Reprinted from Saturday Review, September 21, 1968, pp. 61-63 and 75-78, copyright 1968 Saturday Review, Incorporated with permission of the publisher and William Simon.
The use of marijuana has leaped from the peripheral zones of the society to its very center. Just a few years ago marijuana was limited to the ghetto scene, jazz circles, and the highly alienated young in flight from families, schools, and conventional communities. Today, one finds an increasing incidence of marijuana use among young—and not so young —adults otherwise pursuing ordinary careers, among high school students who remain relatively conformist in most other regards, and even among the culturally underprivileged fraternities and sororities on a number of college campuses. More importantly, there is good reason to assume that it will not emerge and fade like some passing fad, but rather that it will both persist and spread. Marijuana use is very likely to become a continuing fact of life for American society.
These new patterns of marijuana use, for all their apparently unpredictable and perhaps revolutionary character, must be seen in terms of their continuity with general trends in contemporary American culture. One of these trends—one that is almost something of a cliché in "pop" sociology—is the fact that we have become, as a nation, a population of pill-takers. Both the actual miracle and the myth of modern medicine have made the use of drugs highly legitimate, as something to be taken casually and not only during moments of acute and certified distress. Our children, in being casual about drugs—particularly casual in their acceptance of them and their promises—far from being in revolt against an older generation, may in fact be acknowledging how influential a model that generation was.
A second factor is that marijuana as an idea and possibility has become a widely available cultural fact; this article, in itself, is a part of this. For our generation and older generations, exposure to marijuana even as a concept was highly limited. To gain a knowledge of marijuana beyond a few jokes about jazz musicians, one had to journey to the margins of conventional society, and to experience the drug, one had to carry hard-earned credentials. Now, seemingly all at once, it has become a proper topic for the mass media. Major magazines discuss the problem at great length. TV comedians and film-makers have at it. It is a commonplace in the imagery and lyrics of youth culture, upon which so much of adult culture seems to draw.
The irony is that, in something of a re-creation of the absurdities as well as costly stupidities of the prohibition era, "pot" has become an object of information and entertainment exchanges all over the society at the same time that its possesssion or sale remains a felony offense at both the state and federal level. Once out of the cultural pockets of secret knowledge—the ghettos that no one ever saw or the jazz musicians that no one ever knew personally—marijuana use becomes almost universally available as an idea. This development may or may not be deplored. However, the question raised by those for whom censorship is an answer remains moot, for marijuana has become a general cultural institution. The fact is that the cat is out of the bag or, as one might say, the pot is out of the cat.
The very nature of marijuana itself facilitates the development of this trend. Unlike other both "hard" and "soft" drugs, marijuana requires no sophisticated technology nor complex organizational structure for either production or distribution. Unless the policing of marijuana sales becomes more efficient or repressive than anyone presently contemplates, it will probably remain a relatively low-cost drug and will continue to be available from numerous, relatively unorganized sources.
These factors combine to give us predisposition to use, knowledge of the idea of use, and growing access to opportunities for use of marijuana. Little appears on the social horizon to suggest that the presence of these mutually reinforcing factors will not produce patterns of increased marijuana use in our society. However, it is important to understand that the effect of changing patterns of marijuana use upon the society and—more immediately—upon the quality of life in this society remains somewhat open-ended. Only the most hysterical or self-interested talk in terms of necessary or predictable outcomes, and these outcomes invariably involve decay and disaster for both the individual users and the society. Our sense of possible general and social effects is very much like our sense of the effects of immediate use: Marijuana tends to produce the kinds of feelings in the user that the user has been trained to expect. In line with this, we suspect that much of what will follow by way of impact upon the society will depend upon how the society chooses to respond. And what one comes to fear is the possibility of a continued societal reaction of employing old rigidities and old assumptions in dealing with new patterns of use by new populations.
A crucial population to consider is that of high-school-age users and potential users. They are crucial in several senses. First, the young are often in the forefront of social innovation, and in this case, so much of the current public imagery of concern about marijuana use focuses upon the teen-ager. Second, they are important because much of the meaning of the marijuana experience is derived from the language of contemporary youth culture. Perhaps because it is a relatively new phenomenon in the human experience to have youthful adults—youthful well into what Used to be called middle age—we have to turn to the presently young for images of self. As part of this, adult culture seems increasingly to feed off youth culture. This is suggested by several elements of both men's and women's current fashions. The language of youth culture is found in the current idioms of adult language. How many of us are "doing our thing?" How many of us casually describe ourselves or others in terms of this or that "bag?" Third, and most important, we should give particularly serious consideration to the young because they require our protection; indeed, following Erik Erikson, one might say that the very meaning of adolescence in our society is to be defined by the protected status we extend to the young while they manage the uncertainties of both changing senses of self and changing social expectations.
