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An Analysis of Marijuana Policy

National Research Council of the National Academy of Science, 1982


An attempt to describe a full array of policy options together with associated benefits and detriments of each of them was made by the National Coumission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse in its 1972 report, Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding. With respect to the major policy choices, the Commission did a thorough job. The members and staff recognized the limited knowledge base for their deliberations and subsequently recommended that a second commission be appointed to review the situation four years later. Such a follow-up commission was never appointed. It seems appropriate, then, that this Committee reappraise the Commission's work in light of subsequent research findings, especially those relating to recent changes in marijuana policies.

The Commission examined the spectrum of social policies available to control marijuana use and the benefits and detriments of implementing each policy. The legal alternatives presented included those identified above:

complete prohibition; prohibition of supply only; and

regulatory approaches. The Commission emphasized that choosing among the three approaches requires consideration of the social milieu, cultural values, and practicalities of implementation. The Commission considered such social conditions particularly important in examining marijuana controls because both use of the drug and the laws prohibiting supply and use had symbolic importance, representing a clash of values between a dominant culture that opposed marijuana use and a large minority that either used marijuana or condoned its use. The probable effects of the various policies considered by the Commission include changes in use patterns, enforcement costs, and influence on related social concerns such as the marketing of other illicit drugs and general respect for law.

The Commission commented on all three broad policy options. It suggested first that total prohibition has resulted in costly enforcement, alienation of the young, discrimination through selective enforcement, some deterrence of supply (especially to middle-aged and middle-class potential users), but minimal deterrence of use by those with access to the drug. Second, the Commission stated its belief that prohibition of supply only would support the official policy of discouraging use, but at the same time would recognize the practical difficulties of attempting to eliminate use. The report listed a number of choices that might be made under a system of partial prohibition and described some of the practical problems they might entail (e.g., the need to distinguish between casual and commercial distributors). Finally, the Commission described regulation as a policy that only mildly disapproved of occasional use and that concentrated on controlling excessive use, but was mostly designed to lower the costs of prohibiting the drug. The Commission argued that marijuana consumption would increase considerably if complete prohibition were replaced by regulation. In addition, the Commission considered a major drawback of any regulatory system to be that its elimination of the main symbol of society's disapproval--criminal sanctions--would cause resentment among the nonuser majority of the population. Marijuana was described as being symbolic of countercultural lifestyles: "the drug's symbolism creates a risk of strong political reaction to any liberalization of the present laws by older members of the society" (National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, 1972, Appendix Volume 11:1149).

On balance, the Commission concluded that, since the threat of punishment had not apparently deterred the millions of people who had already used marijuana, the replacement of complete by partial prohibition would not produce a significant increase in marijuana use. Consequently, the Commission recommended that individual marijuana users should not be subject to criminal prosecution for their private use or possession of small amounts of the drug, and that, on balance, the best policy was one of prohibition of supply only. In accordance with this view, the Commission recommended that federal and state laws should be amended to achieve partial prohibition. In the decade since the Commission report, a number of states have changed their laws in varying ways. These legal changes can be viewed as natural experiments, and one can use the data from them to reassess the Commission's conclusions regarding these policies.

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