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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding - Table of Contents

The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse

Marihuana and (Non-Violent) Crime


The formulation and expression of strong opinions about the relationship of marihuana to criminal and delinquent behavior have persisted despite the inherent complexities of the issue, the relative absence of conclusive empirical evidence and the general lack of knowledge and understanding about the effects of the drug. For the most part, however, neither public nor professional opinion about marihuana and its impact on public safety has been explored in any systematic fashion. As a consequence, public policy with respect to the drug has been shaped by the most vociferous advocates of one position or another at any given time.

Probably the first official body to explore prevailing opinion about the relationship between marihuana use and crime was the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission of 1893-1894. The Commission spent over a year in making field trips to 30 cities, in receiving evidence from almost 1,200 expert witnesses (335 of whom were medical practitioners) and in reviewing judicial proceedings and the case files from India's mental hospitals. The Commission's Report, reprinted in 1969, contains the following information gathered with respect to the relationship of marihuana use to crime.

First, the Commission found that the majority of hemp drug consumers were moderate rather than excessive users, and that the drug users were rarely regarded as offensive or potentially dangerous by their neighbors (a few objected to the smell of the smoke or the example set by the users for the neighborhood children).

With respect to the drug's possible long-term or chronic criminogenic effects (producing "bad characters"), the Commission reported that two thirds of the witnesses did not believe that marihuana would produce, over time, a large proportion of "bad characters" among the moderate users. A majority felt that even excessive use was unrelated to the production of "bad characters." When the possible relationship was framed more precisely in terms of cause-effect rather than statistical association, a ratio of 8 to 1 of the witnesses held that moderate consumption of these drugs had no connection with crime and a ratio of 4 to 1 denied a causal connection between excessive consumption and being a "bad character."

With respect to the more acute effects of hemp drugs, the Commission set out to determine whether criminals use the drug to fortify their courage prior to the commission of their crimes, whether the drugs were used by criminals "to stupefy their victims," and whether the drugs incited the user to commit unpremeditated crimes. The Commission's conclusion regarding the first question was that "criminals like any other consumers of these drugs go to them for that assistance when they feel they require it" (p. 256).

To the second question, the Commission responded that although some persons had alleged the commission of "thefts of ornaments from children stupefied by sweet meats" containing marihuana, the fact of other readily available, more effective and more disabling drugs, considerably more conducive to surreptitious administration, cast doubt on the use of hemp drugs by criminals for this purpose.

To the third question, the Commission said that the majority of witnesses saw no connection between either the moderate or excessive use of hemp drugs and the commission of unpremeditated crimes, including crimes of violence. The Commission therefore concluded that "for all practical purposes it may be laid down that there is little or no connection between the use of hemp drugs and crime," (p. 264).

The Mayor's Committee on Marihuana (1944) also interviewed law enforcement officers (federal, state and local police) about the purported link between marihuana and crime. The Committee reported that:

In most instances [the police officers] unhesitatingly stated that there is no proof that major crimes are associated with the practice of smoking marihuana. They did state that many marihuana smokers are guilty of petty crimes, but that the criminal career usually existed prior to the time the individual smoked his first marihuana cigarette (Schoenfeld, 1944: 14-15).

Reference has already been made to the results of a small, unpublished survey of the opinions of police officers about the relationship of marihuana to aggression (Schofield, 1968), All of the respondents reported observing a variety of conduct exhibited by users under the influence of marihuana and emphasized that an individual's reaction to the drug depends on his particular personality and, in some instances, the strength of the dose. Some, respondents observed a recent shift in the type of individual or personality prone to using marihuana.

In response to a question regarding the use of marihuana prior to engaging in property crimes, 10 out of the 16 officers interviewed believed that this often occurred. Seven cited specific examples of offenders who reported using marihuana before committing their offenses to bolster their courage and sharpen their senses; the views of three rested on hearsay evidence; and the remaining six officers responded that they did not believe this was a common practice and that they had never personally observed such examples.

