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Memories, Reflections and Myths: The American Marihuana Commission PDF Print E-mail
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Books - Cannabis and Culture
Written by Louis Bozetti   

ABSTRACT

The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse was established by the Congress of the United States as a part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. From its inception, the Commission was never given legis-lative power; rather its function was to study the complex issues involved in marihuana use and related social responses. Given the structures of limited time and budget, the Commission was compelled to limit its activity to separating fact from fiction, reality from myth, and to achieve a balanced judgement on the marihuana issue. The first report was an attempt to clarify the essential issues and concerns of American society regarding, marihuana. This knowledge base was then utilized to formulate a reasonable societal response. At the commencement of the Commission's activities it became clear that the marihuana issue was indeed a "signal of misunderstanding." In order to clarify this polarized and politicized phenomenon, a national survey of beliefs, attitudes and experiences with marihuana was undertaken. Compelling findings regarding patterns of use from the survey will be developed in the paper. In order to effectively address the social issues involved the main thrusts of the marihuana investigation were:

1. Use of the drug and its effects;

2. The impact of marihuana use on public health and welfare, on criminal and/or aggressive behavior, and on the dominant social order.

In order to formulate an appropriate social policy regarding the use and control of marihuana in the United States for 1972, the Commission collected and analyzed data on the current societal response to the worldwide use of cannabis.

The incredible short time-frame available to accomplish the above task necessitated an operational strategy which heavily relied upon ongoing research activities, data from cooperating government and private agencies, staff research projects, and con-tracted research studies and papers by established experts in the field. Further support-ive data were collected from public and dosed hearings across the country and from international investigative visits by the Commission. The paper will discuss in some detail the processes involved in obtaining and synthesizing these data.

The Commission's real agony began as it attempted to formulate a proposed national policy regarding marihuana use and control. In part, this dealt with the tension exist-ing in American society between individual liberties and the need for reasonable societal restraints. Underlying the Commission's social policy recommendations was the belief that the State is obliged to justify restraints on individual behavior. In its investigations the Commission found that the existing system of controls was not supported by the current concerns of public opinion or scientific fact. In order to express its strong concern for the irresponsible use of cannabis, the Commission chose a social control policy aimed at discouraging use. The processes of choosing and implementing this option of discouragement of use by the partial prohibition model will be explicated in the paper. A hallmark of this policy was the recommendation for decriminalization of possession of marihuana for private use.

The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse was established by the Congress of the United States as a part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. To assure autonomy, two commissioners were chosen from each of the congressional houses, in addition to nine members who were appointed by the President. From its inception, the Commission was never given legislative power, rather its function was to study the complex issues involved in marihuana use, and related social responses and conduct a study of marihuana including but not limited to the following areas :

a) Epidemiologic studies of the patterns of use, distribution, „and law enforcement activities in America ;
b) An evaluation of the efficacy of existing marihuana laws;
c) A study of the pharmacology of marihuana;
d) The relationship of the use of marihuana to aggressive behavior and crime;
e) The use of other drugs ; and
f) The international control of marihuana.

The study and investigation was to be executed within one year, with re-commendations for legislation and administrative action to the President and the Congress.

Given the strictures of limited time and budget, the Commission was compelled to limit its activity to separating fact from fiction, reality from myth, and to achieve a balanced judgement on the marihuana issue. The first report was an attempt to clarify the essential issues and concerns , of the American society regarding marihuana. This knowledge base was then utilized to formulate a reasonable societal response.

At the outset of the Commission activities, it became clear that the marihuana issue was indeed a "signal of misunderstanding." Two dispa-rate statements typify this controversy. The President in a news conference at San Clemente in May, 1972, stated that he would never legalize mari-huana despite the recommendations of the Commission which was at that time just getting started. On the other hand, Norman E. Zinberg stated at a formal Commission hearing in May, 1973, that the members were biased and had made up their minds from the onset. These positions were exem-plar of the public debate regarding marihuana in 1971.

In order to clarify this polarized and politicized phenomenon, a na-tional survey of beliefs, attitudes and experiences with marihuana was un-dertaken. The survey studied a stratified random sample of U.S. house-holds in which personal interviews with an adult and youth were conduct-ed. Of all adults, 15% reported that they had ever used marihuana, while 5% stated that they were currently using it. Among the youth (12-17 years old), 14% had ever used and 6% reported current use. Interestingly, pro-portions of users increased during the late adolescent years to 27% (16-17 years old), and peaked during the young adult years to 39% (18-25 years old). There was a steady decline in number of users with advancing age (19%, 26-35 years ; 9%, 36-49 years; 6% ,over 50 years). It is noteworthy that both ends of the spectrum report the same percentage of use (6% for 12-13 years old and those over 50 years).

