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Articles - Cannabis, marijuana & hashisch
Written by Patricia Erickson   
Saturday, 25 November 1989 00:00

Living with Prohibition: Regular Cannabis Users, Legal Sanctions, and Informal Controls*

first published in the international journal of the addictions, 24(3), 175-188, 1989

Patricia G. Erickson, PhD
Addiction Research Foundation Toronto, Ontario, Canada

*The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect -those of the Addiction Research Foundation. A preliminary version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian law and Society Association, Hamilton, Ontario, June 3-5, 1987.
Address correspondence to the author at the Drug Policy Research Program, Prevention Studies Department, Addiction Research Foundation, 33 Russell Street, Toronto, Ontario MSS 2S1 Canada

Abstract

Adult cannabis users have received much less attention from researchers than their youthful counterparts. Yet significant proportions of adults persist in cannabis use, disregard drug laws, and fulfill otherwise conventional adult roles. This paper addresses the questions of how older, regular users learn to live with these apparent contradictions, how they are influenced by legal sanctions and informal controls, and why they have not (as prophesied in the early 1 970s) become an active force for drug law reform.

Fear is the basic element of deterrence (Williams and Hawkins, 1986). Why, then, is the criminal law so ineffective in deterring cannabis use? A study of convicted cannabis offenders (N = 95) showed that illicit drug users have many things to fear from their law breaking, namely, the possibilities of arrest, jail, monetary loss, social disapproval, and the stigma of lifelong criminal records (Erickson, 1980). Yet people do continue to try cannabis and some persist in its use. A 1985 survey of Canadians aged 15 and over (N = 11,000) found that nearly 1 out of every 18 respondents reported using marijuana or hashish in the past year (Lamarche and Rootman, 1987). In Ontario, surveys in 1985 (N = 1051) and 1987 (N = 1084) of civilian, non institutionalized adults, aged 18 and over, found that about 1 in 10 had used cannabis in the past 12 months (Smart and Adlaf, 1987). Of these current users, those who partook regularly (once a month or more often) numbered slightly less than 40% (Smart and Adlaf, 1987: 32).

Presumably, at least part of the answer for regular users' recalcitrance lies in the dilution or disregarding of the threat of negative sanctions; or as Becker put it, "the user discovers his fears are excessive and unrealistic" (1963: 72). Also, the regular user has learned to derive pleasurable effects from the drug experience, in the company of other users, and has been able to gain access to a stable source of supply (Becker, 1963).

When Becker did his classic study of marijuana users in the 1950s, the activity was undeniably clandestine and engaged in by a very small segment of the population. Cannabis use has since become widespread, and experimentation with the drug, at least, is statistically normative among young people (Kaplan, Martin, Johnson, and Robbins, 1986). Much past research has focused on initiation to cannabis use and the predisposing factors that are involved (e.g., Jessor, 1976; Kohn et al., 1979). Survey research has been consistent in the finding that most of those who try marijuana stop using it or use it only occasionally Thus, some recent research has begun to pay more attention to the equally important phenomena of either cessation or escalation of use (Brown, Glaser, Waxer, and Gels, 1974; Goodstadt, Chan, Sheppard, and Cleve, 1986; Kaplan et al., 1986; Yamaguchi and Kandel, 1985).

Such a refocusing obviously requires either longitudinal designs which pursue drug users from early to late adolescence to adulthood, or cross-sectional designs which examine sustained patterns of drug use in adults. Cannabis use rates drop off sharply in the 30-years-and~lder group, but those in their 20s show the highest prevalence of use, with a peak in the mid-20s (Kandel and Logan, 1984). Yet the large grouping of young adult users, other than college students, has been understudied (Winick, 1986). Early exceptions have examined motivation for marijuana use in highly specialized samples such as psychiatric patients (Norton, 1968) and volunteers for an LSD experiment (McGlothlin, Arnold, and Rowan, 1970), while others have utilized small samples to investigate how adult marijuana users rationalize their law-breaking activity (Hirimiker, Grupp, and Schmitt, 1981; Priest and McGrath, 1970). Other researchers have included both adult and adolescent cannabis users without analyzing age groups separately (Erickson, 1980, 1982; Goode, 1970). Much remains to be done to establish "the connotations and symbolic dimensions of drug use by older persons" (Winick, 1986: 39), "the handling of the societal controls regulating marijuana use" (Hilliker et al., 1981: 1011), and ultimately, "why some become regular marijuana users" (Kaplan et al,, 1986: 57).

