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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


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.

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