Although trends were noted in the other factors studied (sex, marital status, race, income, etc.), the most striking variation in proportion of marihuana users depended upon age. At the time of the interview, slightly less than half of those who ever used marihuana reported no longer using the substance. The proportions of current adult users followed the same age distribution as those who ever used cannabis.

From"the survey data it became apparent that all marihuana users are not the same, i.e., several distinct patterns of use were delineated. Among youth and adults one-half or more of those who had used marihuana either discontinued it or were currently using it episodically at a rate of once a month or less. These were designated experimental users. About 40% of the youth and adults were intermittent users, i.e., they did not use the drug more than once per week. The remaining 10% consisted of moderate and heavy users, i.e., moderate users several times per week to once per day (6% youth, 5% adults); more than once, daily for heavy users (4% youth, 2% adults).

The survey demonstrated that contemporary marihuana use is perva-sive, involving all segments of the U.S. population. Indeed, it was extra-polated that 24 million Americans over age 11 have used marihuana at least once.

Additionally, marihuana use does not appear to vary significantly by race. With respect to religious affiliation, Jews and Catholics appeared to be slightly over represented as compared to Protestants. Although males predominate among adult users (2 to 1), the sex differential appears to be diminishing among youthful users. It was also found that users tended to be represented more frequently among clerical and professional workers in the higher socioeconomic categories. Use of marihuana tended to increase with the level of formal education attained. At the same time adult use of the drug is not confined to students. Interestingly, 75% of the 18- to 25- year old users were not students.

Users were found to span social class, income level and occupational classifications. This survey data was confirmed by testimony from individ-uals in closed hearings before the Commission. During these sessions surgeons, construction workers, policemen, airline pilots, lawyers, stock brokers, air traffic controllers, and bus drivers spoke of their experience with the drug.

As the above description suggests, marihuana use and the marihuana user do not fall into simple and distinct classifications. Although it is pos-sible to sketch profiles of various marihuana-using populations according to frequency, intensity and duration of use, no valid stereotype of "The Marihuana User" can be drawn.

By far the largest group is the experimenters. Experimentation with marihuana is motivated primarily by curiosity and a desire to sliare a so-cial experience. Usage here is extremely infrequent or non-persistent. This group is rather conventional in life style.

The intermittent users generally continue to use marihuana because of its socializing and recreational properties. They are more inclined to seek and emphasize the social rather than the psychopharmacologie effects of the drug.

In contrast, although the moderate users tend to share many characteris-tics with intermittent users, they appear to place more emphasis on the psychopharmacologie effects of the drug.

The heavy users seem to need the drug experience more often. Their initial and continued use is motivated not only by curiosity and socializa-tion, but also a desire for "kicks," expansion of awareness, understanding, and relief of anxiety or boredom. Generally these persons use cannabis more than once daily, and exhibit unconventional life styles, values and attitudes.

Hitherto, American research had largely focused on the large majority of individuals categorized as experimental and intermittent users. In order to gain unavailable information about moderate and heavy users, the Commission sponsored the Boston Free Access Study at Harvard University. This study permitted observation of a group of moderate and heavy cannabis smokers and their use of the drug during a 21-day period of free access.

They were superior intellectually ; had an average age of 23; had completed on the average of two and a half years of college ; had erratic job histories; were itinerant ; represented all socioeconomic levels ; frequently had family histories of broken homes, alcoholism and drug abuse ; and had widespread use of hallucinogens and amphetamines. In contrast to other groups, heavy users almost uniformly reported that marihuana smoking produced relaxation, alteration of perceptions, increased sense of well-being, and decreased hostility.

The heavy users appeared to demonstrate a moderate psychological dependence on the cannabis experience ; i.e., it is a pivotal social activity around which conversation, other personal interactions and much of their life style revolve. Indeed, smoking was the focal activity around which activity groups formed. Yet these persons were more inclined to seek the psychopharmacologic effects rather than the socializing effects, in direct contrast to less frequent users. Thus, paradoxically, heavy users tended to be more withdrawn and interact less with each other during their communal drug experience.

