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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


Another major influence in contemporary American life with substantial relevance to the marihuana problem is the uneasy relationship between the individual and society's institutions, particularly the state. For 50 years, there has been a continuing upward flow of power to large institutional units, whether they be corporate conglomerates, labor unions, universities or the Government. We have created a society which "requires the individual to lean on society," observed one of our Seminar participants, "in ways that formerly he did not have to do. He used to lean on the clan, on the family, on the village. We have used bureaucracy to deal with these problems." For many, the Federal Government epitomizes this development, bureaucratizing a social response to the most human of needs.

We suspect that the implications of this trend for the individual, although inevitable, became more visibly apparent in the 1960's. Mass institutions must deal through rules; the individual becomes a number. "Intuitively, [the individual] feels that bureaucracies must make man into an object in order to deal with him." So we have a depersonalization at exactly the time that many individuals are casting about for identity and fulfillment.

Simultaneously, technological advance poses the awesome prospect of 1984: the intrusion of the omnipresent state into the private affairs of the individual. Computerized data-banks and electronic surveillance are perceived as restrictions on individuality at a time when the desire for personal privacy is ascendant.

Another cultural feature of governmental bureaucracy during the sixties has been failure to match expectations. Government promises the elimination of poverty, the dissipation of racial discrimination, the excision of drug abuse, and creates rising expectations. But government is often ill-equipped or unable to perform such monumental tasks. As individual helplessness increases, as the "responsibility" of the bureaucracy enlarges, those in need often feel that the gap between public declaration and performance must be the result of a conspiracy to fail. And for the rest of us, there is the credibility gap. The net result is a loss of confidence in society's institutions. Viewed from this perspective, youthful dissent, cynicism and disobedience of the 1960's were not such surprising consequences.

Still another significant feature of institutional life in contemporary America is the lag between purpose and implementation. That is, some of our social institutions have not yet begun to deal with the consequences of the social and economic changes which have occurred over the last several decades. The best example, and the one most germane to the youth, is the educational system. Two generations ago, the labor force could assimilate the large majority of the nation's youth. Neither a high school nor a college education was prerequisite to occupational choice or achievement. Increased educational attainment was presumed to be limited to either the privileged or the able and would be rewarded by certain careers.

Today, however, the labor force grows more quickly than the system is able to assimilate it, and the educational system now serves as custodian as well as teacher. Although we sincerely wish to achieve the democratic ideal of a highly educated populace, we also keep our children in school as long as possible because we have nothing else for them to do. The trend is strikingly apparent even in the last 20 years.

  Percent enrolled in school
Age 1950 1970
14-15 94.7 98.1
16-17 71.3 90.0
18-19 29.4 47.7
20-24 9.0 21.5

This custodial function confronts educators with a dilemma. Attrition is not in society's best interest; thus, single-minded devotion to the highest levels of achievement would be dysfunctional. In a sense, because the system no longer wants to turn away its subjects, the notion of failure has lost its meaning. As one of the Seminar participants observed:

I think one of the problems is that there is no longer a penalty for failure. We-the educators-have had to lower standards in order to accommodate these people who need no longer fear failure. Of course this has been a cyclical thing, a wheel within a wheel. [If ] there is no longer a penalty for failure, then there is no longer the need to acquire.

The changing function of education has been felt in both the secondary schools and in our institutions of higher learning. Numerous high school graduates cannot read. Colleges and junior colleges have sprung up overnight to accommodate the population, but many provide classrooms with little specific purpose. Only slowly is the educational system beginning to come to grips with its role in a changed society. At the university level, many educators have been appalled at sacrifices which have ensued from the custodial feature; rote learning, they contend, has supplanted citizen and character education.

Uncertainty about the role of the educational system has not escaped the students, particularly at the college level. Many of our youth, pressed into longer attendance, question its need or desirability. The demand for "relevance" is but another reflection of the search for meaning, for an understandable role in society. Drug use has perhaps provided an outlet for some members of this restless generation, uncertain of its place.

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