Widespread cannabis use for recreational purposes in North America is a phenomenon of relatively recent duration, dating from about the mid-1960s. In many other countries, including China, India, Southeast Asia, several Arab stales, and Jamaica, cannabis is a multipurpose plant whose various applications

- dietary, medicinal, religious - as well as its mood-modifying properties, date back for many decades and even centuries (Rubin, 1975: 260). Patterns of use are, to a large extent, culturally determined and subject to change over time. For example, cannabis use in Jamaica has been endemic to working class male culture for nearly a century but has more recently diffused to younger as well as mote middle-class users (Rubin and Comitas, 1975). Thus, it is important to recognize that the emergence of stable cannabis use patterns is a new field of study in North America, and one which can benefit from an appreciation of the importance of both formal and informal controls operating in other cultures.

This paper draws on data from interviews with 103 regular users of cannabis in Ontario, Canada, to address these questions. What role does cannabis play in the lives of regular users? What power or authority does the law represent to them? Does their commitment to cannabis use imply any political activity to promote legal availability? Since these users were contacted at only one point in time, it is not possible to examine (other than retrospectively) the factors which led to habitual cannabis use. Nor, since none intended to quit using the drug in the near future, is it possible to consider the predictors of cessation. What is feasible is to illuminate a particular stage, that of ongoing marijuana use, in the overall natural history of cannabis use cycles. Current frequency of use is related to the forces of formal and informal control, and some policy implications are considered.

To be included in the sample, those interviewed had to be at least 21 years of age and employed for 6 of the last 12 months. Respondents were contacted in 1983-1984 through a snowball technique built on a network of personal contacts and through advertisements for experienced drug users. Although admission criteria required a minimum of 1 year of monthly or more frequent use, all but one subject had been using for at least 5 years.

The background characteristics of the sample are provided in Table I. A majority were single (52%) and childless (83%), and over two-thirds (69%) were men. Of the total, only 7% were in their 40s, 37% were in their 30s, and 56% were in their 20s. Nearly one-quarter (22%) had obtained a university degree. At the time of the interview, 74% were employed full time, and their occupational class, as measured by the Blishen (1967) scale, placed one-third in the professional/management groups, about one-quarter in the white-collar/clerical group, and the balance in the semiskilled and unskilled categories. Three-quartersof the respondents reported a family income of $30,000 or less. This profile is of fairly conventional adults who are, for the most part, established or beginning to be established in jobs and careers.

Table 1
Background Characteristics of Cannabis Users (N= 103)

Sociodemographic characteristics % Drug use history %
Gender Proportion ever convicted (of
Male 69 cannabis possession): 23
Female 31
Age of initial cannabis use
Age 12 years or less 11
21-29 years 56 13-14 years 20
30-39 years 37 15-16 years 28
40+ years 7 17-18 years 20
mean = 29 years; SD = 5.7 19+ years 21
Marital status Duration of cannabis use
Single 52 0-5 years 3
Common-law 18 6-10 years 27
Married 13 11-15 years 42
Separated/divorced 17 16-20 years 24
Education 21-25 years 4
Grade 9-11 19 Mean = 13 years; SD = 4.3
Grade 12-13 27 Proportion of friends also using cannabis
Community college/some university 32 A few 6
University degree 22 About half 15
Family income Most 79
> $10.000 22 Past illicit drug use (percentage ever used)
$11.000-20.000 25 Cocaine 91
$21.000-30.000 27 Hallucinogens (other than PCP or LSD) 89
$31.000+ 26 LSD 82
Socioeconomic status Narcotics (other than heroin) 52
Higher professions 6 PCP 43
Other professions 9 Heroin 24
Managers/technicians 18
White-collar/clerical 24
Semi/lower-skilled 30
Unskilled 13

 

Next, the role of cannabis in their lives is examined: The drug use history' of the sample is summarized in Table 1. The respondents had been regular cannabis users for some time. Based on self-report measures, the mean duration of use was 13 years. The following percentages refer to the entire sample of 103. The vast majority, 96%, had used cannabis at least 100 times in their lives; 80% had first tried it at age 18 or younger. Current use levels were at twice a week or more for two-thirds of the sample, and 30 of the 103 reported daily use. The comparable figures for these use levels in the Ontario provincial survey of the general adult population in 1984 were 8.2% using twice a week or more and 4.7% daily users; in 1987, 12.8% of current users used at least two times a week, and 5.4% used daily (Smart and Adlaf, 1987: 32). It is evident that, as intended, our interviews tapped the more regular consumers in the cannabis user spectrum.

