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An Analysis of Marijuana Policy

National Research Council of the National Academy of Science, 1982


In 1978 the Committee on Substance Abuse and Habitual Behavior began a study of marijuana policy at the request and with the support of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Sharp increases in marijuana use along with suggestions for reform of existing marijuana laws from scientists and policy makers prompted a renewed look at those laws. In addition, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, in its 1973 final report, Drug Use in America: Problem in Perspective, had recommended that a follow-up commission be appointed to review possible changes in the situation four years later. That recommendation was not implemented, so the Committee took as a framework for its task the assessment that the Commission recommended, especially the assessment of new evidence regarding the effects of recent changes in state marijuana policies.

The Committee conducted its study with awareness of the intensity of past controversies about marijuana use in U.S. society. In the four years since the Committee began its work, there has been an increase in visible concern among many parents about marijuana use among youth, its potential risks to the health of children, and the possibility that heavy use by some young people may seriously threaten their education. Parents who have experienced problems with their own children, or observed those of others, have organized to make marijuana policies a major item on current political agendas. In comparison with the situation at the inception of this study, there is today greater rancor in public discussion, press reports, legislative hearings, and policy-oriented technical meetings related to marijuana use.

This is the context in which the Committee completed its review of the evidence and arguments of earlier studies and weighed the significance of subsequent evidence for the major policy alternatives. Every policy has potentially good and potentially bad effects, and policy choices involve difficult comparisons of such effects. It is important to recognize that to allow the inertia developed by existing policies to prevent change is itself a choice.

The Committee is aware that analyzing a topic that is the subject of heated social debate has its hazards. Many of those participating in the marijuana debate have already selected what they take to be the admissible terms of the discussion and look with disfavor on anyone's insistence on a wider set of considerations. For example, some would settle the issue on physiological grounds alone: whether cannabis products, in the dose ranges customarily used by most people, cause tissue damage. Defenders of marijuana use may seize on the ambiguity or absence of evidence for such damage and ignore any other effects on education or safety; those opposed to marijuana use may emphasize the possibility of chronic disease that is suggested by some laboratory findings and ignore the social, political, and economic costs of fighting a well-established custom.

This report does not review and analyze every conceivable policy nuance or option. It addresses the major choices--both because these families of alternative policies subsume many variants and because the choice among these major options must be discussed before specific, perhaps new, policy instruments can be designed.

The Committee wishes to make clear what it regards as the limits of this report for the selection of policy alternatives. Scientific judgment can estimate the prevalence of different kinds of use, risks to health, economic costs, and the like under current policies and can try to project such estimates for new policies. It can come to some conclusions based on those estimates. But selection of an alternative is always a value-governed choice, which can ultimately be made only by the political process. The role of scientific evidence in this process is not inconsiderable, even though, at times, the strongest evidence may be pushed aside and the wildest speculation prevail. But the weight of the evidence is only one factor in the process of policy formation; ultimately, that process involves value choices.

In completing its report, the Committee has benefited from many people in formulating, revising, and updating the analyses and data. A very early version of this report was discussed at the Committee's annual conference in 1979, and subsequent versions benefited from comments by staff of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and of the National Research Council. The final draft received close and constructive attention by members of the National Research Council's Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, the Institute of Medicine, and the Report Review Committee of the National Academy of Sciences.

We have also maintained a close liaison with the staff and members of the Institute of Medicine's Committee to Study the Health-Related Effects of Cannabis and Its Derivatives, on which three members of our Committee also served, and whose recently published report, Marijuana and Health, significantly contributed to our work.

Two former Committee members, Troy Duster and Michael Agar, assisted in the early preparation of the report. At later stages we were very ably assisted by the staff of the Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, in particular David Goslin, executive director, and Eugenia Grohman, associate director for reports. Without their help, it is doubtful that we could have completed this task. Finally, we are indebted to the staff and members of the Committee, for their diligence, patience, and commitment to a difficult assignment.

Louis Lasagna, Chair

Gardner Lindzey, Chair, 1977-1980

Committee on Substance Abuse and Habitual Behavior

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