Schaffer Library of Drug Policy

Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding

Drugs And Social Responsibility - RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FEDERAL LAW

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


Under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, Congress provided the following scheme with respect to marihuana, by which was meant only the natural plant and its various parts, not the synthetic tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) :

  • Cultivation, importation and exportation, and sale or distribution for profit of marihuana are all felonies punishable by imprisonment for up to five years for a first offense and by up to 10 years for a second offense (the available penalty is doubled for sale to a minor).
  • Possession of marihuana with intent to distribute is a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to five years for the first offense and by up to 10 years for a second offense.
  • Possession of marihuana for personal use is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine for first offense and by up to two years in jail and a $2,000 fine for second offense (expungement of criminal record is available for first offenders).
  • Transfer of a small amount of marihuana for no remuneration is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine for first offense and by up to two years in jail and a $2,000 fine for second offense (Congress singled out marihuana in this way to allow misdemeanor treatment of casual transfers and permitted first offender treatment, as allowed for possession for personal use).

The Commission recommends only the following changes in federal law:


The Commission further recommends that federal law be supplemented to provide:


* Commissioners Rogers, Congressman from Florida, and Carter, Congressman from Kentucky, agree with the Commission's selection of a discouragement policy and also agree that criminalization and incarceration of individuals for possessing marihuana for their own use is neither necessary nor desirable as a means of implementing that policy.

At the same time, both Commissioners feel that the contraband concept is not a sufficiently strong expression of social disapprobation and would recommend in addition a civil fine for possession of any amount of marihuana in private or in public.

Both Commissioners feel that the civil fine clearly symbolizes societal disapproval and is a simple mechanism for law enforcement authorities to carry out. If a person is found by a law enforcement officer to be in possession of marihuana, the officer would issue such person a summons to appear in court on a fixed day. Although a warrant would not issue for Research of a private residence unless there were probable cause to believe a criminal offense was being committed, a police officer legitimately present for other reasons could issue a civil summons for violation of the "possession" proscription.

Commissioners Rogers and Carter believe that the legal system must be utilized directly to discourage the person from using marihuana rather than being utilized only indirectly as In the case of contraband.

This civil fine would not be reflected in a police record, nor would it be considered a criminal act for purposes of future job consideration, either in the private sector or for government service.

Agreeing with the other Commissioners that the casual transfers of marihuana for no profit should be treated in the same manner as possession for one's own use, Congressmen Rogers and Carter do not agree that it should extend to transfers involving remuneration. They prefer the limiting language of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 which does not include the term "or insignificant remuneration not involving a profit."

Apart from the addition of the civil fine to the contraband recommendation in the respects set out above, Congressmen Carter and Rogers are in complete agreement with the statutory recommendations set out in the Report.

Commissioner Ware concurs completely with the statements made by Congressmen Rogers and Carter but wishes to reemphasize that the social policy and legal scheme adopted is applicable only to marihuana and should not be construed to embrace other psychoactive drugs. The policy set forth in this Report, subject to the already noted comments of the two Congressional Commissioners, makes sense for marihuana on the basis of what is known about the drug and in the absence of any conclusive showing which would verify some of the anecdotal law enforcement testimony heard by the Commission regarding criminal behavior exhibited while under the influence of marihuana.

Commissioner Ware feels that some penalty short of criminalizing the user, such as a civil fine or some type of intensive drug education, will act as a positive deterrent toward minimizing the incidence of marihuana use especially among the young. Further, he is opposed to the use of any drug for the express purpose of getting intoxicated, and includes alcohol within this category. The Commissioner feels that what is needed is an internalizing of discipline among our citizenry, with the legal system assisting this process through the use of disincentives.

Commissioners Hughes, Senator from Iowa, and Javits, Senator from New York, feel that the Commission has taken a major, highly laudable step in recommending that the private use of marihuana be taken out of the criminal justice system. They concur in its threshold judgment that overall social policy regarding this drug should seek to discourage use, while concentrating primarily on the prevention of irresponsible use. They disagree, however, with three specific recommendations relating to the implementation of this discouragement policy.