For nearly all respondents, cannabis use was predominantly a social activity, engaged in with friends and partners during evenings, weekends, and other leisure time. Only 2% identified "when working" as their typical activity while using. but half had consumed cannabis at work or school on at least some occasions. When asked in an open-ended question what specific benefits they derived from cannabis use, the most commonly mentioned response by far was relaxation (by 61%), followed by euphoria, recreation, creativity, provides insights, pleasure, escapism (by between 12% and 24%), and a number of miscellaneous responses. Cannabis use was, not surprisingly, endemic in their social networks: Four out of five respondents described "most" of their friends as fellow users.

The picture that has emerged thus far is of a group of regular users who fulfill Becker's criteria of those who, in the company of friends, have learned to derive subjectively pleasurable effects from cannabis. This is not to say, however, that this drug was necessarily a central preoccupation of their lives. When asked, "How important is cannabis to you - what difference would it make if you couldn't get it any more?" 50% said it was not important, 38% that it was fairly important, and 12% that it was very important. Their responses were strongly related to frequency of use, with one4hird of those who used cannabis three times a week or less considering it fairly or very important to their lives, in contrast to three-quarters (77%) of more frequent users who held this view (see Fig.1).

alt

Fig1
User evaluation of the importance of cannabis by frequency of use in the past year (N=103) Notes: 1. users were asked "How important is cannabis to you - What diffence would it make if you couldn't get it anymore? 2. Infrequent users reported their cannabis use over the past year as ranging between once a month and once a week; moderate users, 2 to 3 times a week; and frequent users, 4 or more times a week

Another ingredient in becoming a regular user is having access to a steady source of supply. This requirement posed few problems for this group of respondents, since only 1 in 10 reported any difficulty in obtaining cannabis. All but 3 of the 103 had bought cannabis at some time. In the past year, most had purchased cannabis either less often than once a month (47%) or between once a month and once a week (42%), and the remainder (11%) more often. Despite the importance most respondents attached to keeping a supply on hand for themselves and friends, amounts purchased were usually small (under an ounce for over 90%).

The financial outlay was relatively low, averaging less than $100 per month for two-thirds of users. To some extent, higher expenditure on cannabis was associated with higher income. Among those Earning up to $30,000 annually, 54% reported spending $50 or less and 32% reported spending between $51 and $200 monthly on cannabis. The proportions were reversed for those earning $31,000 or more, with 32% spending $50 or less and 52% from $51 to $200. However, those with the highest expenditure on cannabis - more than $200 monthly - were only slightly less likely to be found in the lower (13%) than the higher (16%) income bracket. For most of those interviewed, cannabis expenditures were a fairly modest claim on their disposable income, and thus, sustained availability of the drug appeared to pose minimal financial difficulties for these users.

The second major area of investigation in this paper is the impact of societal controls on cannabis use behavior. Controls to be considered include informal ones - mainly concerns with secrecy to prevent disclosure of the habit - and the formal ones represented by knowledge of legal sanctions and their possible application to the respondent. Perceived health risks, while not examined by Becker (1963) specifically, may be a potential constraint on both the initiation and the persistence of cannabis use (Johnston, O'Malley, and Bachman, 1984). Thus a measure of perceived risk of harm from regular cannabis use was included because it may represent an additional informal means of control.