During the period of the study, the subjects maintained a high level of in-terest and participation in a variety of personal, athletic, and aesthetic endeavors. Under the study's confined conditions participants tended to smoke more than they did on the outside. The intermittent users averaged three cigarettes per day (1/2-6 a day); the moderate and heavy users aver-aged 61(2 cigarettes per day (range 31/2-8 a day). The marihuana used con-tained about 20 mgs. THC per cigarette by laboratory assay.

Significantly, several of the heavy users consumed without any signifi-cant effects (physiological, psychological or behavioral) a maximum daily dose of cannabis approximately 20 to 30 times that obtained by the average marihuana user in the United States.

The apparent rapid build up of tolerance to the hallucinogenic effects of the drug permitted this combination of atypical heavy use pattern and unusually large daily doses of marihuana. It should be noted that in the non-tolerant individual, i.e., the typical American cannabis user, this pat-tern of consumption would likely result in toxic psychosis or hallucinations. The results of this study also demonstrated tolerance to the cardiovascular effects (pulse rate), and behavioral effects (time estimation, recent memory, psychomotor coordination). It is important to note that the tendency to increase daily intake by shortening the interval between marihuana ciga-rettes rather than increasing the number of cigarettes smoked each session suggests tolerance to the desired psychopharmacologic effect of the drug.

One of the most critical tasks facing the Commission concerned the effects of cannabis on the public health and welfare. In order to address it-self to the perceived public fears about the effects of cannabis, several items on public beliefs about the drug were included in the first national survey. Marihuana is perceived by the U.S. population as a harmful substance to persons using it, even in small amounts. Heroin and LSD are clearly regarded as the most harmful of all psychoactive substances. Marihuana is listed third with cocaine, morphine, and amphetamines following closely. Barbiturates, tobacco, and alcohol, in that order, follow in perceived harmfulness.

Sixty-five percent of adults and forty-eight percent of youth believed that marihuana was addictive. Interestingly, marihuana was rated as less addictive than alcohol and tobacco by both youth and adults.
The most widely held belief about marihuana by adults and youth is that it, "makes people want to try stronger things, like heroin." Seventy percent of the adults and fifty-six percent of the youth surveyed held this view. Other widely held beliefs are that marihuana is morally offensive, that it makes people lose their desire to work, that many crimes are com-mitted by persons under its influence, that some people have died from using it, and that it is often promoted by persons who are enemies of the United States. The survey revealed that approximately 50% of all adults held these negative perceptions. In contrast, the positive beliefs, e.g., increases enjoyment of art, sex, tension relief, sociability were not widely held by either youth or adults.

Examination of other survey data suggests that these expressions are reflections of a generalized attitude toward marihuana and the usei among most adults, and to a lesser extent youth. An example of this was the finding that only one-fourth of the youth and adults surveyed believed that marihuana users lead a normal life. The majority of adults have a mental picture of the marihuana user as someone bored with life, not caring about the world around him, not showing good judgement in se-lecting friends, poor school performance, emotionally unstable and lazy. Only 10% of adults believed that the marihuana user enjoys life. Interest-ingly, adults who themselves use marihuana have a much more positive belief system about the user.

In addition to these revealing personal attitudes, it was essential that the Commission also develop an objective knowledge base about the drug and its effects, and its impact upon contemporary American society. A brief historical review of the Commission's earliest operation is needed at this point. This must be done to establish a perspective for understanding the difficulties encountered in commencing a response to the Congression-al mandate.

The formal activities of the group began when on March 22, 1971, a $250,000 appropriation was made available from the President's emergency discretionary fund. With this, the legislated time clock began which required that a final report on marihuana, with legislative recommenda-tions, be submitted to the President and the Congress within one year. Compounding budgetary distress the Commission's total appropriation bill was incorporated in the HEW billl which did not clear Congress and the Office of Management and Budget until August, 1971.

The early financial restraint, effectively, (1) delayed early and adequate staff recruitment ; (2) precluded the funding of a spectrum of new research projects, particularly in the medical area, and (3) severely limited the time frame to four months for accomplishing, collecting data and reporting on all research projects. The above necessitated an operational strategy which heavily relied upon ongoing research activities, and data from cooperating government and private agencies. Further, staff research projects, and contracted studies and papers by established experts in the field were compiled.

