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Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding - Table of Contents

The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse

Chapter IV

social response to marihuana use

The Initial Social Response

As we noted in Chapter I, the initial social reaction to marihuana use was shaped by the narcotics policy adopted by the Federal Government. In the early legislation, marihuana was officially characterized as a narcotic on the basis of the widely shared assumption that it was a habit-forming drug, leading inevitably to a form of dependence. Although the medical community was aware that marihuana was distinguishable from the opiates in that it did not produce physical dependence, no functional distinction was drawn; it was assumed that most users were psychologically compelled to continue using the drug. As one psychiatrist noted in 1934, the marihuana "user wants to recapture over and over again the ecstatic, elated state into which the drug lifts him . . . The addiction to cannabis is a sensual addiction: it is in the services of the hedonistic elements of the personality."

The notion of psychological dependence is still ill-defined, and was understood even less in the early days of American marihuana use. The Commission has concluded that the automatic classification of marihuana as "addictive" was derived primarily from an underlying social perception of the substrata of society which used the drug: aliens, prostitutes, and persons at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

Additional characteristics of the opiates were also transferred to marihuana. Particularly important in this regard was the association of marihuana with aggressive behavior and violent crime. One district attorney in New Orleans, where marihuana use was particularly common, wrote in 1931:

It is an ideal drug to cut off inhibitions quickly . . . At the present time the underworld has been quick to realize the value of this drug in subjugating the will of human derelicts to that of a master mind. Its use sweeps away all restraint, and to its influence may be attributed many of our present day crimes. It has been the experience of the Police and Prosecuting Officials in the South that immediately before the commission of many crimes the use of marihuana cigarettes has been indulged in by criminals so as to relieve themselves from the natural restraint which might deter them from the commission of criminal acts, and to give them the false courage necessary to commit the contemplated crime.

By 1931, those states in which marihuana use was at all common had formally responded with a total eliminationist policy. They generally amended the preexisting narcotics legislation to include marihuana. Meanwhile, in 1929, the Federal Government already had classified marihuana officially as a "habit-forming drug along with the opiates and cocaine, in the legislation which established two federal "farms" for treating narcotics addicts in Fort Worth, Texas, and Lexington, Kentucky.

During the 1930's, the remaining states criminalized marihuana use by adopting the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act, in which the drug was included (optionally) in the definition of narcotic drugs. Then, in 1937, Congress adopted the Marihuana Tax Act, completing the initial period of official response to marihuana use.

A difference of opinion among historians still exists as to why policymakers thought national legislation was necessary at that time. Whatever the reason, however, Congress responded swiftly, without much attempt to learn the facts about the drug and its use. The assumptions underlying that legislation were summarized in the Report of the House Ways and Means Committee:

Under the influence of this drug the will is destroyed and all power of directing and controlling thought is lost. Inhibitions are released. As a result of these effects, it appeared from testimony produced at the hearings that many violent crimes have been and are being committed by persons under the influence of this drug. Not only is marihuana used by the hardened criminals to steel them to commit violent crimes, but it is also being placed in the hands of high-school children in the form of marihuana cigarettes by unscrupulous peddlers. Cases were cited at the hearings of school children who have been driven to crime and insanity through the use of this drug. Its continued use results many times in impotency and insanity.

When Congress escalated penalties for narcotics offenses in 1951 and again in 1956, marihuana was included, with the following effects:

Possession Minimum sentence

First offense ------------------------------------------ 2 years

Second offense ---------------------------------------- 5 years

Third and subsequent offense --------------------------- 10 years

Fine ------------------------------------------------- $20,000

Sale Minimum sentence

First offense ------------------------------------------ 5 years

Second and subsequent offense --------------------------- 10 years

Sale to minor by adult ---------------------------------- 10 years

Parole or probation were made unavailable to all except first offenders in the possession category.

The perceptions of 1937 were perpetuated in the comments of Senator Price M. Daniel, Chairman of the Senate subcommittee considering the 1956 Act, although by now an important new factor had been added:

Marihuana is a drug which starts most addicts in the use of drugs. Marihuana, in itself a dangerous drug, can lead to some of the worst crimes committed by those who are addicted to the habit. Evidently, its use leads to the heroin habit and then to the final destruction of the persons addicted.



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