To ascertain the respondents' concern with secrecy, they were asked if they avoided using cannabis when with nonusers. The sample was split almost evenly between those who did and those who did not. The reasons given for avoiding use in such circumstances were diverse but generally seemed to reflect a wish to respect others' decisions (not to use) in combination with a concern for social disapproval. When asked a second question, "Do you care if people know you use cannabis?", 60% said they did not care, and of the balance who did, many qualified their concern with "it depends who they are." A further indication of the rather low level of concern with being exposed as a cannabis user was revealed in another open-ended question. When asked to identify up to three risks to them personally in using cannabis, only 5 respondents mentioned the reactions of others and 22 mentioned the possible career consequences. Thus, these regular users seem to feel well insulated from informal repercussions in their social/friendship and even work networks.

Other personal risks identified by respondents related either to the police or to the illegality of the activity (mentioned by 54 respondents) and to physical or mental health (mentioned by 51 and 23 persons, respectively). Looking more closely at the potential constraint of perceived health risk, there was an inverse relationship between this perception and frequency of use. While 51% of the three times a week or less group saw no risk or a slight risk in the regular use of marijuana, 60% of those whose use fell in the four or five times per week range did so, and 70% of the most frequent users (daily or near daily) had this low risk perception. These findings suggest that a concern with health effects might restrain (though clearly not eliminate) the frequency of use in a group of committed users.

The law's function is to prevent crime through general deterrence, that is, the threat of legal sanctions, and through normative validation, that is, the shared condemnation of certain acts (Williams and Hawkins, 1986). Both of these dimensions are operationalized through the perceptions of the actual or potential offenders and the law-abiding members of society. The perceptual process of general deterrence through the threat of legal punishment consists of the knowledge of the individual about the possible risks (i.e., penalties), a consideration of how they would affect him or her, and finally, the decision as to actual behavior. It is likely that when the illegal behavior is repeated frequently, as in the case with regular cannabis use, the process is abbreviated or eliminated.

When the respondents' legal knowledge was queried, many were not aware that cannabis was under the Narcotic Control Act (NCA). Only 28% stated this correctly. The correct statutory' maximum sentence for simple possession, 7 years, was known by only 10%, the same proportion who thought it was more than 7 years; 20% thought a fine only could result. The maximum for trafficking was believed to be less than life by 80%, when life imprisonment is provided by the NCA.

As to how the law would apply to them, nearly all (94%) thought it unlikely or very unlikely that in the next year they would be caught by the police for using cannabis. When asked to estimate, hypothetically, what sentence they would receive if caught, the most common answer was a fine or fine plus probation (53%). The rest thought discharge or probation would result (36%), no sentence (8%), or jail (3%). These perceptions of likely severity are quite close to actual patterns of sentencing. For example, nationally in 1982, 66% of cannabis possession offenders were fined, 27% received discharge or probation, and 7% were imprisoned (see Erickson and Murray, 1986). Respondents' quite accurate perceptions of sentencing practices are a possible reflection of the revelation that 72% had friends who had been arrested for cannabis. And indeed, 40% of these respondents said they had been caught with cannabis by the police, though charges were not laid in all of the cases.

One aspect to consider was whether their current frequency of use was related to the legal factors of formal control. There was no relation between use level and either legal knowledge or perceived severity of sentence. The most frequent users were those who had already been caught and who perceived any likelihood of being arrested in the next year. Perhaps this suggests a de-sensitizing effect of the arrest threat, but it may also be interpreted either as the simple irrelevance of these events to a regular cannabis user or as the acceptance that a price must be paid.

This issue was pursued through a multiple regression analysis (see Tables 2 and 3). Current frequency of cannabis use (in the past 12 months) was assessed in relation to the following eight explanatory' variables:
alt Age of first use of cannabis
alt Gender (male=1, female=2)
alt Marital status (single, divorced, separated=1, married, common law=2)
alt Importance of cannabis [to me] (not important=1, fairly important=2, very important=3)
alt Perceived likelihood of [my] being caught in the next year [if i use cannabis] (verylikely=1, unlikely=2, likely=3, very likely=4)
alt Ever caught by the police for possession of cannabis (no=1, yes=2)
alt Perceived risk of harm of regular marijuana use (no risk=1, slight risk=2, moderate risk=3, great risk=4)
alt Whether care if people know of [my] cannabis use (no=1, yes=2)

Table 2
Spearman Correlation Matrix of the Independent and Dependent Variables

Variables Frequency of use X1 X2 X3 X4 X5 X6 X7
X1 Age first used -.15
X2 Concerned that others know .10 .03
X3 Importance of cannabis .38** .13 .04
X4 Perceived risk of being caught .21* -.05 .00 .04
X5 Ever caught .24** -.11 -.20* .09 .04
X6 Perceived risk of regular use -.22** .09 .03 -.05 -.08 .04
X7 Gender -.31** .01 .10 .06 .03 -.22** .00
X8 Marital status .18* .17* .17* .11 -.16* -.09 -.07 .06
*p<.05. **p<.01.

