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Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding - Table of Contents

Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding

The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse

Chapter V

marihuana and social policy


For a half-century, official social policy has been not only to discourage use but to eliminate it (option number two). With the principal responsibility for this policy assigned to law enforcement, its implementation reached its zenith in the late 1950's and early 1960's when marihuana-related offenses were punishable by long periods of incarceration. This policy grew out of a distorted and greatly exaggerated concept of the drug's ordinary effects upon the individual and the society. On the basis of information then available, marihuana was not adequately distinguished from other problem drugs and was assumed to be as harmful as the others.

The increased incidence of use, intensive scientific reevaluation, and the spread of use to the middle and upper socioeconomic groups have brought about the informal adoption of a modified social policy. On the basis of our opinion surveys and our empirical studies of law enforcement behavior, we are convinced that officialdom and the public are no longer as punitive toward marihuana use as they once were.

Now there exists a more realistic estimate of the actual social impact of marihuana use. School and university administrators are seldom able to prevent the use of marihuana by their students and personnel and are increasingly reluctant to take disciplinary action against users. Within the criminal justice system, there has been a marked decline in the severity of the response to offenders charged with possession of marihuana.

In our survey of state enforcement activities, only 11% of all marihuana arrests resulted from active investigative activity, and most of those were in sale situations. For the most part, marihuana enforcement is a haphazard process; arrests occur on the street, in a park, in a car, or as a result of a phone call. Among those arrested, approximately 50% of the adults and 70% of the juveniles are not processed through the system; their cases are dismissed by the police, by the prosecutors or by the courts. Ultimately less than 6% of all those apprehended are incarcerated, and very few of these sentences are for possession of small amounts for personal use.

In the law enforcement community, the major concern is no longer marihuana but the tendency of some users to engage in other irresponsible activity, particularly the use of more dangerous drugs. Official sentiment now seems to be a desire to contain use of the drug as well as the drug subculture, and to minimize its spread to the rest of the youth population. Law enforcement policy, both at the Federal and State levels, implicitly recognizes that elimination is impossible at this time.

The active attempt to suppress all marihuana use has been replaced by an effort to keep it within reasonable bounds. Yet because this policy still reflects a view that marihuana smoking is itself destructive enough to justify punitive action against the user, we believe it is an inappropriate social response.

Marihuana's relative potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society does not justify a social policy designed to seek out and firmly punish those who use it. This judgment is based on prevalent, use patterns, on behavior exhibited by the vast majority of users and on our interpretations of existing medical and scientific data. This position also is consistent with the estimate by law enforcement personnel that the elimination of use is unattainable.

In the case of experimental or intermittent use of marihuana, there is room for individual judgment. Some members of our society believe the decision to use marihuana is an immoral decision. However, even during Prohibition, when many people were concerned about the evils associated with excessive use of alcohol, possession for personal use was never outlawed federally and was made illegal in only five States.

Indeed, we suspect that the moral contempt in which some of our citizens hold the marihuana user is related to other behavior or other attitudes assumed to be associated with use of the drug. All of our data suggest that the moral views of the overwhelming majority of marihuana users are in general accord with those of the larger society.

Having previously rejected the approval policy (option number one), we now reject the eliminationist policy (option number two). This policy, if taken seriously, would require a great increase in manpower and resources in order to eliminate the use of a drug which simply does not warrant that kind of attention.



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