Along the same line, our concern for teen-age drug use requires special considerations because for this population the drug experience and the attending attachment to drug-using subcultures is more likely to be an ego-forming experience. Drug use has a greater potential for becoming an organizing pivot during adolescence than during any subsequent stage in the life cycle. In talking to the youthful marijuana user, for example, one cannot help but be struck with how strongly the imagery of that experience influences ideas of the good and the desirable, how quickly it becomes the standard of happiness, how effectively it impoverishes the rewards and rewarding experiences that the larger society appears to offer. On this latter point, one might consider that the ease with which such rewards or rewarding experiences have been supplanted indicates the degree to which they are the unrealistic and unrealizable illusions of an older generation.
What, then, can be said of high-school-age marijuana users? In very specific terms, the answer must be: not very much. There are no real estimates of the number of young people that one is talking about. Much of the blame for this lack of knowledge must fall upon uneasy parents and timid school administrations who have "protected" their children from responsible inquiry and in doing so have also protected our ignorance. There is little one can say on this except that the weight of observations and impressions is that the rate of increase in teen-age drug use has been substantial and that most indicators point to further increases. At this point, one must begin, if unable to specify numbers, to tentatively specify some of the characteristics of the populations involved.
Clearly, if marijuana use among teen-agers in the urban ghettos has increased in recent years—and it may have—this is not the source of renewed societal concern. Marijuana use has long been prevalent in the urban ghettos; it was just that no one really cared. It was only when Holden Caulfield came face to face with Claude Brown—only when marijuana became desegregated and upwardly mobile—that there was an increase in societal attentiveness. The new population of teen-age users, from all indications, appears to be from social backgrounds that are substantially middle class or higher. The appearance of marijuana among working-class or lower-middle-class youth, who—for the moment —lack both social and intellectual connections to marijuana, seems to be slower in coming. This tendency for marijuana use to appear among middle-class and upper-middle-class youth was reflected in a recent survey reported by Louis Harris. One in six parents with substantial incomes and some degree of higher education reported knowing at least one teen-ager who used marijuana. The parents also reported holding values increasingly less hostile to such use.
One of the characteristics of marijuana use—as is true for many other drugs—is that the idea of use creates availability and rarely the reverse. Early experiments with marijuana rarely produce desirable effects. Indeed, as Howard Becker has observed, for marijuana to produce markedly pleasurable effects often requires a great deal by way of social learning and social support. Relatively few users at any age level come to marijuana in isolation or practice its use in isolation; to become and remain a major phenomenon marijuana use requires a sustaining culture. The crucial question becomes: Who or what are the carriers of marijuana culture? And once one abandons the simple-minded imagery of the dirty old man standing outside the high school or the profit-crazed crime syndicate, the "infectious carriers" turn out to be aspects of public culture that are fully legitimate and social relationships that involve persons very much like the potential marijuana user.
As we have already indicated, much of the imagery surrounding "pot" use is transmitted increasingly through the mass media, especially that part of the commercial media that serves the youth market. Lyrics of popular songs refer to the drug itself or the drug experience in barely coded terms, often coded just enough to establish an illusion of membership among the listeners. Elements of the music are described as having an additional message if the hearer is properly turned on. More crucial is the fact that the media—frequently in articles and programs designed to "inform" and "warn" an adult audience, as well as to excite its fantasies—provide an ideology and a definition of self that makes marijuana use legitimate; it is somehow tied to a "new spirit," a new honesty, a new quest for substantial values and experiences, a children's crusade organized around the reinvention of Rousseau, Thoreau, and Lawrence. In this way the mass media provide not only a basis for legitimating the use of pot, but also a structure of rationalizations after the fact of use. One cannot help but be struck by the uniformity of explanations for the use of marijuana given by the young—a uniformity of response not only in the expected environments like Haight-Ashbury or the East Village, but in the suburbs of major cities across the land and in relatively small college towns.
