Schaffer Library of Drug Policy

Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding


US National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse

Table of Contents
I. Marihuana and the Problem of Marihuana
Origins of the Marihuana Problem
The Need for Perspective
Formulating Marihuana Policy
The Report
II. Marihuana Use and Its Effects
The Marihuana User
Profiles of Users
Becoming a Marihuana User
Becoming a Multidrug User
Effects of Marihuana on the User
Effects Related to Pattern Use
Immediate Drug Effects
ShortTerm Effects
Long Term Effects
Very Long Term Effects
III. Social Impact of Marihuana Use
IV. Social Response to Marihuana Use
V. Marihuana and Social Policy
Drugs in a Free Society
A Social Control Policy for Marihuana
Implementing the Discouragement Policy
A Final Comment
Ancillary Recommendations
Legal and Law Enforcement Recommendations
Medical Recommendations
Other Recommendations
Letter of Transmittal
Members and Staff
History of Marihuana Use: Medical and Intoxicant
II. Biological Effects of Marihuana
Botanical and Chemical Considerations
Factors Influencing Psychopharmacological Effect
Acute Effects of Marihuana (Delta 9 THC)
Effects of Short-Term or Subacute Use
Effects of Long-Term Cannabis Use
Investigations of Very Heavy Very Long-Term Cannabis Users
III. Marihuana and Public Safety
Marihuana and Crime
Marihuana and Driving
Marihuana - Public Health and Welfare
Assessment of Perceived Risks
Preventive Public Health Concerns
Marihuana and the Dominant Social Order
The World of Youth
Why Society Feels Threatened
The Changing Social Scene
Problems in Assessing the Effects of Marihuana
Marihuana and Violence
Marihuana and (Non-Violent) Crime
Summary and Conclusions: Marihuana and Crime
Marihuana and Driving
History of Marihuana Legislation
History of Alcohol Prohibition
History of Tobacco Regulation
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Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding

The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse

Chapter V

marihuana and social policy


Social control is most effectively guaranteed by the exercise of individual self-discipline. Elementary social psychology teaches us that restraint generated within is infinitely more effective and tenacious than restraint imposed from without.

One of the participants at our "Central Influences" Seminar observed:

When people grow up into a society, the principal aim is to internalize drives-that is, I assume they come up 'with certain drives which can be satisfied in many ways and you're trying to internalize, ways of satisfying those drives which will be compatible with life in a community and also satisfying to the individual. The external restraints can only complement this, they cannot possibly substitute for it.

The supplemental effect of external restraints, particularly legal restraints, must also be weighed against the nature of the control sought. It was put this way at our Seminar:

Think of the social welfare function as a mountain-the hill of the Lords really. Large parts of it are something of a plateau; that is you can be all sorts of places on it and be safe. You don't have to maximize. This is an economist's fallacy. You can have all sorts of variations, you can be Socialists, Capitalists, Mormons, Adventists and get away with it-even Liberals. But there are cliffs, and you can fall off of them. This is what we are worrying about today. We are nervous about these cliffs.

The "no-no's"-as the kids call them-are the fences on these cliffs. That is, we have set up taboos and say there's a cliff there. Now -one of the problems socially is that we set up "no-no's" where there are no cliffs. There are no cliffs and people jump over these [fences] and they say, "No cliffs! See no cliffs!" [Then, over other fences-and] chop-chop-chop-crash! See, it's just as dangerous to set up fences without any cliffs as not have fences where there are cliffs.

To this functional consideration of external restraint, we must also add the philosophical faith in the responsible exercise of individual judgment which is the essence of a free society. To illustrate, a preference for individual productivity underlies this society's opposition to indiscriminate drug use, the fact that so few of the 24 million Americans who have tried marihuana use it, or have used it, irresponsibly, testifies to the extent to which they have internalized that value.

