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Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding


The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse

Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding

I -- marihuana and the problem of marihuana


"There are no whole truths; all truths are half -truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil."

Alfred North Whitehead (1953)

We are a nation of problem-solvers. We are restless and impatient with perceived gaps between the way things are and the way we think ought to be. Understandably, such an impulse toward self-correction never leaves us wanting for social problems to solve. Although it is a prerequisite to social progress, this problem-solving orientation misdirects our attention. In order to maximize public awareness we are apt to characterize situations as being far worse than they really are. Because any activity is commonly regarded as a move toward a solution, rhetoric and stopgap legislation sometimes substitute for rational reflection. We become so impressed with social engineering that we overlook inherent human limitations.

Since the mid-sixties, American society has been increasingly agitated by what has been defined as a marihuana problem. The typical sequences of "a national problem" have resulted: exaggeration, polarization and the inevitable demand for a. solution. The appointment of this Commission and the publication of this Report reflect the escalation of marihuana use into the realm of social problem. Since the beginning of our official life, we have grappled with the threshold question: Why has the use of marihuana reached problem status in the public mind?

Origins of the Marihuana Problem

Marihuana has been used as an intoxicant in various parts of the world for centuries and in this country for 75 years. Yet use of the drug has been regarded as a problem of major proportions for less than a decade. We will not find the reasons for contemporary social concern in pharmacology texts or previous governmental reports, for we are dealing with two separate realities: a drug with certain pharmacologic properties and determinable, although variable, effects on man; and a pattern of human behavior, individual and group, which has, as a behavior, created fear, anger, confusion, and uncertainty among a large segment of the contemporary American public. The marihuana behavior pattern is the source of the marihuana controversy.

The most apparent feature of the behavior is that it is against the law. But inconsistency between behavior and the legal norm is not sufficient, in itself, to create a social problem. Marihuana, has been an illegal substance for several decades; and the widespread violation of laws against gambling and adultery have not excited the public to the same extent as has marihuana-smoking in recent years.

At the same time, we suspect that illegality may play an important role in problem definition where drugs are concerned. Alcohol is of proven danger to individual and societal health and the public is well aware of its dangers, yet use of this drug has not been accorded the same problem status. Marihuana's illegality may have been a necessary condition for the marihuana problem, but the increased violation of the legal proscription does not by itself explain the phenomenon.

The Commission believes that three interrelated factors have fostered the definition of marihuana as a major national problem. First, the illegal behavior is highly visible to all segments of our society. Second, use of the drug is perceived to threaten the health and morality not only of the individual but of the society itself. Third, and most important, the drug has evolved in the late sixties and early seventies, as a symbol of wider social conflicts and public issues.


More than anything else, the visibility of marihuana use by a segment of our population previously unfamiliar with the drug is what stirred public anxiety and thrust marihuana into the problem area. Marihuana usage in the United States has been with us for a very long period of time, dating back to the beginning of the century. For decades its use was mainly confined to the underprivileged socioeconomic groups in our cities and to certain insulated social groups, such as jazz musicians and artists. As long as use remained confined to these groups and had a negligible impact on the dominant social order, the vast majority of Americans remained unconcerned. From the other side, the insulated marihuana user was in no position to demand careful public or legislative scrutiny.

However, all this changed markedly in the mid-1960's. For various reasons, marihuana use became a common form of recreation for many middle and upper class college youth. The trend spread across the country, into the colleges and high schools and into the affluent suburbs as well. Use by American servicemen in Vietnam was frequent. In recent years, use of the drug has spanned every social class and geographic region.

The Commission-sponsored National Survey, "A Nationwide Study of Beliefs, Information and Experiences," indicated that some 24 million Americans have tried marihuana at least once and that at least 8.3 million are current users.

Other surveys uniformly indicate that more than 40% of the U.S. college population have tried marihuana, and in some universities the figure is much higher. Also, use of the drug has become almost as common among young adults out of college, and among older teenagers in high school. The National Survey indicates that 39%, of young adults between 18 and 25 years of age have tried marihuana. The stereotype of the marihuana user as a marginal citizen has given way to a composite picture of large segments of American youth, children of the dominant majority and very much a part of the mainstream of American life.

Public confusion, anger, and fear over this development became increasingly apparent during the mid and late 1960's. Such mass deviance was a problem and the scope of the problem was augmented by frequent publicity. The topic of the usage of marihuana by the young received considerable attention from newspapermen and television reporters. The drug's youthful users abetted the media in this regard by flaunting their disregard of the law, Few of us have not seen or heard of marihuana being used en masse at rock concerts, political demonstrations and gatherings of campus activists.

In addition, new scientific and medical interest in marihuana and its use was stimulated by the sudden public interest. For the first time in the American experience, the drug became the subject of intensive scrutiny in the laboratories and clinics. Unfortunately, this research was conducted in the spotlight of public controversy. Isolated findings and incomplete information have automatically been presented to the public, with little attempt made to place such findings in a larger perspective or to analyze their meanings.

Any new marihuana research has had ready access to the news spotlight and often has been quickly assimilated into the rhetoric of the marihuana, debate. Science has become a weapon in a propaganda battle. Because neither the reporters nor the public have the expertise to evaluate this information, the result has been an array of conflicting anecdotal reports, clinical studies on limited populations, and surveys of restricted utility.

Visibility, intense public interest, and fishbowl research are all important components of the marihuana problem.


Although marihuana is taken by most users for curiosity or pleasure, the non-using public still feels seriously affected by use of the drug. Several decades ago it was popularly asserted that the drug brought about a large variety of social and individual ills, including crime and insanity. As a result it was prohibited by federal law in 1937. The marihuana explosion of the mid-sixties occurred within the context of 30 years of instilled fear. Although based much more on fantasy than on proven fact, the marihuana "evils" took root in the public mind, and now continue to color the public reaction to the marihuana phenomenon. Even beyond the violation of law, the widespread use of marihuana, is seen as a threat to society in other ways. And the threats grow proportionately as the controversy swells.

