Schaffer Library of Drug Policy

Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding

A Social Control Policy for Marihuana

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

A Social Control Policy for Marihuana


A Social Control Policy for Marihuana

In formulating a Marihuana policy, our strongest concern is with irresponsible use, whether it be too often, too much, indiscriminate, or under improper circumstances. The excessive or indiscriminate use of any drug is a serious social concern; and this is particularly true of marihuana since we still know very little about the effects of long term, heavy use. We have little doubt that the substantial majority of users, under any social control policy, including the existing system, do not and would not engage in irresponsible behavior.

In identifying the -appropriate social control policy for marihuana, we have found it helpful to consider the following policy options:

I Approval of Use.

II Elimination of Use.

III Discouragement of Use.

IV Neutrality Toward Use.


Society should not approve or encourage the recreational use of any drug, in public or private. Any semblance of encouragement enhances the possibility of abuse and removes, from a psychological standpoint, an effective support of individual restraint.

For example, so long as this society (not only the government, but other institutions and mass advertising as well) in effect approved of the use of tobacco, the growing medical consensus about the dangers of excessive use did not make a significant impression on individual judgment. With the Surgeon General's Report on Tobacco in 1964, Smoking and Health, a very real change has occurred in the way society now thinks about cigarettes.

The institutions of society definitely add their influences to the variety of social pressures which persuade individuals to use any kind of drugs. Rational social policy should seek to minimize such social pressures, whether they come from peers, from the media, from social custom, or from the user's sense of inadequacy. Official approval would inevitably encourage some people to use the drug who would not otherwise do so, and would also increase the incidence of heavy or otherwise irresponsible use and its complications. On this basis we reject policy option number one, approval of use.


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.


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.

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