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Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding - Table of Contents

National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse

Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding

Chapter III

Social Impact of marihuana use


Youth of today are better fed, better housed, more mobile, more affluent, more schooled and probably more bored with their lives than any generation which has preceded them.

Adults have difficulty understanding why such privileged young people should wish to offend by their language and appearance and spend so much effort trying to discredit those institutions of society which have made possible the privileges which those youth enjoy. Many adults perceive the present level of youthful discontent to be of a greater intensity than has been true of past generations.

Marihuana has become both a focus and a symbol of the generation gap and for many young people its use has become, an expedient means of protest against adult values.

Adults in positions of authority, parents, teachers, policy officials, judges, and others often view marihuana use as the sign of youth's rejection of moral and social values and of the system of government under which they live. The problem is that both youth and adults tend to make pronouncements and are frequently unable to reason together in logical fashion. Instead they overstate their positions in such a way that effective resolution of their differences becomes very difficult.

In effect, each group takes the rhetoric of the other at face value. For youth, however, marihuana use plays many roles, only one of which is a symbolic assault on adult authority and values.

Marihuana use, for many young people, has become a part of a ritual. It takes on the aspect of participating in a shared experience which, for some if not all, is enjoyable in itself. For many, it becomes an even more interesting experience because it is forbidden.

Some of the rituals concerned with the purchase, storage, preparation, and use of marihuana take on a mystique similar to the time of Prohibition when people went through certain rituals necessary to get a drink in a speak-easy. The three knocks and "Joe sent me" cues have been replaced by the not-so-secret handshakes, the new vocabulary of youth and other exclusionary devices to delineate the "in" group.

The use of marihuana is attractive to many young people for the sense of group unity and participation which develops around the common use of the drug. This sense tends to be intensified by a sense of "common cause" in those circumstances where users are regarded as social or legal outcasts.

They know, too, that many of their peers who share the marihuana experience and also share the designation of lawbreaker are, in reality, productive and generally affirmative individuals who are interested neither in promoting the downfall of the nation nor in engaging in acts which would harm the general well-being of the community.

In short, many youth have found marihuana use to be a pleasurable and socially rewarding experience. They have found that the continuance of this behavior has brought them more pleasure than discomfort, more reward than punishment.

Youth have increasingly come to see law enforcement activity directed at marihuana use as an unreasonable and unjustifiable rejection of their generation. Most of these youth have grown up with a positive image of the police as protectors of society. Now, many are confronted with the possibility of police intrusion into their private lives and the threat of a criminal record. The unfortunate result, in many instances, has been a blanket rejection and distrust of both the agents and institutions of government.

In part, marihuana use as a social behavior is an unintended byproduct of the formal and informal educational process. Some persons even suggest that youthful drug usage is a "success" in terms of the educational and socialization process. Our society values independence of thought, experimentation, and the empirical method, often reinforcing this attitude by such advertising cliches as "make up your own mind," "be your own man...... judge for yourself."

Although experimentation with regard to drugs should not be considered a "success, the Commission does believe that the educational efforts necessary to discourage this curiosity, which may be valuable in other matters, have not succeeded. We understand why teenagers and young adults encouraged over the years to make up their own minds have not been restrained by exaggerated accounts of marihuana's harmful effects, or by the more recent assertions that a true evaluation of marihuana uses requires more research. The Scottish verdict of "not proven" does little to restrain youthful curiosity.

In the previous Chapter, we emphasized the difference between the vast majority of experimenters and intermittent users and the small group of moderate and heavy users who generally use drugs other than marihuana as well. The former do not differ significantly from non-users on many indices of social integration. Various studies indicate that they maintain normal patterns of living and social interaction, and are employed, competent citizens.

On the other hand, there undoubtedly are a number of persons who have used marihuana and have exercised poor judgment, performed inadequately, or behaved irresponsibly while under the drug's influence, thus jeopardizing themselves or others. The fact remains, however, that a certain number of these persons were immature and irresponsible individuals even prior to marihuana use, who would be expected to have poor or impaired judgment whether or not marihuana was involved.

The marihuana user is not, for the most part, a social isolationist or a severely disturbed individual in need of treatment or confinement. Most users, young or old, demonstrate an average or above-average degree of social functioning, academic achievement and job performance. Their general image of themselves and their society is not radically different from that of their non-marihuana-using peers. The majority of both groups tends to demonstrate equal interest in corporate concerns.

Based upon present evidence, it is unlikely that marihuana users will become less socially responsible as a result of their marihuana use or that their patterns of behavior and values will change significantly.

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