It has been astutely observed that any statement frequently repeated in public assumes the status of fact. With so many people continually arguing about marihuana, the public has understandably become alarmed and confused.

On the basis of the National Survey, we have tried to identify the ways in which the public feels threatened by marihuana use. Essentially these threats fall into three general categories: threats to the public safety, threats to the public health, and threats to the dominant social order.

In terms of public safety, the concern is with the relationship between marihuana and aggressive behavior, crime and juvenile delinquency. Threats to the public health usually refer initially to the impact of marihuana on the user. Lethality, psychosis, addiction potential and effects of chronic long-term use, are major concerns. Additionally, the fear exists that marihuana leads to the use of more dangerous drugs, especially LSD and heroin.

The threat which marihuana use is thought to present to the dominant social order is a major undercurrent of the marihuana problem. Use of the drug is linked with idleness, lack of motivation, hedonism and sexual promiscuity. Many see the drug as fostering a counterculture which conflicts with basic moral precepts as well as with the operating functions of our society. The "dropping out" or rejection of the established value system is viewed with alarm. Marihuana becomes more than a drug; it becomes a symbol of the rejection of cherished values.


The symbolic aspects of marihuana are the, most intangible of the items to which the Commission must address itself, and yet they may be at the heart of the marihuana problem. Use of marihuana was, and still is, age-specific. It was youth-related at a time in American history when the adult society was alarmed by the implications of the youth " movement": defiance of the established order, the adoption of new life styles, the emergence of "street people," campus unrest, drug use, communal living, protest politics, and even political radicalism. In an age characterized by the so-called generation gap, marihuana symbolizes the cultural divide.

For youth, marihuana became a convenient symbol of disaffection with traditional society, an allure which supplemented its recreational attraction. Smoking marihuana may have appealed to large numbers of youth who opposed certain policies or trends, but who maintained faith in the American system as a whole. In ;a time when symbolic speech is often preferred to the literal form, marihuana was a convenient instrument of mini-protest. It was also an agent of group solidarity, as the widely-publicized rock concerts so well illustrate.

For the adult society, the decade of the sixties was a distressing time. The net effect of racial unrest, campus disruption, political assassination, economic woes and an unpopular war was widespread uneasiness. Attending a general fear that the nation was witnessing its own disintegration was a desire to shore up our institutions and hold the line. That line was easy to define where drugs, particularly marihuana, were concerned.

Use of drugs, including marihuana, is against the law. For many, marihuana symbolized disorder in a society frustrated by increasing lawlessness. Insistence on application of the law tended also to harden views, thereby escalating still further the use of marihuana as a symbolic issue.

The social conflicts underlying the drug's symbolic status have dissipated somewhat in the past few years; and in some ways, the Commission has similarly noted a partial deflation of the marihuana problem and of the emotionalism surrounding it. We are hopeful that our attempt to clarify the scientific and normative dimensions of marihuana use will further deemphasize, the problem orientation and facilitate rational decision-making.

The Need for Perspective

This Commission has the task of exploring the marihuana controversy from as many vantage points as possible in its attempt to make sound, realistic and workable policy recommendations. Because we are dealing essentially with a complex social concern rather than a simple pharmacologic phenomenon, any social policy decision must discuss the realities of marihuana as a drug, marihuana use as a form of behavior, and marihuana as a symbol.

Particularly important is the determination of the longevity of the behavior. Are we dealing with a behavior that is becoming rooted in our culture or are we experiencing an aberration, a fad that will in time, of its own accord, pass away?

The vortex of the marihuana controversy is the present, but the prudent policy planner must not be blinded by the deluge of recent statistics. It is important that we scan the past for clues about the meaning of certain behavior and the promise offered by various social policy responses. We are convinced that a wider historical understanding will also go a long way toward deflating marihuana as a problem.


When viewed in the context of American society's ambivalent response to the non-medical use of drugs, the marihuana problem is not unique. Both the existing social policy toward the drug and its contemporary challenge have historical antecedents and explanations. Somewhat surprisingly, until the last half of the 19th century, the only drugs used to any significant extent for non-medical purposes in this country were alcohol and tobacco.

American opinion has always included some opposition to the nonmedical use of any drug, including alcohol and tobacco. From colonial times through the Civil War, abstentionist outcries against alcohol and tobacco sporadically provoked prohibitory legislation. One 18th century pamphleteer advised against the use of any drink "which is liable to steal away a man's senses and render him foolish, irascible, uncontrollable and dangerous." Similarly, one 19th century observer attributed delirium tremens, perverted sexuality, impotency, insanity and cancer to the smoking and chewing of tobacco.

Despite such warnings, alcohol and tobacco use took deep root in American society. De Tocqueville noted what hard drinkers the Americans were, and Dickens was compelled to report that "in all the public places of America, this filthy custom [tobacco chewing] is recognized." Nonetheless, the strain in our culture opposed to all non-medical drug use persisted and in the late 19th century gained ardent adherents among larger segments of the population.

Beginning in earnest around 1870, abstentionists focused the public opinion process on alcohol. As science and politics were called to the task, public attention was drawn to the liquor problem. "Liquor is responsible for 19% of the divorces, 25% of the poverty, 25% of the insanity, 37% of the pauperism, 45% of child desertion and 50% of the crime in this country," declared the Anti-Saloon League. "And this," it was noted, "is a very conservative estimate."

The Temperance advocates achieved political victory during the second decade of the 20th century. By 1913, nine states were under statewide prohibition, and in 31 other states local option laws operated, with the ultimate effect that more than 50% of the nation's population lived under prohibition. Four years later, Congress approved the 18th Amendment and on January 16, 1919, Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the Amendment, thus inscribing national Prohibition in the Constitution.