Table 3
Regression Analysis Predicting Frequency of cannabis Use in Past 12 Months

Variables Beta Significance
Importance of cannabis .386 .000
Gender -.311 .000
Perceived risk of being caught .208 .013
Marital status .203 .018
Age first used -.176 .042
Perceived risk of regular use -.145 .081
Ever caught .137 .114
Concerned that others know .109 .195
R² = .40

These represent a combination of life events, demographic, deterrence, health, and drug use variables which may help to explain how the frequency of use varies in a group of regular adult users.

The most significant ingredient in the regression analysis was the stated importance of cannabis in users' lives. A higher frequency of cannabis use was demonstrated by those who attached high importance to cannabis, who were males, who perceived a higher certainty in the next year of getting caught for cannabis possession, who were in a married or comrnon4aw relationship, and who had first used cannabis at a young age. While the preceding factors were significantly related to frequency of use, the following non significant relationships were also found: More frequent users were those who perceived a less serious risk of regular marijuana use, who had already been caught for cannabis possession, and who said they did care if people knew they used cannabis.

Some of these findings, such as the associations between frequent use and being male, early onset of use, and living with a common-law partner are consistent with earlier research (Yamaguchi and Kandel, 1985). Other findings, such as the lack of association, or even a positive one, between actual or perceived certainty of arrest and frequency of use, while contrary to traditional deterrence hypotheses, have also been suggested by other studies (Erickson, 1980; Lundman, 1986). The greater frequency of use among those who attach high importance to cannabis in their lives, and by those who minimize the health risks of regular use, is not an unexpected result.

More surprising is the positive association between being married and more frequent use, which is contrary to most cross-sectional findings (Yamaguchi and Kandel, 1985). Perhaps these data have tapped the stable, post hippie life-style of married cannabis users who are more committed to drug use than their younger, single cohorts. This interpretation gained some support from a closer look at the relationship between duration and current frequency. The heaviest-using group had begun to consume cannabis from 10 to 15 years prior to the interview, that is, in the 1968-1973 period. Another relationship that, though weak, was surprising, was that the heavier users expressed more concern about people knowing they used cannabis than lighter users did. This may possibly reflect a concern that others would disapprove of their heavy use, rather than use per se.

This analysis has demonstrated that the stage of regular cannabis use can be differentiated by frequency of use according to a number of influences, but neither formal nor informal controls were operating to constrain use to any great extent. The deterrence variables either were inoperative or functioned in a manner opposite to their supposed preventive effect. Users insulated them-

selves from social disapproval by socializing primarily with other cannabis users. The most important influences gender, marital status, age of first use, and attitude toward the importance of cannabis in one's life - are those least amenable to social and legal manipulation.

The final topic to be considered is the political stance of the respondents toward the cannabis law. Much of the expectation expressed in the early 1970s about more liberal cannabis laws was predicated on the coming of-age of the teenage crop of marijuana smokers. Once they had attained conventional adult status, some criminologists argued, the political pressure for reform would be irresistible (Glaser, 1971; Lindesmith, 1970). Society could not continue to criminalize behavior that was widely engaged in by otherwise respectable citizens.

Although use levels among high school students continued to climb until an apparent plateau at the end of the 1970s in the United States, and a bit later in Canada, and despite some penalty modifications in both countries (Erickson, 1980; Single, 1981), prohibition has remained virtually intact well into the

1 980s. Smart and Adlaf (1987) have suggested that the increase in the prevalence of cannabis use in the 30-and~ver age group, while rates decline in the under-30-year-olds, may signify an emerging cohort. effect. Why then are these mature regular users not evident as a political force for cannabis law reform?