The hypothesis that widespread irresponsibility would attend freer availability of marihuana suggests not that a restrictive policy is in order but rather that a basic premise of our free society is in doubt. We note that the escalation thesis, used as an argument against marihuana rather than as a tool for understanding individual behavior, is really a manifestation of skepticism about individual vulnerabilities. For example, one-half of the public agreed with the statement that "if marihuana were made legal, it would make drug addicts out of ordinary people."

At the same time, we do feel that the threat of excessive use is most potent with the young. In fact, we think all drug use should continue to be discouraged among the young, because of possible adverse effects on psychological development and because of the lesser ability of this part of the population to discriminate between limited and excessive use.

Social policy implementation in this regard is extraordinarily difficult. For example, although existing social policies toward tobacco, alcohol and marihuana alike oppose their use by the young, those policies are far from being fully effective. For example:


The National Survey (1971) indicates that of young people age 12-to-17,

  • 50 % have smoked at one, time or another;
  • 15% smoke now; and
  • At least 8% smoke at least a half a pack a day.

In a 1970 sample of smoking habits in the 12-to-18 population conducted for the National Clearinghouse for Smoking and Health, it was found that:

  • 18.5% of the boys and 11.9% of the girls were regular smokers; and
  • About 8% of the boys and 5% of the girls smoked more than a half a pack a day.


The National Survey also ascertained the drinking pattern during the previous month of young people aged 12-to-17, finding that:

  • At least 23% had used beer during that month, at least 14% had used wine and at least 12% had used hard liquor; and
  • 6% had used beer five or more days during the months 3% had used wine five or more days, and 3% had used hard liquor five or more days.


Of the 12-to-17 population, the Survey found that:

  • 15% of this population had tried marihuana;
  • At least 6 % still use it; and
  • Less than 1% use it once a day or more

The inclination of so many young people to experiment with drugs is a reflection of a so-called successful socialization process on one hand, and of society's ambivalence to the use of drugs on the other. This entire matter will occupy much of our attention in the coming year, but it is essential that we make a few anticipatory comments now.

This nation tries very had to instill in its children independence, curiosity and a healthy self-assurance. These qualities guarantee a dynamic, progressive society. Where drugs are concerned, however, we have relied generally on authoritarianism and on obedience. Drug education has generally been characterized by overemphasis of scare tactics. Some segments of the population have been reluctant to inform for fear of arousing curiosity in young minds. Where drugs are concerned, young people are simply supposed to nod and obey. -

This society has always been and continues to be ambivalent about the non-medical (in the strict sense) use of drugs. And this ambivalence does not escape our children. If we can come to grips with this issue, we might convince our youth that the curiosity that is encouraged in other aspects of our culture is undesirable where drugs are concerned.

The law is at best a highly imperfect reflection of drug policy. The laws proscribing sale of tobacco to minors are largely ignored. Prohibitions of sale of alcohol to minors are enforced sporadically. As to marihuana, there are areas throughout this nation where possession laws are not enforced at all. In other sections, such proscriptions are strictly enforced, with no apparent decrease in marihuana use.

As a guiding doctrine for parents and children, the law is certainly confusing when it imposes widely varying punishments in different states, and even in different courts of the same state, all for use of the same substance, marihuana. That marihuana use can be treated as a petty offense in one state and a felony in another is illogical and confusing to even the most sincere of parents.

The law is simply too blunt an instrument to manifest the subtle distinctions we draw between the motivations and the circumstances of use. At the same time, legal status carries a certain weight of its own, and other institutions must take account of the law in performing their functions.

In legally implementing our recommended social policy, we seek to maximize the ability of our schools, churches and families to be open and honest in discussing all drugs, including marihuana. The law must assist, not impede. In this respect, we note with concern the counterproductive tendency in our society to seek simple solutions to complex problems. Since the statutory law is a simple tool, the tendency in our society to look to the law for social control is particularly strong.

We have discussed the four basic social policy objectives of elimination, discouragement, neutrality and approval of marihuana use and have selected discouragement of use, with emphasis on prevention of heavy and very heavy use, as our generalized aim. We have considered three legal responses, each with a wide range of alternatives:

1. Total Prohibition.

2. Partial Prohibition.

3. Regulation.


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