Although on a somewhat smaller scale and with lesser results, public attention was simultaneously attracted to a growing tobacco problem. Stemming partly from the immediate popularity of cigarette-smoking, a practice introduced after the Civil War, and partly from riding the coattails of abstentionist sentiment, anti-tobacconists achieved a measure of success which had previously eluded them. The New York Time editorialized in 1885 that:

The decadence of Spain began when the Spaniards adopted cigarettes and if this pernicious habit obtains among adult Americans, the ruin of the Republic is close at hand. . . .

Between 1895 and 1921, 14 states banned the sale of cigarettes.

Although though there has been some posthumous debate about the efficacy of alcohol Prohibition as a means of reducing excessive or injurious use, the experiment failed to achieve its declared purpose: elimination of the practice of alcohol consumption. The habit was too ingrained in the society to be excised simply by cutting off legitimate supply.

In addition, the 18th Amendment never commanded a. popular consensus; in fact, the Wickersham Commission, appointed by President Hoover in 1929 to study Prohibition, attributed the Amendment's enactment primarily to public antipathy toward the saloon, the large liquor dealers and intemperance rather than to public opposition to use of the drug.

Subsequent observers have agreed that Prohibition was motivated primarily by a desire to root out the institutional evils associated with the drug's distribution and excessive use; only a minority of its supporters opposed all use. And in this respect, Prohibition succeeded. Upon repeal, 13 years after ratification, liquor was back, but the pre-Prohibition saloon and unrestrained distribution had been eliminated from the American scene.

Both the scope of the alcohol habit and the ambivalence of supporting opinion are manifested in the internal logic of Prohibition legislation. The legal scheme was designed to cut off supply, not to punish the consumer. Demand could be eliminated effectively, if at all, only through educational efforts. Only five states prohibited possession of alcohol for personal use in the home. Otherwise, under both federal and state law, the individual remained legally free to consume alcohol.

The anti-tobacco movement was not propelled by the institutions outrage or the cultural symbolism surrounding the alcohol problem It never succeeded on a national scale. Local successes were attributable to the temporary strength of the abstentionist impulse, together with the notion that tobacco-smoking was a stepping-stone to alcohol use Lacking the consensus necessary to reverse a spreading habit, tobacco "prohibition" never extended to possession. Insofar as the anti-tobacco movement was really a coattail consequence of alcohol Prohibition, is not surprising that all 14 states which had prohibited sale repealed their proscriptions by 1927.

By the early 1930's, the abstentionist thrust against alcohol and tobacco had diminished. State and federal governments contented themselves with regulating distribution and extracting revenue. When the decade ended, the general public no longer perceived alcohol and tobacco use as social problems. The two drugs had achieved social legitimacy.

A comparison between the national flirtation with alcohol and tobacco prohibition and the prohibition of the non-medical use of other drugs is helpful in analyzing the marihuana issue. In 1900, only a handful of states regulated traffic in "narcotic" drugs--opium, morphine, heroin and cocaine even though, proportionately, more persons probably were addicted to those drugs at that time than at any time since. Estimates from contemporary surveys are questionable, but a conservative estimate is a quarter of a million people, comprising at least 1% of the population. This large user population in 1900 included more females than males, more whites than blacks, was not confined to a particular geographic region or to the cities, and was predominantly middle class.

This 19th century addiction was generally accidental and well hidden. It stemmed in part from over-medication, careless prescription practices, repeated refills and hidden distribution of narcotic drugs in patent medicines. Society responded to this largely invisible medical addiction in indirect, informal ways. Self -regulation by the medical profession and pharmaceutical industry, stricter prescription practices by the state governments and regulation of labeling by the Federal Government in 1906 all combined in the early years of the new century to reduce the possibility of this accidental drug addiction.

About this same time, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, attention within the law enforcement and medical communities was drawn to another use of narcotics----the "pleasure" or "street" use of these drugs by ethnic minorities in the nation's cities. Society reacted to this narcotics problem by enacting criminal legislation, prohibiting the non-medical production, distribution or consumption of these drugs. Within a very few years, every state had passed anti-narcotics legislation, and in 1914 the Federal Government passed the Harrison Narcotics Act.

The major differences between the temperance and anti-narcotics movements must be, emphasized. The temperance, movement was a matter of vigorous public debate; the anti-narcotics movement was not. Temperance legislation was the product of a highly organized nation-wide lobby; narcotics legislation was largely ad hoc. Temperance legislation was designed to eradicate known problems resulting from alcohol abuse; narcotic--, legislation was largely anticipatory. Temperance legislation rarely restricted private activity; narcotics legislation prohibited all drug-related behavior, including possession and use.

These divergent policy patterns reflect the clear-cut separation in the public and professional minds between alcohol and tobacco on the one hand, and "narcotics" on the other. Use of alcohol and tobacco were indigenous American practices. The intoxicant use of narcotics was not native, however, and the users of these drugs were either alien, like the Chinese opium smokers, or perceived to be marginal members of society.

As to the undesirability and immorality of nonmedical use of narcotics, there was absolutely no debate. By causing its users to be physically dependent, the narcotic drug was considered a severe impediment to individual participation in the economic and political systems. Use, it was thought, automatically escalated to dependence and excess, which led to pauperism, crime and insanity. From a sociological perspective, narcotics use was thought to be prevalent among the slothful and immoral populations, gamblers, prostitutes, and others who were already "undesirables." Most important was the threat that narcotics posed to the vitality of the nation's youth.

In short, the narcotics question was answered in unison: the nonmedical use of narcotics was a cancer which had to be removed entirely from the social organism.

Marihuana smoking first became prominent on the American scene in the decade following the Harrison Act. Mexican immigrants and West Indian sailors introduced the practice in the border and Gulf states. As the Mexicans spread throughout the West and immigrated to the major cities, some of them carried the marihuana habit with them. The practice also became common among the same urban populations with whom opiate use was identified.