The range of studies reviewed included complex endeavors such as the study of chronic ganja use in Jamaica by the Research Institute for the Study of Man in New York, and review monographs by accepted authorities. The majority of data in the biomedical areas was graciously supplied by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Food and Drug Ad-ministration sponsored investigators. In reality, the focus of commission sponsored projects was in the sociolegal areas.

In order to evaluate the efficacy of existing law, a series of projects was designed to ascertain opinion and behavior within the Criminal Justice System, non-legal institutions, e.g., medical, clerical and business, and the general trend of public opinion. Included were analyses of marihuana arrests (federal and local) and opinion surveys of prosecuting attorneys, judges, probation officers, and court clinicians. From these studies it became evident that the law enforcement community has adopted a policy of containment rather than elimination.

Indeed, the salient feature of the present law was the threat of arrest. The general enforcement pattern is a spontaneous one. Most arrests occur outdoors, in cars, and in the course of other police activity. This leads to heavy concentration of arrests among white males, without prior records, possessing only small amounts of marihuana, for indiscreet use in public. A high percentage of cases (94%) after arrest are disposed of by dismissal or informal diversion from the courts. This attests to the widespread am-bivalence among law enforcement personnel about the appropriateness and efficacy of existing law.

Other social institutions recognize that the control of marihuana is only partially a law enforcement problem. The majority of legal and non-legal opinion makers are uniformly against incarceration of adults or youth for possession. However, they felt that the drug should not be made avail-able, at least for now.

A substantial amount of confusion underlies public opinion regarding the control of marihuana. There is an awareness of the legal consequences of use. Overshadowing this is a confusion and ambivalence about an ap-propriate system of control. The public is unenthusiastic about labeling the marihuana user a criminal, but reluctant to relinquish all formal legal controls.

The Commission's real agony began as it attempted to formulate a proposed national policy regarding marihuana use and control. In part, this dealt with the tension existing in American society between individ-ual liberties and the need for reasonable societal restraints. Underlying the Commission's social policy recommendations was the belief that the State is obliged to justify restraints on individual behavior.

The Commission identified four alternative sociolegal policies : ap-proval, elimination, discouragement and neutrality toward use. From the outset, the Commissioners believed that society should not approve or encourage the use of any drug. They concluded that the elimination policy is unachievable and unwarranted. The dissonance between the options of neutrality and discouragement involved the judgement whether society should dissuade persons from using marihuana or benignly defer to individual judgement. The factors which led the Commissioners to opt for the discouragement policy involved beliefs about the dynamics of social change, and the limitation of our current knowledge.

Throughout the Commission's deliberation there was a recurring aware-ness of the possibility that marihuana use may be a fad which, if not insti-tutionalized, would recede substantially in time. The Commissioners were concerned about the effects of cannabis on the heavy and very heavy users. Although these categories of users are presumably small, the group felt that institutionalization of the drug would greatly increase these numbers. Additionally, it was believed that the general value system of contemporary American society was in a state of flux. In a sense the use of marihuana was seen as a rejection of enduring American values. Further, a substan-tial majority of the American public (64%) opposes the use of marihuana by themselves or their fellow citizens. For these reasons the Commissioners recommended to the public and its policy makers a social control policy which sought to discourage marihuana use, while concentrating on the prevention of heavy and very heavy use.

From this the partial prohibition approach was recommended which symbolized societal discouragement, while de-emphasizing marihuana as an emotional issue. This approach concentrates on reducing irresponsible use and its consequences. It also removes the criminal stigma and threat from a widespread behavior (possession for personal use), and allows the law enforcement community to focus on drug trafficking and other rele-vant issues. It also maximizes the flexibility of future public response as new knowledge becomes available.

The hallmark of this policy was the recommendation for decriminaliza-tion of possession of small quantities of marihuana for private personal use. In summary, these recommendations fulfill the ultimate objectives of the Commission to demythologize, desymbolize and de-emphasize mari-huana as a critical problem in the contemporary United States.

1. The appropriation bill for the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

REFERENCES

U.S. NATIONAL COMMISSION ON MARIHUANA AND DRUG ABUSE

1972 Marihuana: a signal of misunderstanding. The official report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. New York: Signet.
1972' Marihuana: a signal of misunderstanding. Technical Papers of the First Report, Appendix, 2 vols. Washington: United States Government Printing Office.

 

Our valuable member Louis Bozetti has been with us since Tuesday, 21 February 2012.