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Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding - Table of Contents

The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse

Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding

I -- marihuana and the problem of marihuana


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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