Under such circumstances, an immediate policy response toward marihuana quite naturally followed the narcotics pattern rather than the alcohol or tobacco pattern. In fact, marihuana was incorrectly classified as a "narcotic" drug in scientific literature and statutory provisions. By 1931, all but two states west of the Mississippi and several more in the East had enacted prohibitory legislation making it a criminal offense to possess or use the drug.

In 1932, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws included an optional marihuana, provision in the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act, and by 1937 every state, either by adoption of the Uniform Act or by separate legislation, had prohibited marihuana use. In late 1937, the Congress adopted the Marihuana Tax Act, superimposing a, federal prohibitory scheme on the state scheme.

Not once during this entire period was any comprehensive scientific study undertaken in this country of marihuana, or its effects. The drug was assumed to be a 'narcotic' to render the user psychologically dependent, to provoke violent crime, and to cause insanity. Although media attention was attracted to marihuana use around 1935, public awareness was low and public debate non-existent. As long as use remained confined to insulated minorities throughout the next quarter century, the situation remained stable. When penalties for narcotics violations escalated in the 1950's, marihuana penalties went right along with them, until a first-offense possessor was a felon subject to lengthy incarceration.

With this historical overview in mind, it is not surprising that the contemporary marihuana experience has been characterized by fear and confusion on one side and outrage and protest on the other. As scientific and medical opinion has become better known, marihuana has lost its direct link with the narcotics in the public mind and in the statute books.

But extensive ambivalence remains about the policies for various drugs. Marihuana's advocates contend that it is no more or less harmful than alcohol and tobacco and should therefore be treated in similar fashion. The drug's adversaries contend that it is a stepping-stone to the narcotics and should remain prohibited. At the present time public opinion tends to consider marihuana less harmful than the opiates and cocaine and more harmful than alcohol and tobacco.

Interestingly, while marihuana. is perceived as less harmful than before, alcohol and tobacco are regarded as more harmful than before. In some ways, the duality which previously characterized American drug policy has now been supplanted by an enlightened skepticism as to the variety of approaches to the non-medical use of various drugs.

Despite this shift in attitudes, however, the use of alcohol and tobacco is not considered a major social problem by many Americans, while marihuana use is still so perceived.

This remains true despite the fact that alcoholism afflicts nine million Americans. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Addiction and Alcoholism of the National Institute of Mental Health: alcohol is a factor in half (30,000) of the highway fatalities occurring each year; an economic cost to the nation of $15 billion occurs as a result of acoholism and alcohol abuse; one-half of the five million yearly arrests in the United States are related to the misuse of alcohol (1.5 million offenses for public drunkenness alone) ; and one-half of all homicides and one-fourth of all suicides are alcohol related, accounting for a total of 11,700 deaths annually.

Similarly, tobacco smoking is not considered a major public concern despite its link to lung cancer and heart disease. According to the Surgeon General in The Health Consequences of Smoking, 1972:

cigarette smoking is the, major "cause" of lung cancer in men and a significant "cause" of lung cancer in women; the risk of developing lung cancer in both men and women is directly related to an individual's exposure as measured by the number of cigarettes smoked, duration of smoking, earlier initiation, depth of inhalation, and the amount of "tar" produced by the cigarette; and data from numerous prospective and retrospective studies indicate that cigarette smoking is a significant risk factor contributing to the development of coronary heart disease (CHD) including fatal CHD and its most severe expression, sudden and unexpected death.


Realizing the importance of social change in understanding the issues surrounding the use of marihuana and other drugs, the Commission decided early that an objective appraisal of cultural trends was vital for the, development of policy recommendations. Since neither the increase in marihuana use nor its attendant controversy is an isolated phenomenon, we sought a wider cultural perspective. To this end, the Commission sponsored a wide-ranging seminar on "Central Influences on American Life." With the cooperation of the Council for Biology in Human Affairs of the Salk Institute, we elicited a three-day conversation among 13 exceptionally thoughtful and perceptive observers of American life.*

*The participants included Jacques Barzun, as moderator, Mary Bingham, Claude T. Bissell, Kenneth Boulding, Robert R. Bowie, Theodore Caplow, Jay W. Forrester, T. George Harris. Rollo May, Jay Saunders Redding, Jonas Salk, Ernest van den Haag, and Leroy S. Wehrle.

It is well beyond both our mandate and our competence to attempt a definitive presentation of the status of the American ethical system However, we shall try to suggest some of the more salient influence in our changing society, recognizing that only against the backdrop of society's fears, aspirations and values can a rational response to marihuana be formulated. Although we are not prepared to identify specific causal connections between these social trends and marihuana use, we do believe that some of the major points raised in the discussion of cultural change provide essential background in understanding the marihuana problem.

The Search for Meaning

One overriding influence in contemporary America is the declining capacity of our institutions to help the individual find his place in society. As one of the participants at the Seminar observed:

A society is stable, peaceful, happy, not when it has rid itself of the tensions-because you never get rid of the tensions, because people's drives will be satisfied in ways that clash and so on-but when a very high proportion of the people feel fulfillment of some sort within the context which the society normally provides. The long-term problem now, for many many people, not just young people, is that this condition is not met.

Another noted:

What is wrong with our social system, it seems to me, is that it no longer inspires in people a feeling of purpose, meaningfulness and so on.

A number of institutional trends have joined to deprive the individual of a sense of communal inspiration. Perhaps most important is the economic element. Whereas the individual's economic achievement formerly gave his life broad social meaning and inspired his existence, automation and technological advance have tended to depersonalize the individual's role in the economy. Instead of the economic system being dependent on individual productivity, the individual is increasingly dependent on the system. As his work dwindles in significance to the total society, it diminishes in meaning for him. Moreover, as more and more of our people share the nation's affluence, Horatio Alger's example is no longer needed to climb the economic ladder.

