Marijuana is a psychoactive drug made from the dried leaves and flowers of the hemp plant (cannabis sativa). Currently, the U.S. federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance—identifying it as having “a high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use,” and placing it in the same league as opium and LSD. Because of its Schedule I status, it is illegal to buy, sell, grow, or possess marijuana in the United States, and people convicted of marijuana offenses face penalties ranging from fines to life imprisonment. In addition, the federal government, state governments, and local communities spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on preventative programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), in which police officers visit schools to teach young people to refrain from trying marijuana and other drugs.
Cannibis sativa has not always been classified as a dangerous narcotic. As early as the 1600s, colonists in Virginia and Massachusetts cultivated cannabis to produce hemp fiber, which was useful for creating strong cloth and twine. In the 1700s, the British parliament paid bounties for hemp and distributed manuals on hemp cultivation to dissuade American colonists from relying only on tobacco as a cash crop. By the 1840s, the therapeutic potential of cannabis extracts gained a modicum of recognition among U.S. physicians, and starting in 1850, the drug was included in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as a recognized medicine. Solutions and tinctures containing cannabis were frequently prescribed for relieving pain and inducing sleep.
By the turn of the twentieth century, new drugs such as aspirin began to replace cannabis as a pain reducer, and marijuana, in its smokable form, gained notoriety as an intoxicant. During this time, recreational use of the drug occurred primarily among poor minorities and immigrants, particularly Mexican American migrants, Filipino laborers, southern blacks, and black jazz musicians. The general public’s opinion of marijuana began to shift in the 1920s as use of the drug appeared to be correlated with a rising crime rate. Some politicians and civic leaders, reflecting the anti-immigrant sentiments of the time, claimed that marijuana abuse among ethnic minorities was largely the cause of increased crime and violence. Several state and local governments began a vigorous campaign against marijuana and its primary users. A 1917 editorial in a San Antonio, Texas, newspaper reported that “the hemp plant is a dangerous narcotic from which dangerous vice is acquired among the lower classes in Mexico. The men who smoke this herb become excited to such an extent that they go through periods of near frenzy.” Similarly, in 1934, Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, stated that “fifty percent of the violent crimes committed in the districts occupied by Mexicans, Filipinos, Greeks, Spaniards, Latin-Americans, and Negroes may be traced to abuse of marijuana.” Some contemporary analysts contend that marijuana received the blame for social ills that were actually rooted in the deeper national problems of poverty and racial prejudice.
Marijuana was not the only substance targeted by anti-drug activists during the early twentieth century. In the 1920s, Congress banned the use of alcohol and hard drugs and considered the prohibition of medicinal pain killers and caffeine. Yet after the ban on alcohol was lifted, the campaign against marijuana continued. In an effort to prevent marijuana abuse, political and law enforcement leaders often made exaggerated claims about the drug’s effects. A notorious example of such exaggeration is seen in the 1936 educational film Reefer Madness, in which marijuana is depicted as causing vivid hallucinations, insanity, murder, and suicide. By this time, most states had laws prohibiting either the use, sale, or possession of marijuana. Then, in 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which, rather than outlawing the substance, imposed a high tax on its growers, sellers, and buyers. As a result of this act, all medical products containing cannabis were withdrawn from the market, and in 1941, the drug was dropped from recognition by the U.S. Pharmacopoeia.
During the 1960s, marijuana became the most popular recreational drug among segments of the countercultural movement—a group composed largely of young adults and left-wing activists who demanded free speech on college campuses, opposed the war in Vietnam, and challenged mainstream cultural values. Subsequently, many of those who wished to protect the status quo came to see marijuana as a threat to the moral fiber of the nation. At the same time, the public became increasingly concerned about the rising rates of abuse of heroin, amphetamines, and LSD. In response to these concerns, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA), which established a new classification system for drugs based on their potential for abuse. Existing state laws that regulated illicit drugs, though they remained in effect, were overridden by the new federal statute. Under this law, all drugs considered to have a high potential for abuse and no generally accepted medical use would be defined as Schedule I drugs. Hence, marijuana was placed in Schedule I of the CSA.
Throughout the 1970s, however, public opinion about marijuana was mixed. A growing number of people were smoking marijuana to cope with medical problems that were not responsive to conventional medicine— particularly the pain and nausea associated with cancer and chemotherapy. Moderate politicians in both political parties began to argue in favor of marijuana decriminalization, which would waive serious penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. By the late 1970s, the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and the National Council of Churches all endorsed decriminalization, and eleven states had passed statutes that decriminalized marijuana use. But during the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan took a hard line against marijuana, arguing that it was “probably the most dangerous drug in America today.” According to journalist Eric Schlosser, the national War on Drugs, which began in 1982 under the Reagan administration, began as a war on marijuana: “[Reagan’s] first drug czar, Carlton Turner, blamed marijuana for young people’s involvement in ‘anti-bigbusiness, anti-authority demonstrations.’ Turner also thought that smoking pot could transform young men into homosexuals.”