First, they would eliminate entirely the contraband provision from the partial prohibitory model adopted by the Commission. They want it eliminated first because its legal implications are confusing and the subject of disagreement even among lawyers. Whether or not possession of a given substance is criminal, possession of material designated as contraband makes that possession unlawful. Also, marihuana designated as contraband would be subject to government search and seizure, even though the underlying possession is no longer criminal. The provision-which does not apply to marihuana held for personal use within the home is considered by both Commissioners to be an unnecessary "symbol" of the discouragement policy. It will not foster elimination of the misunderstanding and mistrust which is a hallmark of our current marihuana policy.

Commissioner Hughes and Javits seek to eliminate it also because as a practical matter it serves no useful law enforcement purpose within the overall partial prohibitory model. If marihuana held for personal use within the home is not contraband, why should marihauna held for personal use within one's automobile be contraband? The area of operation of the contraband provision is extremely narrow. If one possesses more than one ounce of marihuana in public, it may be seized without regard to the contraband doctrine since such possession is a criminal violation.

Since the contraband provision does not apply to marihuana possession and use in private, the only effective area covered by the contraband provision is the area of possession in public of less than one ounce. The Commission has chosen to remove the stigma of the criminal sanction in this kind of case. To impose instead a contraband provision, which it is argued is in the nature of a civil "in rem" seizure which does not operate against the person, is to cloud the issue and to weaken the force of the basic decriminalization. A persuasive justification simply has not been made.

Both Commissioners seek to eliminate it also because they believe that the voice of the Commission should be loud and clear that the preservation of the right of privacy is of paramount importance and cannot be casually jeopardized in the pursuit of some vague public or law enforcement interest which has not been defined and justified with clarity and precision.

The second area of disagreement with the Commission's recommendations concerns the casual distribution of marihuana and the not-for-profit sale. As understood:

(1) The totally donative transfer is not subject to criminal penalty, regardless of where it takes place.

(2) The transfer of small amounts for insignificant remuneration not involving a profit is not subject to criminal penalty (except if it is accomplished in public, in which case it is subject to criminal sanction), but (3) The transfer of "large amounts" for "significant" remuneration not involving a profit is subject to criminal penalty.

Footnote 4 on page 158 of the Report, the Commission refers to a Report of The Senate Judiciary Committee on the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. In substance, it implies that within the meaning of the Act, transfers of -more than one or two marihuana cigarettes in return for 50 cents or one dollar to cover cost are not intended to be covered as casual transfers, but rather are to be treated as unlawful sales.

Commissioners Hughes and Javits feel that the Commission has failed to set forth a clear standard which will adequately inform the public of their obligations under the law. The recommendation and its discussion in the Report are confusing and fail to provide the individual with sufficient guidance to allow him to act without having to dodge in and out of illegality. It also undermines a basic, stated objective of the Commission i.e., to concentrate the weight of the criminal sanction upon significant supply and distribution activities, rather than upon casual consumption.

Moreover, proscribing even the most casual not-for-profit transfers when they occur in public is, in their opinion, wrong. Such transfers are necessarily incident to private possession and use. To hold that they should be subject to criminal sanction is logically inconsistent with the Commission's rationale and recommendation on decriminalization of such private activities.

Instead, both Commissioners recommend that all not-for-profit sales be excluded from the criminal sanction. It Is fundamental that there be a clear separation between the serious, commercial, profit-making-seller, or "pusher" as he is known, and the individual who merely splits the cost of a reasonable supply of the drug with his friends or acquaintances.

Thirdly, exception is taken to the retention of the criminal sanction on public possession of more than one ounce. The individual who buys an ounce and a half would be a criminal when he buys on the corner, when he puts it in his pocket, when he gets in his car and drives home, when he is on his doorstep, but not when he crosses the threshold of his home. Commission policy should direct the attention of the law enforcement community to the person who sells the drug for profit, and not to the person who uses the drug privately.

If an individual has more than a few ounces in his possession, and there is probable cause to believe that he intends to sell it for profit, that activity is already covered under the Commission's recommendation that possession with intent to sell is illegal. Therefore, there is no need to further proscribe simple public possession.

All the component parts of the recommended policy of the Commission should be consistent with its objective of non-interference with casual transfers and possession and use which is essentially and fundamentally private and personal.

The contraband device, the not-for-profit sale, and public possession of some reasonable amount which should be presumed to be necessarily incident to private use should all be removed from the ambit of legal sanction. To do so would be to strike down "symbols" of a public policy which had never been adequately justified in the first instance. Such steps would in no way jeopardize the firm determination of the Commission that the use of marihuana ought to be discouraged.

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