A particularly emphatic manifestation of the declining economic demand on the individual is the institutionalization of leisure time. Whereas the economy used to require long hours of work, now it barely requires more than a five-day week. Expanding vacation time and reduced work-weeks tend to diminish the strength of the work ethic. The implications of enforced leisure time are only now becoming apparent, and the concept of "idle hands are the devil's plaything" has to be reexamined in terms of acceptable forms of non-work behavior. This new time component, allowing for the assertion of individuality, has produced both privileges and problems.

In the last decade we have seen the beginnings of the institutionalization of this leisure ethic. A leisure-time industry has sprung up to organize this time period for the individual. Many Americans, due to the nature of their jobs in an automated economic system, find little personal satisfaction in their work, and many are now searching for individual fulfillment through the use of free time. Where meaning is not found in either work or recreational pursuits, the outcome is likely to be boredom and restlessness. Whether generated by a search for individual fulfillment, group recreation or sheer boredom, the increased use of drugs, including marihuana, should come as no surprise.

Another social development which has chipped away at individual identity is the loss of a vision of the future. In an age where change is so rapid, the individual has no concept of the future. If man could progress from land transportation to the moon in 60 years, what, lies ahead? Paralleling the loss of the technological horizon is the loss of a vision of what the future, in terms of individual and social goals, ought to look like. Are times moving too fast for man to be able to plan or -to adjust to new ways and new styles? This sense of the collapsing time frame was best summed up by one of the Seminar participants:

.... there are great forces that have developed over the last several decades that cause one to lose sight of the distant future. Let me contrast a rural farm family of several decades ago which settled a farm. They expected their children to live there, they can imagine their grandchildren living there-there is an image of the future. There is really no one who [now] has any image of where his great grandchildren will he or what they will do. This comes about because of the nature of industrial society; it comes about because we have retirement plans instead of looking after one's own old age. There area whole set of these [factors].

Now the morality, the ethics get tied into it because ethics are really a long-time horizon concept. It's something you engage in because it's contrary to immediate reward and immediate gratification and so you look to some distant future. But as one loses sight of any future then I think the ethics and morality creep up to the very near term also . . . We have no one who has got an image of this country two hundred years from now, who is trying to create a structure that be believes will exist that long. So a number of these things . . . tie together in terms of the long-term goals and how they have shifted. In any of our systems there tend to be a conflict between the short-term and the long-term goals. If the long-term goals are lost sight of then the short-term expediencies seem to be the things that well up.

To the extent that planning for the future no longer gives the individual his inspiration, he must look to the present. Such a climate is conducive to pleasure-seeking, instant gratification and an entire life-perspective which our society has always previously disclaimed A third force depriving the individual of a presumed place in society is the loss of a sense of community, a sense of belonging. Mobility, mass living and rapid travel all conspire to destroy the smaller community. The family moves from place to place and then separates with each child going his own way. This global thinking leaves little time for home-town concern.

The dissipation of geographic roots parallels a social uprooting. As one of our Seminar participants noted:

When you grow up with a, small number of people with whom you have to live for a while, it does something which isn't done now. It forces you to face yourself. It forces you to ask what kind of pet-son you are, because you can't get away with it with a group you're going to have to live with. They know what you really are. The mobility has the effect of making it possible for people to live playing parts for years. It seems to me we see it among the youngsters: role playing as distinguished from being somebody. . . .

All of these social trends have their most potent impact on young people who are just beginning to develop their values, beliefs and commitments. The adult society has found it easier to adjust to the emergence of the leisure value. Having experienced it as a gradual process, they see it as a reward for previous toil. For many of our young, however, a substantial segment of leisure time may be considered an essential part of living; they have known no other experience. Similarly, an adult society, increasingly influenced toward the present, at least has developed an historical perspective. Also, adult values were internalized at a time when a future vision was possible. For many of the young, however, the present weighs more, heavily. This notion is best reflected in the vociferous youth response to the Vietnam conflict, the embodiment of a war fought for the future,

Finally, all of these cultural changes have occurred, especially for the young, in an environment of affluence. The successful economic system has maximized individual freedom. But the individual has been given unlimited choices at exactly the time when a, value system within which to make such choices is in doubt. Because he has no sense of direction, the result is restlessness, boredom and an increase in the likelihood of present-oriented choices. Self-destructive drug-taking is one form such behavior may take. One of our Seminar participants observed in this connection:

It seems to me that you've got this affluence. So that while most of us grew up with the feeling that the channels within which we were going to have to move and make choices were very narrow, channels for these youngsters look absolutely open. It's an absolutely a, la carte menu-it's the biggest a la, carte menu you can imagine. [This occurs] in a situation in which this sense of radical change is going on so fast that you can't master it, together with a feeling that the society is being operated by very large organizations which you can't get a grip on, giving one a sense of helplessness, of not knowing where to take hold. All these things inherently are disorienting to youngsters and don't give them a, feeling of challenge, [but rather] a doubt as to the meaning of their own lives, of the significance of their being here, [a sense of] being atoms. So then they do act like children in the sense of behaving violently to call attention to themselves. They do a whole lot of other things which, it seems to me, are the sort of things you often see when people feel their lives have no meaning.


Another major influence in contemporary American life with substantial relevance to the marihuana problem is the uneasy relationship between the individual and society's institutions, particularly the state. For 50 years, there has been a continuing upward flow of power to large institutional units, whether they be corporate conglomerates, labor unions, universities or the Government. We have created a society which "requires the individual to lean on society," observed one of our Seminar participants, "in ways that formerly he did not have to do. He used to lean on the clan, on the family, on the village. We have used bureaucracy to deal with these problems." For many, the Federal Government epitomizes this development, bureaucratizing a social response to the most human of needs.

We suspect that the implications of this trend for the individual, although inevitable, became more visibly apparent in the 1960's. Mass institutions must deal through rules; the individual becomes a number. "Intuitively, [the individual] feels that bureaucracies must make man into an object in order to deal with him." So we have a depersonalization at exactly the time that many individuals are casting about for identity and fulfillment.

