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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

Chapter IV

social response to marihuana use


For most Americans marihuana use is not an abstract phenomenon. Fifteen percent of the adult population, the National Survey revealed, has tried the drug and 44% of the non-trying adults personally know someone who has used the drug. Fourteen percent of the youth have tried the drug and 58% of the non-triers personally know someone who has used the drug. Indeed, six percent of the non-trying youth indicated that half or more of their friends used marihuana.

The public is also aware of the consequences of the existing system and concerned about its impact. Ninety-seven percent of the adults know that selling marihuana is against the law. Only a few less, 94%, know that possession is against the law. In fact, one fourth of the adults know someone who has been arrested on a possession charge. Ninety-two percent of the youth know that sale is prohibited, and four out of five know that possession is against the law. Fifty-three percent of the 16- and 17-year-olds actually know someone who has been arrested for possession.

Acutely aware of the legal consequences of use, the public is also cognizant of the difficulties encountered by the criminal justice system in its attempt to enforce a widely-violated law, Adults were asked whether they mostly agreed or mostly disagreed with a series of 12 selected propositions regarding the desirability of maintaining or altering the present system of marihuana control. The two propositions which received the most support relate to problems inherent in the existing laws.

Eighty-three percent of the adults mostly agreed with the statement that "because of marihuana a lot of young people who are not criminals are getting police records and being put in jail." And 76% agreed that "laws against marihuana are very hard to enforce because most people use it in private."

Marihuana use is more personal than most public issues, but it is also more confusing. Bombarded in recent years -with contradictory "findings" and statistics about the effects of marihuana, and with conflicting arguments about public policy, the public tends to believe everything, whether pro or con. Particularly important in this regard is the widespread acceptance of beliefs which have little basis in fact.

Approximately half of the adult public believes that "many crimes are committed by persons who are under the influence of marihuana," and that "some people have died from using it." Seven of every 10 adults believe that "marihuana makes people want to try stronger things like heroin." Although the probability that a person believes these statements increases with age, a significant percentage of all groups are represented.

The underlying confusion is strongly indicated in the contradictory attitudes toward various reasons for maintaining or changing the law. For example, 43% of the adults thought, in the context of an argument for making marihuana legal, that "it should be up to each person to decide for himself, like with alcohol or tobacco." Yet 75% of the adults agreed, in the context of an argument for keeping the laws the way they are, that "there are already too many ways for people to escape their responsibilities. We don't need another one."

Youth tend to be less convinced than adults that marihuana use may be fatal to the user, or cause him to commit crime or lead him to use other drugs; but young people as a group also are noticeably more uncertain about these matters. One of every four young people indicated that they were unsure whether marihuana caused death or crime, and one of every six expressed uncertainty regarding the progression to other drugs. Similarly, young people were more than twice as likely as adults to have "no opinion" about the various propositions regarding the need for legal change.

Public attitudes toward marihuana exhibit both doubt and tension. On the one hand, we note an acute awareness of the legal consequences of marihuana use and an appreciation of the adverse impact of processing users through the criminal justice system. On the other hand, we note some misconceptions about the dangers of marihuana and confusion about the consequences of changing or maintaining the present system.

Public responses on the basic questions of social and legal policy reflect the underlying ambivalence. The overwhelming majority of the public does not want to treat the marihuana user harshly. This attitude appeared repeatedly through the entire Survey. When asked "For the good of the country, which of the following courses of action would be the best thing to do about [marihuana use] ?" the public responded in the following manner:

Percentage Youth Adults* 12-17

Handle the problem mostly through the police and courts:

the process of arrest, conviction, punish-

ment ------------------------------------------ 37 90

Handle the problem mostly through medical clinics:

the process of diagnosis, treatment, care ----------- 51 48

Don't worry about the use of marihuana, but spend time and money on preventing and solving other crimes

No opinion --------------------------------------- 5 20

*Some adults gave more than one answer.

Adults and youth were also asked to look at marihuana use from the perspective of the system, and to identify the appropriate penalty for possession of marihuana. Both groups were reluctant to put users in jail, especially for a first offense. Eighty-three percent of the adults and 64% of the youth would not incarcerate a youthful first offender; 54% of the adults and 41 % of the youth would not even give the young offender a police record (Table 12).


If defendant is teenager If defendant is adult


First Previous First Previous

offense conviction offense conviction

(percent) (percent) (percent) (percent)

No penalty 20 Total 6 Total 13 Total 7 Total

Fine (no police record).. 34 83 11 37 28 64 6 24

Probation 29 20 23 11

Jail sentence

Up to a week 8 Total 20 Total 11 Total 14 Total

Up to a year 3 13 24 56 12 32 24 70

More than a year 2 12 9 32

No opinion 4 7 4 6


If defendant is teenager If defendant is adult


First Previous First Previous

offense conviction offense conviction

(percent) (percent) (percent) (percent)

No penalty 13 Total 6 Tota I 11 Tota 1 7 Total

Fine (no police record).. 28 64 9 35 21 50 7 27

Probation 23 20 18 13

Jail sentence

Ur, to a week 8 Total 13 Tota 1 16 Total 12 Tota I

Up to a year 6 19 21 51 11 36 18 59

More than a year 5 17 9 29

No opinion 17 14 14 14

Interestingly, the youth population as a whole was less lenient than the adult population as a whole. Within each group, however, the older teenagers and young adults were the most tolerant in all respects.

These statistics suggest that the I public generally prefers leniency when responding to questions specifically directed to marihuana use. But when asked about "control" or "the law" in general, the response often appears quite harsh. For example, when asked to consider a range of five alternative control schemes, most adults tended to resist change.

Thirty-one percent of the adults thought that making marihuana legally available through regulated channels (like alcohol) was acceptable but 67% thought it was unacceptable. Although 23% thought the removal of criminal sanctions from possession was acceptable, 74% thought this approach was unacceptable. On the other hand, 56% of the adults thought that the existing laws were, acceptable; yet 41% found the present law unacceptable. Finally, 72% thought "stricter laws" would be acceptable, while only 26% thought such a change would be unacceptable. Indeed 43% thought stricter laws were the "ideal solution" and 62% thought this was the best of the alternatives.

These responses seem to be contradictory. We are puzzled about what the respondents thought they meant when they expressed a preference for stricter laws.

They probably did not mean stricter penalties for possession. Such an interpretation would be entirely inconsistent with responses to questions aimed directly at appropriate policy toward users. Under existing law some states still treat first offenders as felons and most states treat multiple offenders as felons. But, only a third of the adult respondents would put an adult multiple offender in jail for more than a year.

The preference for stricter laws might be interpreted to mean heavier penalties for sale, or better enforcement of existing proscriptions against trafficking. Two-thirds of the adults did indicate that they preferred heavier penalties for sale than for possession. But penalties for selling for profit are already quite heavy in every jurisdiction.

We suspect that a majority of the public, including many of those favoring "stricter laws," is actually disturbed about the increase in marihuana use and would like a system which would work better than the existing system to discourage use. A majority of the adult public seeks a better system of control, albeit one which is not punitive toward the user. Apparently uneasy about the individual and social consequences of the present system, the large center of public opinion is nonetheless reluctant to relinquish formal control.

This insistence on maintenance of formal controls over the user rests upon two interrelated factors: respect for law and faith in the efficacy of legal control. First, the public does not believe the, legal order should wither away simply because many people choose to violate the laws against marihuana use. Obedience, of the, law is highly valued in our society.

This factor is illustrated clearly by the widespread public disagreement with the following arguments for changing the law: 76% of the adults disagreed with the statement that "young people would have more respect for the law if marihuana were made legal;" and four out of five adults disagreed with the statement that "so many people are using marihuana that it should be made legal."

Second, most adults believe that legal remedies, even though not punitive, are necessary to discourage use of the drug. This belief is tied largely to their understanding of the effects of the drug and is reflected in the response to the question about "the best way" to handle the use of marihuana. As we noted earlier, 51% of the public thought that marihuana use ought to be handled as a medical problem.

Also, the substantial majority of people who are reluctant to incarcerate possessors do prefer the imposition of fines without a police record or probation. Both of these alternatives retain formal control over the user and indicate faith in the deterrent value of the law. The public responses in this respect bear a striking resemblance to those of the judges and probation officers, who repeatedly indicated a preference for non-punitive formal control.

This interpretation of dominant opinion was drawn from ostensibly inconsistent responses to a long series of questions on appropriate social and legal policy. A substantial minority of the public, however, exhibited a consistent pattern of response to all questions. About a quarter of the public is convinced that the criminal sanction should be withdrawn entirely from marihuana use. Another quarter of the public prefers the criminal approach, even for the user.

In sum, the existing system is not supported by the consensus of public opinion that once existed. There is a consensus that punitive measures are generally inappropriate. There is also a predominant opinion that the legal system should not abandon formal control.


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