Many current supporters of marijuana’s Schedule I status grant that the twentieth century’s anti-marijuana campaigns too often resorted to misinformation and bigotry, which ultimately proved to be counterproductive. Yet they also cite a growing body of scientific evidence that documents the health risks associated with marijuana use—risks which they believe warrant the continued criminalization of the drug. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), acute marijuana intoxication induces euphoria accompanied by confusion, distorted perception, and coordination problems; high doses can cause delusions and paranoia. Short-term health effects of the drug include memory loss, anxiety, an increased heart rate, and decreased cognitive skills; long-term consequences for chronic smokers include a weakened immune system and an increased risk of cancer, respiratory diseases, and heart problems. In addition, marijuana opponents argue that many users become psychologically dependent on the “high” the drug creates. Such dependence can result in stunted emotional and social maturity as these users lose interest in school, work, and social activities.
Marijuana is also viewed by some analysts as a “gateway” drug that can lead to the abuse of other dangerous and illegal substances, including cocaine and heroin. According to Joseph Califano, chair of the National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse, “Twelve-to-seventeen-year-olds who smoke marijuana are eighty-five times more likely to use cocaine than those who do not. Among teens who report no other problem behaviors, those who used cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana at least once in the past month are almost seventeen times likelier to use . . . cocaine, heroin, or LSD.” Califano notes that while most youths who smoke marijuana may not move on to harder drugs, the fact that a certain percentage of smokers will try heroin or cocaine suggests that the best strategy in preventing drug abuse is to maintain strong social sanctions against marijuana.
Critics of U.S. marijuana policy, on the other hand, argue that most anti-drug campaigners continue to exaggerate the dangers of marijuana. They contend that the majority of marijuana users suffer no lasting harm, do not move on to other drugs, and do not become addicts. While they grant that adolescents should not be permitted to smoke marijuana, they often maintain that the responsible use of the drug by adults for either recreational or medicinal purposes should not be illegal. Legalization proponents admit that any drug can be abused, and that no drug is entirely harmless or free of long-term health effects, but they believe that marijuana’s mild intoxicating effects make it no more dangerous to society than alcohol or nicotine. In fact, states R. Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws (NORML), alcohol and tobacco “are the most commonly used and abused drugs in America and unquestionably they cause far more harm to the user and to society than does marijuana.” In Stroup’s opinion, “Congress needs to . . . stop legislating as if marijuana smokers were dangerous people who need to be locked up. Marijuana smokers are simply average Americans. . . . Whether one smokes marijuana or drinks alcohol to relax is simply not an appropriate area of concern for the government.”
In recent years, a growing number of commentators of various political persuasions have questioned why it is legal for adults to become intoxicated with alcohol but not with marijuana. Some see this inconsis- AI Marijuana INT 12/5/02 10:01 AM Page 10 tency as an unacknowledged hypocrisy rooted in historical cultural bias. In the United States, they argue, alcohol has long been the recreational drug of choice of America’s dominant cultural group, and campaigns to prohibit it were unsuccessful. Marijuana use, which first emerged among non-white immigrants and minorities and later reappeared as the preferred drug of the 1960s counterculture, became an easy target for criminalization by powerful elites who harbored various prejudices. As National Review editor Richard Lowry explains, “Marijuana prohibition basically relies on cultural prejudice. . . . Many of [the drug’s] advocates over the years have looked and thought like [countercultural icon] Allen Ginsberg. But that isn’t much of an argument for keeping it illegal, and if marijuana started out culturally alien, it certainly isn’t anymore.”
But others discount the cultural prejudice theory as the explanation for the continued prohibition of marijuana. Some argue that the marijuana high is significantly different than the intoxication of alcohol. As journalist Damon Linker maintains, “While alcohol primarily diminishes one’s inhibitions and clarity of thought, marijuana inspires a euphoria that resembles nothing so much as the pleasure that normally arises only in response to the accomplishment of the noblest human deeds,” allowing its users “a means to enjoy the rewards of excellence without possessing it themselves.” Such “unearned” euphoria is dangerous for both youths and adults, Linker contends, because it can destroy one’s ambition to pursue the kinds of activity that would bring about normal pleasure. Ultimately, he concludes, marijuana use results in a “pathology of the soul” that would be most harmful to the developing minds of youths—who would have easier access to the drug if it were legalized for adults.
Whether marijuana’s potential harms outweigh its benefits remains a central question in current debates about this controversial drug. The authors in At Issue: Marijuana present various opinions on the effects of marijuana and discuss some of the public policy measures concerning its status as a Schedule I drug.
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