Simultaneously, technological advance poses the awesome prospect of 1984: the intrusion of the omnipresent state into the private affairs of the individual. Computerized data-banks and electronic surveillance are perceived as restrictions on individuality at a time when the desire for personal privacy is ascendant.

Another cultural feature of governmental bureaucracy during the sixties has been failure to match expectations. Government promises the elimination of poverty, the dissipation of racial discrimination, the excision of drug abuse, and creates rising expectations. But government is often ill-equipped or unable to perform such monumental tasks. As individual helplessness increases, as the "responsibility" of the bureaucracy enlarges, those in need often feel that the gap between public declaration and performance must be the result of a conspiracy to fail. And for the rest of us, there is the credibility gap. The net result is a loss of confidence in society's institutions. Viewed from this perspective, youthful dissent, cynicism and disobedience of the 1960's were not such surprising consequences.

Still another significant feature of institutional life in contemporary America is the lag between purpose and implementation. That is, some of our social institutions have not yet begun to deal with the consequences of the social and economic changes which have occurred over the last several decades. The best example, and the one most germane to the youth, is the educational system. Two generations ago, the labor force could assimilate the large majority of the nation's youth. Neither a high school nor a college education was prerequisite to occupational choice or achievement. Increased educational attainment was presumed to be limited to either the privileged or the able and would be rewarded by certain careers.

Today, however, the labor force grows more quickly than the system is able to assimilate it, and the educational system now serves as custodian as well as teacher. Although we sincerely wish to achieve the democratic ideal of a highly educated populace, we also keep our children in school as long as possible because we have nothing else for them to do. The trend is strikingly apparent even in the last 20 years.

  Percent enrolled in school
Age 1950 1970
14-15 94.7 98.1
16-17 71.3 90.0
18-19 29.4 47.7
20-24 9.0 21.5

This custodial function confronts educators with a dilemma. Attrition is not in society's best interest; thus, single-minded devotion to the highest levels of achievement would be dysfunctional. In a sense, because the system no longer wants to turn away its subjects, the notion of failure has lost its meaning. As one of the Seminar participants observed:

I think one of the problems is that there is no longer a penalty for failure. We-the educators-have had to lower standards in order to accommodate these people who need no longer fear failure. Of course this has been a cyclical thing, a wheel within a wheel. [If ] there is no longer a penalty for failure, then there is no longer the need to acquire.

The changing function of education has been felt in both the secondary schools and in our institutions of higher learning. Numerous high school graduates cannot read. Colleges and junior colleges have sprung up overnight to accommodate the population, but many provide classrooms with little specific purpose. Only slowly is the educational system beginning to come to grips with its role in a changed society. At the university level, many educators have been appalled at sacrifices which have ensued from the custodial feature; rote learning, they contend, has supplanted citizen and character education.

Uncertainty about the role of the educational system has not escaped the students, particularly at the college level. Many of our youth, pressed into longer attendance, question its need or desirability. The demand for "relevance" is but another reflection of the search for meaning, for an understandable role in society. Drug use has perhaps provided an outlet for some members of this restless generation, uncertain of its place.

The Limits of Rationality

The social response to the individual's search for meaning has fostered an ambivalence, an unwillingness to act, a paralysis. In large measure, according to one Seminar member, this default of authority reveals the intensity of the search:

In the same way we are getting universities that can't teach, families that can't socialize and police forces that can't catch criminals. In every case, the same issue is involved: the subject of authority questions the legitimacy of authority and the exerciser of it is unable to find-very often doesn't even try to find-a defense, because he feels in himself a sympathy, as do so many parents, with the challenge.

To a significant extent, society is waiting, hoping that the impulse for change will settle around certain fundamental attributes of the American ethic. At the present time, however, no consensus about the nature of these fundamentals exists. We are all looking for values that have deep roots, as we attempt to sort out the durable from the ephemeral.

All of the participants at our Central Influences Seminar agreed that the unique feature of this search was its a rational quality. As one observer put it:

We have been discussing the question of how we change a society. I don't think it's changed by rational intention. As I understand societies, historically and our own, what really is required to change it is something on a deeper level that involves myth, ritual, sacrament-a number of these functions that have always been related to societies. On these you can't just suddenly make up your mind and then prescribe.

Regarding our problem of authority, you cannot really ask the question: why can't these people hang onto their authority? They can't hang onto it because what gave them authority is something not of themselves, but part of the society, part of a ritual, a sacrament: a way of behaving in the group which gave them authority, [whether] professorial, parental or policy authority. In each one of these cases, what we see is not the diminishing of these men so much but rather the developing emptiness, the lack of the particular ethic that gave them authority to start with. This is why we are in a terrible dilemma.

What is essentially lacking is a system of ethics, morality or religion that gives birth -to the myths, the rituals, the sacraments that are its expression. These touch human beings on the unconscious level. These are the ways we see the world. They are not our conscious thought, but the ways we form ourselves, form each other, love each other or hate each other-in terms not so much of rational intention as a deeper unconscious-conscious and unconscious-which is my definition of a myth; much more of a feeling level, a living level. That is what is not present now.

What we need, below and above all of our deliberations, is the growth and development of an ethical system. We just do not have this now.

As we move into the 1970's, our society is collectively engaged in the task -of determining what America means, and how each individual should find fulfillment in `a changing age. From this wider perspective of flux emerges an uncertainty about what the increased prevalence of marihuana use means for the individual and the total society.

Formulating Marihuana Policy

Present symbolism, past implications, and future apprehensions all combine to give marihuana many meanings. These diverse notions of what marihuana means constitute the marihuana problem. In this atmosphere, the policy-maker's position is precarious insofar as no assumption is beyond dispute. Accordingly, the Commission has taken particular care to define the process by which a social policy decision should be reached.

