeds of the plant) which were then being sold as bird feed. In 1956, Congress included marijuana in the Narcotics Act of that year and, in 1961, the United Nations adopted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the terms of which state that each participating country could "adopt such measures as may be necessary to prevent misuse of, and illicit traffic in) the leaves of the cannabis plant." Congress approved participation in the convention in 1967 and three years later passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which provides the basis for current federal prohibitions regarding marijuana use.

Despite this history it was not until the 1960s that most Americans became aware of marijuana. The political and cultural protests of that period focused public attention on young people, their life-styles, and their use of drugs, including marijuana. That period created the context in which public policies regarding marijuana use have been debated since the early 1970s. As Abel (1980) points Out, for the first time marijuana use was not restricted to minority groups and fringe elements of society: many of the new users were native-born, middle-class, white college students. Without doubt, the political and cultural context in which marijuana emerged as an issue of national concern has strongly influenced the subsequent policy debate about its use.

The policy debate about marijuana use has also brought into sharp focus two conflicting but deeply held beliefs of large and overlapping segments of the American population. To many, the use of drugs of any kind solely for the purpose of producing states of intoxication is abhorrent, entirely apart from any presumed health effects. At the same time, many people strongly defend the right of individuals to privately indulge their desires, so long as others are not adversely affected. Adding to the complexity of the issues are continuing uncertainties about the health and developmental consequences of marijuana use, concern over the growing number of adolescent users, the social consequences of prosecuting otherwise law-abiding citizens for possession and use of marijuana, the relationship between the distribution of marijuana and that of other illegal drugs, the costs of enforcement of current laws, and the economic implications of the persistence of very large illegal markets.

The next section of this report presents a brief summary of existing evidence regarding the health consequences of marijuana use, drawing heavily on the recently completed study by the Institute of Medicine. The third section summarizes existing federal and state laws relating to the supply and use of marijuana. The fourth section of the report reviews the conclusions of the report of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (1972). The next two sections deal, respectively, with policies regarding the use and the supply of marijuana. The two final sections present a summary of the committee's conclusions regarding major policy options and recommendations for research needed to more adequately assess those options.


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