Schaffer Library of Drug Policy

Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding

Social Response to Marihuana Use - Law Enforcement Behavior

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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The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse

Chapter IV

social response to marihuana use

Law Enforcement Behavior

On the basis of a detailed study of all federal marihuana arrests during 1970 and of a sample of state arrests during the last half of 1970 in Cook County, Illinois; Dallas, Texas; Omaha, Nebraska; Tucson, Arizona; San Mateo County, California; and the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area, we present the following findings.

FEDERAL The federal authorities make little or no effort to seek out violators of laws proscribing possession of marihuana. The Federal Government ceded responsibility for enforcement of possession laws to the states several years ago. However, in the course of general enforcement activity, the Federal authorities do make possession arrests. If a person is arrested at the Federal level for possession or casual transfer of small or moderate amounts of marihuana, the case generally is either dropped or turned over to the states for prosecution.

The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs does not concentrate much of its energy on marihuana. By its own estimate, approximately 6% of its investigative efforts are directed at marihuana offenses. Most BNDD marihuana arrests occur as a result of the agency's general investigation into the commercial distribution of all drugs.

The overwhelming majority of all federal marihuana arrests occur at or near the borders, as the Bureau of Customs, sometimes in cooperation with the Border Patrol of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, attempts to interdict the importation of the drug.


At the state level, where enforcement of the possession laws is focused, about 93% of the arrests in our sample were for this offense. Yet, there was little formal investigative effort to seek out violators of the possession laws. Instead, 69% of all marihuana arrests arose from spontaneousor accidental situations where there had been no investigation at all. Well over half of these spontaneous arrests occurred when police stopped an automobile and saw or smelled marihuana. The remaining spontaneous arrests occurred when police stopped persons on the street or in a park and discovered marihuana.

In an additional 16% of the cases, the marihuana arrest resulted from police follow-up of a phoned tip or similar lead. In less than 11% of all the cases was there any significant police involvement. (Scope of investigation was unknown in about 4% of the cases).

Because of this enforcement pattern, arrests were concentrated among the young. Typically the arrestee was a white male, in school or employed in a blue collar job, without a prior record. Of those arrested at the state level:

* 58% were under 21; 30% were between 21 and 26; 10% were over 26 (2% unknown)

* 85% were male; 15% were female

* 77% were white; 21% were black; 2% were Spanish speaking

* 27% were students, 2% were military; 28% were employed in blue collar jobs; 15% were employed in white collar jobs; 11% were unemployed (16% unknown)

* 44% had not been arrested previously; 31% had been arrested previously (in 25% of the cases, the extent of prior contact was unknown) ; only 6% of the arrestees had been previously inearcerated

Such arrestees generally possessed only small amounts of marihuana. Of our entire sample of 3,071 arrests:

  • 67% were for possession of less than one ounce (18% were for less than one gram; 23% were for between one and 5 grams; 26% were for between 5 and 30 grams)
  • 7% were for possession of between one ounce and 4 ounces
  • 8% were for possession of over 4 ounces
  • 13% were for possession of unknown quantities
  • 3 % were for transfer of less than one ounce
  • 3% were for transfer of over one ounce,*

Offenders at the state level were generally arrested in groups.

* 29 % were arrested alone

* 24% were arrested with one other person

* 43% were arrested with two or more other persons (4% unknown) Faced with this population of offenders, the criminal justice System responded often by dismissing or diverting to a noncriminal institution the young first-offense possessor of small amounts.

Adult Cases

At least 48% of the cases were terminated in the defendant's favor:

The police themselves disposed of l0% of the cases, refraining from filing charges, or diverting the case, to some other institution.

The prosecution declined to file complaints in an additional 7% of the cases.

An additional 28% of the cases were dismissed in the course of pretrial judicial proceedings.

In 3% of the cases, the defendant was acquitted at trial.

*Because the figures have been rounded off, the total is not always 100%.

Juvenile Cases

At least 70% of the cases were terminated in the youth's favor:

The police themselves disposed of 21% of the cases, refraining from referring the youth to juvenile authorities or diverting the case to some other agency.

An additional 48% of the cases were dismissed either because the juvenile officer responsible for filing a delinquency petition refused to do so, or because the judge dismissed the case prior to trial.

in 1% of the cases, the juvenile was found innocent.

Of the entire sample of arrests, both adult and juvenile, 33% of those apprehended were ultimately sentenced,, after pleading guilty or being found guilty. (Since 11% of the 3,071 cases -were still pending at the time of our study, and disposition was unknown in 2% of the cases, the figure may be as high as 40% of all arrests).

Of those convicted for possession of marihuana, 24% were incarcerated, usually for a year or less. Most of the remaining persons were put on probation, although some were fined only. By comparison, of those convicted of sale (5% of the convicted individuals), 65% were incarcerated, usually for over a year.

In short, in the 2,610 cases where disposition was final and was available to 6% of those apprehended were ultimately incarcerated.

From this analysis of enforcement behavior. it appears that the law enforcement community has adopted a policy of containment. Although effort is sometimes expended to seek out private marihuana use, the trend is undoubtedly to invoke, the marihuana possession laws only when the behavior (possession) comes out in the open. We were told by police officials in some cities, for example, that arrests are made only when marihuana use is flaunted in public.

The salient feature of the present law has become the threat of arrest for indiscretion. The high percentage of cases which, after arrest, are disposed of by dismissal or informal diversion attests to the ambivalence of police officials, prosecutors and judges about the appropriateness of existing law. Anyone processed through the entire system does run a risk of incarceration, especially when the individual had a prior record and the offense was sale or possession of a significant amount.

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