In studying the arguments of past and present observers to justify a particular kind of marihuana policy, we conclude that a major impediment to rational decision-making in this area is oversimplification. As suggested earlier, many ingredients are included in the marihuana mix-medical, legal, social, philosophical, and moral. Many observers have tended to isolate one element, highlight it and then extrapolate social policy from that one premise. In an area where law, science and morality are so intertwined, we must beware of the tendency toward such selectivity.


It is wrong to assume, as many have done, that a particular statement of marihuana's effects compels a given social policy or legal implementation. An accurate statement of the effects of the drug is obviously an important consideration, but it is conclusive only if the effects are extreme one way or the other. For example, if the use of a particular drug immediately causes the user to murder anyone in his presence, we have no doubt that a vigorous effort to eliminate use of that drug would be in order. On the other hand, if the effects of the drug are purely benign, presenting no danger whatsoever to the user or society, no reason would exist to suppress it.

We know of no psychoactive substance, including marihuana, which falls at either of these extremes. Thus, it begs the issue to contend, as some have done, that because we don't know enough about the effects of heavy, chronic use, we should maintain the status quo. We know a lot about the adverse effects of alcoholism and heavy cigarette smoking, and yet no responsible observer suggests that we should adopt total prohibition for these drugs. Similarly, previous estimates of marihuana's role in causing crime and insanity were based quite erroneous information; but to infer from this that marihuana should be considered totally benign and hence made freely available is also not logical. Both approaches are simplistic; both approaches fail to take into account the social context in which the drug is used and the dynamic factors affecting the role that marihuana use may or may not play in the future.

A similar manifestation of scientific oversimplification is the focus on causality. Many opponents of marihuana use feel compelled to establish a causal connection between marihuana use and crime, psychosis, and the use of other drugs, while, their adversaries focus the dispute on negating such relationships. The Commission believes that this tendency misses the mark.

The policy-maker's task is concerned primarily with the effects of marihuana on human behavior. For both philosophical and practical reasons, proof of causal relationships is next to impossible. At the same time, however, the extent to which marihuana use is associated with certain behaviors and whether any significant relationships exist can offer important clues.

We must be cautious when dealing with such data. Yet we cannot afford to paralyze the decision-making process simply because absolute "proof " is lacking. Spokesmen on both sides of the marihuana debate should focus not on causation but instead on the relevance of the association between various behavioral effects and marihuana use.


Some partisans stoutly maintain that the state has no right to interfere with essentially private conduct or that the state has no right to protect the individual from his own folly. Some of the greatest minds of the Western world have struggled over such philosophical issue always with the same outcome: a recognition of the need to draw a line between the individual and his social surroundings. That is, everything an individual does, in private or not, potentially may affect others. The issue is really to determine when the undesirable effect upon others is likely enough or direct enough for society to take cognizance of it and to deal with it. Coupled with this is the further question of whether the nature of the behavior and its possible effect is such that society should employ coercive measures.

Advocates of liberalization of the marihuana laws commonly contend either that the decision to use marihuana is a private moral decision or that any harm flowing from use of the drug accrues only to the user. Defenders of the, present restrictions insist that society not only has the right but is obligated to protect the existing social order and to compel an individual to abstain from a behavior which may impair his productivity. Unfortunately, the issue is not so simple and the line often drawn between the private conduct and behavior affecting the public health and welfare, is not conclusive or absolutely definable.

For example, a, decision to possess a firearm, while private is considered by many to be of public magnitude, requiring governmental control. A decision to engage in adulterous conduct, although generally implemented in private, may have public consequences if society believes strongly in the desirability of the existing family structure. Similarly, excessive alcohol consumption, in addition to its adverse effects on individual health, may impair familial stability and economic productivity, matters with which the total society is concerned.

So, while we agree with the basic philosophical precept that society may interfere with individual conduct only in the public interest, using coercive measures only when less restrictive measures would not suffice this principle merely initiates inquiry into a rational social policy but does not identify it. We must take a careful look at this complicated question of the social impact of private behavior. And we must recognize at the outset the inherent difficulty in predicting effects on public health and welfare, and the strong conflicting notions of what constitutes the public interest.

Again and again during the course of our hearings, we have been startled by the divergence of opinion within different segments of our population. Sometimes the disagreement is quite vehement, and relates to the underlying social concerns of particular groups. For example, we were told repeatedly by leaders of the urban black communities that they wanted to purge all drug use from their midst, marihuana included, and that the "legalization" of marihuana would be viewed as part of a design to keep the black man enslaved.

On the other hand, we were informed repeatedly by the activist student element that the pre-sent social policy regarding marihuana was merely a tool for suppression of political dissent, and until the law was changed, there could be no hope of integrating the dissident population into the mainstream of American society.

Such statements reemphasize the degree to which marihuana is regarded as a symbol of a larger social concern.

The conflicting notions of the public interest by different segments of the population reinforced in the Commission's deliberations the realization that we have been called upon to recommend public policy for all segments of the population, for all of the American people. The public good cannot be defined by one segment of the population, the old or the young, users or non-users of marihuana, ethnic minorities or white majority. At the same time, the fears of each of these groups must be taken into consideration in arriving at the basic social objectives of the Commission's public policy recommendation. Where such fears are real, they must be confronted directly; where they are imagined, however, they must be put in perspective and, hopefully, laid to rest.


Public debate and decision-making in our society suffer from the glorification of statistical data. After a particular social phenomenon, such as marihuana use, has been defined as a problem, armies of social scientific researchers set out to analyze and describe the problem. A sophisticated computer technology instantly translates millions of bits of data into correlations, probabilities and trends. The most striking findings are then fed to a data-hungry public. The result is data overload.

Descriptive information about the nature and scope of marihuana use as a behavior is an essential component of the policy-maker's knowledge-base. However, such information does not in itself have social policy implications. The policy-maker must define goals and evaluate means; only after he asks the right questions will statistical data suggest useful answers. Unfortunately, a tendency exists in the marihuana debate to assign prescriptive meanings to descriptive data without testing the underlying assumptions. Further, the data have often been accumulating in a fragmented way. No overall plan was devised beforehand; the result has been an ad hoc use of available data triggered by individual research interests rather than by long-term policy needs.

