Own your ow legal marijuana business
Your guide to making money in the multi-billion dollar marijuana industry
Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
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



The unresolved question is whether society should try to dissuade its members from using marihuana or should defer entirely to individual judgment in the matter, remaining benignly neutral. We must choose between policies of discouragement (number three) and neutrality (number four). This choice is a difficult one and forces us to consider the limitations of our knowledge and the dynamics of social change. A number of considerations, none of which is conclusive by itself, point at the present time toward a discouragement policy. We will discuss each one of them separately.

1. User Preference Is Still Ambiguous

Alcohol and tobacco have long been desired by large numbers within our society and their use is deeply ingrained in the American culture. Marihuana, on the other hand, has only recently achieved a significant foothold in the American experience, and it is still essentially used more by young people. Again, the unknown factor here is whether the sudden attraction to marihuana derives from its psychoactive virtues or from its symbolic status.

Throughout this Commission's deliberations there was a recurring awareness of the possibility that marihuana use may be a fad which, if not institutionalized, will recede substantially in time. Present data suggest that this is the case, and we do not hesitate to say that we would prefer that outcome. To the extent that conditions permit, society is well advised to minimize the number of drugs which may cause significant problems. By focusing our attention on fewer rather than more drugs, we may be better able to foster responsible use and diminish the consequences of irresponsible use.

The more prudent course seems to be to retain a social policy opposed to use, attempting to discourage use while at the same time seeking to deemphasize the issue. Such a policy leaves us with more options available when more definitive knowledge of the consequences of heavy and prolonged marihuana use becomes available.

2. Continuing Scientific Uncertainty Precludes Finality

In 1933 when Prohibition was repealed, society was cognizant of the effects of alcohol as a drug and the adverse consequences of abuse. But, because so many people wished to use the drug, policy-makers chose, to run the risk of individual indiscretion and decided to abandon the abstentionist policy. There are many today who feel that if the social, impact of alcohol use had then been more fully understood, a policy of discouragement rather than neutrality would have been adopted to minimize the negative aspects of alcohol use.

Misunderstanding also played an important part when the national government adopted an eliminationist, marihuana policy in 1937. The policy-makers knew very little about the effects or social impact of the drug; many of their hypotheses were speculative and, in large measure, incorrect.

Nevertheless, the argument that misinformation in 1937 automatically compels complete reversal of the action taken at that time is neither reasonable nor logical. While continuing concern about the effects of heavy, chronic use is not sufficient reason to maintain an overly harsh public policy, it is still a significant argument for choosing official discouragement in preference to official neutrality.

3. Society's Value System Is In a State of Transition

As discussed in Chapter 1, two central influences in contemporary American life are the individual search for meaning within the context of an increasingly depersonalized society, and the collective search for enduring American values. In Chapter IV, we noted that society's present ambivalent response to marihuana use reflects these uncertainties.

For the reasons discussed in the previous Chapters, a sudden abandonment of an official policy of elimination in favor of one of neutrality toward marihuana would have a profound reverberating impact on social attitudes far beyond the one issue of marihuana use. We believe that society must have time to consider its image of the future. We believe that adoption of a discouragement policy toward marihuana at this time would facilitate such a reappraisal while official neutrality, under present circumstances, would impede it.

4. Public Opinion Presently Opposes Marihuana Use

For whatever reasons, a substantial majority of the American public opposes the use of marihuana, and would prefer that their fellow citizens abstain from using it. In the National Survey, 64% of the adult public agreed with the statement that "using marihuana is morally offensive` (40% felt the same way about alcohol).

Although this majority opinion is not by any means conclusive, it cannot be ignored. We are well aware of the skeptics in with which marihuana user, and those sympathetic to their wishes, view the policy making process; and we are particularly concerned about the indifference to or disrespect for law manifested by many citizens and particularly the youth.

However, we are also apprehensive about the impact of a major change in social policy on that larger segment of our population which supports the implications of the existing social policy. They, too, might lose respect for a policy-making establishment which appeared to bend so easily to the wishes of a "lawless" and highly vocal minority.

This concern for minimizing cultural dislocation must, of course, be weighed against the relative importance of contrary arguments. For example, in the case of desegregation in the South, and now in the North, cult-Lire shock had to be accepted in the light of the fundamental precept at issue. In the, case. of marihuana, there is no fundamental principle supporting the use of the drug, and society is not compelled to approve or be neutral toward it. The opinion of the majority is entitled to greater weight.

Looking again to the, experience with Prohibition, when an abstentionist policy for alcohol was adopted on the national level in 1918, its proponents were not blind to the vociferous opposition of a substantial minority of the people. By the late 1920's and early 1930's, the ambivalence of public opinion toward alcohol use and the unwillingness of large numbers of people to comply with the new social policy compelled reversal of that policy. Even many of its former supporters acknowledged its futility.

With marihuana, however, the prevailing policy of eliminating use had never been opposed to any significant degree until the mid-1960's. Unlike the prohibition of alcohol, which had been the subject of public debate off and on for 60 years before it was adopted, present marihuana policy has not until now engaged the public opinion process, some 50 years after it first began to be used. Majority sentiment does not appear to be as flexible as it was with alcohol.

5. Neutrality Is Not Philosophically Compelled

Much of what was stated above bespeaks an acute awareness by the Commission of the subtleties of the collective consciousness of the American people, as shown in the National Survey. There is a legitimate concern about what the majority of the non-using population thinks about marihuana use and what the drug represents in the public mind. The question is appropriately asked if we are suggesting that the majority in a free society may impose its will on an unwilling minority even though, as it is claimed, uncertainty, speculation, and a large degree of misinformation form the basis of the predominant opinion. If we have nothing more substantial than this, the argument goes, society should remain neutral.

To deal with this contention, one must distinguish between ends and means. Policy-makers must choose their objectives with a sensitivity toward the entire social fabric and a vision of the good society. In such a decision, the general public attitude is a significant consideration. The preferred outcome in a democratic society cannot be that of the policy-makers alone; it must be that of an informed public. Accordingly, the policy-maker must consider the dynamic relationship between perception and reality in the public mind. Is the public consensus based on a real awareness of the facts? Does the public really understand what is at stake? Given the best evidence available, would the public consensus remain the same?

Assuming that dominant opinion opposes marihuana use, the philosophical issue is raised not by the goal but by how it is implemented. At this point, the interests of the unwilling become important. For example, the family unit and the institution of marriage are preferred means of group-living and child-rearing in our society. As a society, we are not neutral. We officially encourage matrimony by giving married couples favorable tax treatment; but we do not compel people to get married. If it should become public policy to try to reduce the birth rate, it is unlikely that there will be laws to punish those who exceed the preferred family size, although we may again utilize disincentives through the tax system. Similarly, this Commission believes society should continue actively to discourage people from using marihuana, and any philosophical limitation is relevant to the means employed, not to the goal itself.


We emphasize that this is a policy for today and the immediate future; we do not presume to suggest that this policy embodies eternal truth. Accordingly, we strongly recommend that our successor policy planners, at an appropriate time in the future, review the following factors to determine whether an altered social policy is in order: the state of public opinion, the extent to which members of the society continue to use the drug, the developing scientific knowledge about the effects and social impact of use of the drug, and the evolving social attitude toward the place of recreation and leisure in a work-oriented society. In our second Report next year, we will carefully review our findings to see if our perceptions have changed or if society has changed at that time.


Library Highlights

Drug Information Articles

Drug Rehab