In the Commission-sponsored National Survey of a representative sample of more than 3,000 American youth and adults (Abelson, et al., 1972), respondents were asked to indicate their agreement or disagreement with the statement that "many crimes are committed by persons who show that 56% of the adults and 41% of the youth agree with the statement. The extent of agreement, however, varies significantly according to age, education, geographic location and the marihuana-using experience of the respondent. Those who are early adolescents (12-13 years), over 25 years of age, have not completed high school, live in the South or North Central regions of the country and have no experience with marihuana are, significantly more likely to agree with the statement than are those who are between 14 and 25 years of age, are at least high school graduates, live in the Northeast or West and have had experience with marihuana. Table 5 below, shows the percentage of respondents agreeing to the statement according to age, education, geographic location and experience with marihuana.

The survey also showed the existence of considerable uncertainty with respect to the proposition that many crimes are committed by persons under the influence of marihuana; 25%, of the youth and 17% of the adults were either unsure of its relative truth or failed to respond to the question (p. 69). Adults were considerably more certain, however, about the relationship between alcohol and crime (youth were not asked the question) ; 7% were either unsure or did not respond and 69% agreed with the statement that many crimes are committed by persons who were under the influence of liquor (pp. 28, 31).


Percent agreeing

Youth Adults

Total respondents agreeing 40.7 56.0

Age (years):

12-13 54.5

14-15 35.2

16-17 31.8

18-25 35.1

26-34 48.5

35-49 59.0

50 and over 68.8


Less than high school graduate 70.9

Eighth grade or less 49.5

Ninth-twelfth grades 31.8

High school graduate 56.8

College or more 39.2

Geographic location:

Northeast 34.1 46.9

North-Central 42.1 54.9

South 48.5 66.8

West 34.0 52.3

Marihuana experience (ever used):

Yes 8.9 24.1

No 46.1 62.0

The surveys of prosecuting attorneys, judges, probation officers and court clinicians also revealed considerable doubt about the existence of a causal connection between marihuana and crime. Although the survey of prosecuting attorneys conducted by the Commission staff asked only about aggressive behavior and violent crime, the data showed that 52% of the respondents either denied or were uncertain that marihuana causes such behavior.

The Commission-sponsored survey of nationally representative samples of judges, probation officers and court clinicians, however, posed several questions bearing on the more general proposition that marihuana is related to crime and delinquency (InTech, 1971). Respondents were first asked whether or not they had witnessed an increase in the incidence of drug or drug-related offenses in their caseloads during the past five years. The large majority of all three groups (86%) responded affirmatively and reported that marihuana was the type of drug most often seen in this connection (83%). However, about two thirds of the respondents reported that marihuana offenders (those arrested for using or selling marihuana) constituted less than 20% of their caseloads; 56% of the respondents reported that those arrested for non-drug offenses but incidentally found to possess marihuana comprised less than 10% of their caseloads; and 73% of the respondents reported that less than 10% of their caseloads attributed their offenses to marihuana (pp. 31, 34).

To determine better the nature and direction of a possible relationship between marihuana use and crime, respondents were asked to indicate which -of four statements most reflected their own professional experience. On the whole, the respondents were more likely to postulate a statistical association (36.6%) rather than a direct cause-effect relationship (26.9%) ; 18% of the respondents thought that involvement in a criminal or delinquent subculture caused or led to the use of marihuana (in contrast to the. more prevalent belief that marihuana use, leads to crime) and 9.1% believed there was absolutely no relationship between marihuana use and other criminal or delinquent behavior. The extent to which uncertainty prevails even among these practicing professionals is reflected in the 9.3% no response category (p. 39).

Table 6 shows the responses of the judges, probation officers and clinicians to each of the four propositions (InTech, 1971: Appendix 1, Section II, Question 3). The data show that judges are significantly more, likely to believe that marihuana causes or leads to criminal and delinquent behavior and significantly less likely to believe in either a statistical relationship or in no relationship whatsoever than either the probation officers or the clinicians.

The researchers also attempted to determine these, professionals' opinions about crimes actually committed by marihuana users. More specifically, did the respondents think that most non-drug crimes committed by persons who were known users of marihuana occurred when the individuals were, actually under the influence of the drug or when they attempted to obtain it? Again, the responses indicated considerable uncertainty in all three, groups. One-third of the, respondents were either unsure or did not respond to either proposition. About twice the number of respondents thought that the crimes occurred while in the attempt to obtain marihuana (31.0%) rather than while tinder the influence of marihuana (16.8%).

Table 7 shows the percentage of respondents indicating the probable truth and probable nontruth of the two propositions (Appendix 1, Section 11, Questions 2a, 2b).