What does it mean that 24 million people have tried marihuana? Some have suggested that it means marihuana ought to be legalized. But does it mean the same thing if 15 million tried the drug once and have decided not to use it again? And does it mean the same thing if popular interest in the drug turns out to be a passing fancy, which wanes as suddenly as it waxed?

On the other side of the controversy, what does it mean that a substantial percentage of the public would favor increased penalties for marihuana use? The prescriptive implications of a democratic impulse may be offset by a preference for individual freedom of choice. Also, this segment of public opinion may have been influenced by incorrect information, such as unwarranted belief in marihuana's lethality or addiction potential. So, although the policy-maker must be aware of political realities, he must not allow his function to be supplanted by public opinion polls. This is an area which requires both awareness of public attitudes and willingness to assert leadership based on the best information available.


Perhaps the major impediment to rational decision-making is the tendency to think only in terms of the legal system in general and of the criminal justice system in particular. This thinking is certainly understandable, given the history of marihuana's involvement with the criminal law. Nonetheless, the law does not exist in a social vacuum, and legal alternatives can be evaluated only with reference to the values and policies which they are designed to implement and the social context in which they are designed to operate.

Legal fallacies are apparent on both sides of the marihuana controversy. Many of the persons opposed to marihuana use look exclusively to the law for social control. This reliance on the law is stronger today because many of our fellow citizens are uneasy about the diminishing effectiveness of our other institutions, particularly when the non-legal institutions have been relatively lax in controlling drug related behavior. Increasing reliance is placed upon the legal system to act not only as policeman, but as father confessor, disciplinarian, educator, rehabilitator and standard-bearer of our moral code. Little or no thought is given to what impact this over-reliance on the law has on the viability of other social institutions, not to mention it's effect on the legal process.

A society opposed to marihuana use need not implement that policy through the criminal law. Non-legal institutions, such as the church, the school and the family, have great potential for molding individual behavior. Accordingly, the policy-maker must delicately assess the capacity of the legal system to accomplish its task and must consider the mutual impact of legal and non-legal institutions in achieving social objectives.

We recognize the short-sightedness of an absolute assumption that the criminal law is the necessary tool for implementing a social policy opposed to marihuana use. But equally short-sighted is the opposing contention which attempts to analyze the law separately from its underlying social policy objective. This argument assumes that if the law isn't working, or if the costs of enforcing the law outweigh its benefits, the law should, therefore, be repealed.

If society feels strongly enough about the impropriety of a certain behavior, it may choose to utilize the criminal law even though the behavior is largely invisible and will be minimized only through effective operation of other agencies of social control. Laws against incest and child-beating are good examples. In weighing the costs and benefits of a particular law, one must provide a scale and a system of weights. The scale is the normative classification of behavior, and the system of weights is the largely subjective evaluation of the importance of the values breached by the behavior. This weighing process is what is open to dispute.

In sum, no law works alone. Where an unquestioned consensus exists about the undesirability of a particular behavior and all social institutions are allied in the effort to prevent it, as is the case with murder and theft, the law can be said to "work" even though some murders and thefts may still be committed. Where society is ambivalent about its attitude toward the behavior and other institutions are not committed to its discouragement, the law cannot be said to be working, even though many people may not engage in the behavior because it is against the law.

The question is whether the social policy, which the law is designed to, implement, is being achieved to a satisfactory extent. To determine the role of law regarding marihuana, we must first look to society's values and aspirations, and then define the social policy objective. If we seek to discourage certain marihuana-related behavior, we must carefully assess the role of the legal system in achieving that objective.

The Report

In this Chapter, we have tried to put the marihuana problem in perspective. In the remainder of this Report, we explore several aspects of the phenomenon of marihuana use, its effects, its social impact and its social meaning, assessing their relative importance in the formulation of social policy.

In Chapter II, we consider the effects of the drug on the individual user, with particular attention to the size of the user population for whom various effects are relevant. The Commission emphasizes that this material is related only indirectly to its policy-making function. The social policy planner is concerned not about the effects on the individual per se, but about the impact of any adverse effect on his behavior and on the larger society and about the meaning of this behavior in the larger social perspective. The material in Chapter II serves primarily to educate and inform.

In Chapter III, the Commission evaluates the various threats which marihuana use is perceived to present to the public safety, public health, and dominant social order. This Chapter is designed to assess the social impact of marihuana use, the initial step in the policy making process.

In Chapter IV, we consider what role marihuana use plays and will play in the life of American society. This is the dynamic element of marihuana use and is the most intangible of the marihuana realities, but is particularly important from a policy-planning perspective. This consideration is the one most overlooked by contemporary observers and participants in the marihuana debate.

Because social meaning is not a directly measurable entity, we must examine the ways in which society responds to the behavior and whether such responses, both formal and informal, are fluid or. static. After analyzing public opinion, law enforcement behavior and the reactions of medical, educational, and other segments of the population, we then discuss what marihuana use has come to mean and is likely to mean in the future. Particularly important in this highly speculative endeavor is the wider cultural perspective which we described earlier in this Chapter.

In Chapter V, we bring this information to bear on a policy-making process. After establishing the philosophical framework, we explore the spectrum of social policy options, choosing the one we judge most suitable to the present time. Then we consider the range of legal alternatives for implementing this chosen policy, and select the one we believe to be most appropriate for achieving it.

In an addendum to the Report, we present some ancillary recommendations. Some of these recommendations flow from our basic premise, others are a result of independent evaluation by the Commission of other areas of concern.

We ask the reader to set his preconceptions aside as we have tried to do, and discriminate with us between marihuana, the drug, and marihuana, the problem. We hope that our conclusions will be acceptable to the entire public, but barring that, we hope at the least that the areas of disagreement and their implications will be brought into sharper focus.

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Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding