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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

The Change

With the adoption of marihuana use by middle and upper class college youth in the mid-60's, the exaggerated notion of the drug's dangers and the social tension so widespread during this period combined to reopen the question of the impact of marihuana use. But governmental policy held to the appropriateness of existing law.

Arrests, prosecutions, convictions and sentences of imprisonment all increased at both the federal and state levels. Marihuana arrests by the U.S. Bureau of Customs increased approximately 362% from fiscal year 1965 to 1970. Arrests by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, an agency which concerns itself primarily with sale, rose 80% from 1965 to 1968. Because major responsibility for enforcing the possession laws lies at the state level, state arrests rose dramatically (1,000%) during the five years from 1965 to 1970. Although the data compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation are not comprehensive, the FBI sample tracks the continuing increase of state arrests (Table 6).


Year Arrests Percentage increase
1965 18,815  
1966 31,119 65.39
1967 61,843 98.73
1968 95,870 55.02
1969 118,903 24.02
1970 188,682 58.68

In the wake of this upsurge in marihuana arrests, the criminal justice system faced a far from usual "criminal" population. Nonetheless, judging from federal figures, the number of people prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated did rise substantially as prosecutors and judges attempted to carry out the law.

Beginning in 1966, however, the proportion of defendants ultimately convicted declined gradually, as did the percentage of defendants who were incarcerated, and the average length of their sentences. This response reflected an attempt to -mitigate the harshness of the law as applied to this new user population. By 1968, the trend toward leniency seemed to have temporarily leveled off, before it accelerated again in 1969 (Table 7).

Paralleling the vigorous law enforcement effort between 1965 and 1968 was a punitive reaction in the schools and large numbers of students using marihuana were suspended, expelled or referred to the police. Similarly, the military's first reaction to the surge of marihuana use took the form of court-martial, administrative punishment, or discharge from the service.


Year Total defendants Percent convicted Percent incarcerated Average length of sentence (in months)
1964   85 49  
1965 523 90 52 58.2
1966 746 87 45 53.7
1967 941 80 38.5 51.0
1968 1,433 79 39.4 51.2
1969 2,189 76 34.3 52.6
1970 2,082 73 27.4 46.7
1971 3,323 60 28.5 39.9

The family, however, suffered the most from the sudden conflict between accepted norms and this expression of youthful independence. The use of drugs, particularly marihuana, became a significant barrier between parent and child. Many young people adopted marihuana as a symbol of their uneasiness with society's prevailing norms.

As noted in Chapter 1, the sudden increase in marihuana use precipitated extensive research by the medical and scientific communities. By 1969, a consensus emerged holding that many of the earlier beliefs about the effects of marihuana were erroneous. Available U.S. data seemed to indicate that dependence on the drug was rare, as was the incidence of psychosis among marihuana users. Particularly important was the recognition that there was little, if any, convincing proof that marihuana caused aggressive behavior or crime. As such findings accumulated, public attention was drawn increasingly to the consequences of existing policy: soaring arrests, convictions and in some states, lengthy sentences.

Policy-makers, in social institutions and government, as well as the public began to believe that the harshness of the criminal penalties was far out of proportion to the dangers posed by the drug. As users were incarcerated, newspapers and television stations often brought the matter to public attention, particularly when the arrested youngster came from a prominent family.

Official response to this development was twofold: a trend toward leniency in marihuana cases within the legal system, and a recognition by policy-makers of widespread uncertainty regarding the effects of marihuana.

Reflecting the first response, the courts, prosecutors and police applied existing law more leniently, and the law-makers in most states and at the federal level changed the letter of the law, reducing the penalties for possession of marihuana, generally to a misdemeanor (up to a year in jail). In the process, they repealed the mandatory minimums which had been of major concern to the judiciary.

By June 1970, 24 states and the District of Columbia had reduced the penalties, although 34 states and the District still classified marihuana as a narcotic. Meanwhile, on the federal level, Congress had been considering the Nixon Administration's comprehensive proposal to overhaul the national government's patchwork of drug legislation.

Since the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914, federal drug laws had taken the form of tax measures, an approach compelled for constitutional reasons. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 followed the same format. The result, however, was a complex set of offenses involving order forms and registrations. When the Supreme Court declared certain aspects of the Tax Act unconstitutional in 1969, revision of the law became essential. Taking up the challenge, the Administration proposed a major piece of legislation which tightened control over pharmaceutical distributions and also reappraised the penalty structure for narcotics and dangerous drug offenses.

Possession of all drugs, including marihuana, was reduced to a misdemeanor. Special treatment for first offenders was provided, allowing expungement of the record upon satisfactory completion of a probationary period. Casual transfers of marihuana were treated in the same manner as possession. After a series of wide-ranging hearings, Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, and on October 27, 1970, the President signed it into law.

After passage of the new federal drug law, the Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws adopted a Uniform Controlled Substances Act, conforming in structure and emphasis to the federal law. Although the Uniform Act specifies no penalties, the Commissioners recommended that possession of all drugs be a misdemeanor.

At this writing, 42 of the states and the District of Columbia classify possession as a misdemeanor or have adopted special provisions so classifying possession of small amounts of marihuana. In half of the remaining eight jurisdictions, the courts have discretion to sentence possessors as misdemeanants.

In 11 jurisdictions, casual transfers are treated in the same manner as possession, and in 27 jurisdictions, conditional discharge is available to certain classes of offenders.

The second characteristic of the 1969-70 official response was its acknowledgment of uncertainty. No longer perceived as a major threat to public safety, marihuana use had now become primarily an issue of private and public health. Scientific researchers were asked to define the nature and scope of the health concern. In a sense, lawmakers took the minimum official action dictated by social and scientific realities, but were uncertain where to go from there. The need to know more about the effects of the drug, particularly its chronic, long-term effects, became the core of official response.

Many states appointed special task forces and commissions to report on marihuana and drug abuse in general. Congress directed the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to file annual Reports on Marihuana and Health and, in the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, established this Commission.


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