The data show that half of the respondents denied the commission of non-drug crimes while under the influence of the drug, suggesting that marihuana itself does not have the capacity to produce criminogenic effects. About one-third of the respondents, however, believed that these crimes occur when the user is attempting to obtain the drug, suggesting an addiction model; that is, that users commit crimes to support a "habit."`

This interpretation is corroborated by the significant findings that 65% of the respondents either did not know (23%) or thought that a few (21%), some (17%) or most (4.4%) of the regular users were physically addicted to marihuana


(Figures in Percentages)

Most non-drug crimes committed by persons who use marihuana occur when the offender is-

Under the in- Attempting to

fluence of mari- obtain marihuana


Prob- Prob- Prob- Prob-

ably ably ably ably

true not true true not true

Judges 17.1 % 46.8 % 34.2 %, 30.4 %,

Probation officers 21.8 47.3 30.0 37.3

Court clinicians.. .. . 10.4 65.2 16.5 60.0

Total 16.8 49.6 31.0 35.7

The National Survey of the general public (Abelson, et al., 1972) likewise showed that large segments of the population (65% of all adults and 48% of all youth) regard marihuana as addictive. Even among the users, 40% of adults and 21% of the youth believed marihuana to be addicting (p. 22)

These findings, taken together, suggest that much of the confusion regarding the relationship between marihuana and crime may be predicated on public and professional misconceptions about the drug's addiction potential. The Commission's National Survey showed that, among those persons who believed marihuana to be addicting, 67.5% of the adults and 52.3% of the youth believed that many crimes are committed by persons under the influence of marihuana. Among those who said that marihuana was not addicting, 34.6% of the adults and 30.2% of the youth agreed that many crimes are committed by marihuana users. Table 8 below shows this relationship (unpublished data, Abelson, et al., 1972).


(Figures in Percentages)

Persons who think marihuana is

Addictive Not addictive

Youth Adults Youth Adults

Many crimes are committed under the influence of


Mostly agree.. . . 52.3 67.5 30.2 34.6

Mostly disagree 20.8 14.5 39.9 41.1

Other 2.3 3.1 4.4 2.0

Not sure/no answer 24.6 14.9 25.6 27.3


(Figures in Percentages)

Judges Probation Court Total

(N=556) officers clinicians (N=781)

(N=110) (N 1.15)

Use of marihuana causes or leads to antisocial behavior in the sense

that it leads one to commit other criminal or delinquent acts 33.8 18.2 1.7 26.9

Involvement in a criminal or delinquent subculture causes or leads

to the use of marihuana 18.3 20.0 14.8 18.1

There is a statistical relationship or association between marihuana

use and other criminal or delinquent behavior, but it is not a

cause-effect relationship 31.1 40.0 60.0 36.6

There is absolutely no relationship between marihuana use and

other criminal or delinquent behavior 6.7 14.5 15.7 9.1

(X2=76.895, p<.001).

To summarize, these opinion surveys demonstrate that there is considerable uncertainty about the existence and the nature of a relationship between marihuana use and crime and that this uncertainty exists among youth and adults, practicing professionals in the criminal justice community and the lay public, marihuana users and non-users alike. The data suggest, however, that the persistent and fairly widespread belief in a cause-effect relationship between marihuana and crime may, at least in part, be predicated on the erroneous but equally prevalent belief that marihuana is physically addicting. To the extent that the general public operates under this misconception, they may be more likely to believe that, like the heroin user, the marihuana "addict" commits crime in order to support his "habit" and obtain the drug.

The logical extension of this belief is that marihuana users, like heroin user-,, will be considered more likely to commit their crimes in the attempt to obtain the drug than while under the influence of the drug. Stated another way, persons who believe that marihuana is physically addicting would be more likely to base the purported causal relationship between marihuana and crime not on the chemical effects of the drug per se but on the user's physical need for the drug. As such, they would be more likely to postulate that most crimes committed by users occur not when the offender is under the influence of the drug (which, like heroin, makes one passive, lethargic and stuporous) but when the, "addict" needs a "fix" and is desperately trying to obtain the drug or the money to buy it. This interpretation is, indeed, supported by the findings of the Commission-sponsored survey of judges, probation officers and court clinicians and is suggested from the findings of the National Survey.


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