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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


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.

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