Several questions were asked to determine how this group of regular cannabis users viewed legal change. While nearly all (92%) agreed with the statement "I think Canada's cannabis law should be changed," 78% of the 103 respondents thought that no penalties or "legal use" were the preferable alternatives. The remaining 22% thought that some form of reduced penalties, mainly small fines, should be retained for the simple possession offense. For trafficking, less than half (44%) expressed the view that cannabis should be legally available, while a quarter (24%) of respondents would impose a fine, and a fairly significant proportion (13%) thought jail was appropriate. The balance either favored probation (4%), had no opinion (7%), or wished the law to remain unchanged (8%). These attitudes, regarding both possession and sale, were unrelated to frequency of cannabis use.

There is a paradox in these findings. A group of adult cannabis users, all breaking the drug law regularly, showed considerable diversity in their views as to how cannabis should be distributed. While some favored legal regulation, others espoused the continued prohibition against sale and criminal penalties for traffickers. On the one extreme were those who wished to see legal avail-ability:

"The government should get off its ass and change drug laws."

"They should have a Marijuana Control Board."

At the other extreme were those who would continue to jail traffickers. It was interesting to note that several respondents displayed protective attitudes toward young people and would impose stiffer penalties for sale to minors than to adults:

"I am concerned that young people don't learn everything too early."

"I don't think kids need to smoke pot."

Although most respondents began cannabis use as teenagers, undeterred by the law, they now appear to expect the law to be effective in limiting the availability of cannabis to young people. What also may be recalled is that this group of users experienced very' little difficulty themselves in obtaining cannabis. Thus, a legal source of supply was not necessary for their pattern of consumption to continue. They were accustomed to the prohibitionary regime.

These results help to explain the absence of any active political lobbying by users for reform of the cannabis laws. Most current users would prefer no or milder penalties for possession but do not regard their chances of arrest as high. Users disregard the current law in two senses, both as it applies to their own use and in any larger political issue of lobbying for change. These respondents certainly had learned to "live with prohibition." Although this study did not include measures of political orientation to other issues, recent research has failed to identify "Yuppies" as a distinctive political force (Hammond, 1986); nevertheless, they are more likely than the rest of the adult public to favor the legalizing of marijuana (Carpini and Sigelman, 1986). Perhaps the cannabis users in the present study were not inclined to identify themselves with the particular single issue of drug law reform.

Nevertheless, these results may offer little encouragement to those who favor drug law reform based on a more rational cost-benefit analysis. When users are part of the more conservative climate that will accept and adapt to the traditional law enforcement monopoly, little pressure for change can be anticipated. On the other hand, those who favor the continuation of the "war on

drugs" against cannabis users should receive little comfort from the evidence that cannabis-using adults, conventional in most other ways, continue to break a law they do not respect. The perpetuation of this disregard for authority is not a very satisfactory' long-term solution to the cannabis issue.

The preceding analysis suggests that present policies are likely to continue to be ineffective in changing the behavior of regular cannabis users. This is perhaps not surprising, given that none of man's appetites have been effectively controlled by laws throughout history. When assessing current laws, their actual preventative value in conjunction with the considerable costs they impose on the individual and society should be weighed against the largely symbolic, ineffectual disapproval that the laws convey. New approaches might be more successful

if they focus on the reality of the drug use milieu (Erickson, 1982) and on the known associated risks to health and well-being, and if they concentrate on less stigmatizing ways of reducing the harm caused by excessive or inappropriate use. The establishment of relatively "safe" levels of use and encouragement of "responsible" use for adults might help to establish clear norms of informal control for young people. Such approaches are not compatible with a prohibitionist policy.

Questions about the most effective policies to adopt could best be addressed by future research which focuses on developmental cycles of cannabis use. Studies of initiation which have dominated past research now need to be balanced by studies of both cessation and escalation. Rather than focusing on legal penalties, deterrence research can progress in its ability to explain persistent law-breaking if it incorporates both the direct and indirect effects of formal legal controls as well as the role of informal controls (Williams and Hawkins, 1986). The development and testing of new methods of prevention might provide alternatives to the current impasse in cannabis policy.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

The author is grateful to Joan Moreau, Glenn Murray, and Valerie Watson for their assistance and helpful comments, and to Ed Adlaf for preparing the computer graphics.

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