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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding - Table of Contents

Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding

The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse

Chapter V

marihuana and social policy




"The difficulty in life is the choice."

George Moore (1900)

A constant tension exists in our society between individual liberties and the need for reasonable societal restraints. It is easy to go too far in either direction, and this tendency is particularly evident where drugs are concerned.

We have guided our decision-making by the belief that the state is obliged to justify restraints on individual behavior. Too often individual freedoms are submerged in the passions of the moment, and when that happens, the public policy may be determined more by rhetoric than by reason. Our effort has been to minimize the emotional and emphasize the rational in this Report.

Drugs In a Free Society

A free society seeks to provide conditions in which each of its members may develop his or her potentialities to the fullest extent. A premium is placed on individual choice in seeking self-fulfillment. This priority depends upon the capacity of free citizens not to abuse their freedom, and upon their willingness to act responsibly toward others and toward the society as a whole. Responsible behavior, through individual choice, is both the guarantor and the objective of a free society.


The use of drugs is not in itself an irresponsible act. Medical and scientific uses serve important individual and social needs and are often essential to our physical and mental well-being. Further, the use of drugs for pleasure or other non-medical purposes is not inherently irresponsible; alcohol is widely used as an acceptable part of social activities.

We do think the use of drugs is clearly irresponsible when it impedes the individual's integration into the economic and social system. A preference for individual productivity and contribution to social progress in a general sense still undergirds the American value structure, and we emphasize the policy-maker's duty to support this preference in a public policy judgment.

At the same time, in light of the emerging leisure ethic and the search for individual meaning and fulfillment noted in Chapter 1, we cannot divorce social policy from the questions raised by the recreational use of drugs. Productivity and recreation both have a place in the American ethical system. They are not inconsistent unless the individual's use of leisure time inhibits his productive role in society.

Drugs should be servants, not masters. They become masters when they dominate an individual's existence or impair his faculties. To the extent that any drug, including alcohol, carries with it risks to the well-being of the user and seriously undermines his effectiveness in the society, that drug becomes a matter of concern for public policy.

An essential step in the process of policy-formation is a determination of the circumstances under which use of any given drug' poses such risks. For some drugs, the risks may be so great that all permissible measures should be taken to eliminate use. For other drugs, such risks may be present only under certain specific circumstances, in which case society may defer to responsible individual choice on the matter of recreational use but take appropriate steps to minimize the incidence and consequences of dysfunctional use. In our Report next year, for which studies are already underway, we will consider from this perspective the whole range of drugs now used for non-medical purposes.


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