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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


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.


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