However, the general availability of marijuana as a cultural possibility is not automatically translated into active use; what is required is an effective, intermediate link, and this most often turns out to be peers or near peers. One significant point of entry for marijuana use in particular high schools is the intersection between the college experience and high school experience. Our best current estimate is that between 10 and 15 per cent of college students have ever used pot, about a third of these using it fairly regularly. Marijuana is frequently introduced to high school culture by high school students with close siblings at college, older girls who have begun to date college boys, or youngsters who are drawn to intellectual, political, or artistic activities that are shared with college students. This latter group is of course increased if there is a college campus close at hand or a relatively handy location where such commitments can be acted out—Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, the East Village in New York, Old Town in Chicago, Plum Street in Detroit, and the like. And with the current affluence of America's middle class and the utilization of "youth fares" offered by major airlines, even a relatively provincial city can claim several who have made the pilgrimage to one or more of these communities.
It should be noted that while high school students who are involved with the intellectual, political, or artistic activities common to college students may be predisposed to drug use, they are also likely to be more intellectually and even more emotionally mature than most of their immediate peers. This kind of teen-ager will tend to be among the least likely to conform to the naïve image of the adolescent that elicits the adult world's response to the teen-ager. They are even less likely to conform to the self-consciously dishonest image that elicits the response of the American high school. For them the way to marijuana will be encouraged partly by the refusal of significant adults to respond to their discovery of the world with candor and an equal sense of commitment. This group, it should be acknowledged, may also contain many whose "vulnerability" to drug use was increased by psychological stresses of a more individual genesis.
The probable pattern of use of marijuana among high school students is not a simple one. To say that X per cent of high school students may be using it does not mean X per cent in all or even most high schools have been "turned on to pot." The proportion of high school students who are users is at the moment probably very small and the proportion of high schools even smaller. While the mass media may make the idea of marijuana almost universally available, not all high schools possess appropriate actualizing mechanisms. Thus it is likely that the vast majority of high schools in the country have yet to directly encounter the marijuana issue. In a much smaller group of high schools—those in major metropolitan areas and smaller college towns—use may be limited to a very small and self-isolating minority. In another relatively small group of schools, use may have become fairly widespread, with students who use marijuana remaining fairly conventional, not particularly "hip" or "cool."
This gives us three distinct types of high school populations: those without experience and for whom marijuana exists only as a culturally available idea, those who have begun experimenting with marijuana but who remain attached to conventional values and social relationships, and those for whom use is associated with entry into an unconventional social framework and perhaps ultimately into an alienated subculture. This latter group deserves particular attention not only because they may well contain many of our brightest children, but because the long-term costs to them may be the highest.
All of the students—users and nonusers—for whom the marijuana issue is salient will have one thing in common: they will all be interested witnesses to the larger society's response, and for many of them it can only be a demoralizing spectacle. Initially, they are confronted with a mass of claims and counter-claims; the "scare" rhetoric by those who would advocate more repressive actions is matched by the counter-arguments of those advocating more permissive policies, who deny a cause for alarm and, in many instances, claim a potential for joyful and mind-expanding experience. For those without immediate reference to experience—either their own or that of close peers—this debate can only increase a sense of distrust, if not cynicism. For those with experience for reference, the arguments of the permissives—even if they promise more than marijuana can deliver—turn out to be confirmed more often than not. For many other drugs, including alcohol, much of the negative imagery surrounding their use, which in many cases serves to inhibit use, is actually confirmed by the experience of the teen-age experimenter or someone in his immediate environment. Alcohol does tend to make you sick, produces wild, acting-out behavior, and leaves you feeling "hung-over." There is a growing negative imagery surrounding LSD use beyond what remains for the present solely a claim that it damages chromosomal structure. There is the experience of the "bad trip" and "freaking out" for uneven and unpredictable lengths of time. Use of the amphetamines is now associated with experience that suggests its addictive qualities, its damaging effects upon the body, and the unpleasant depression that follows use which has become known as "crashing." But if marijuana use is damaging to the young, it is clearly not damaging in the ways that many of its hysterical critics allege that it is.
One dangerous by-product of using excessive scare tactics is that it produces the "wolf-wolf-wolf" or boomerang effect. The discrediting of the illegitimate claims made for the dangers of marijuana use tends to rub off on legitimate claims for the dangerous effects of other drugs. Among the young who are involved with drugs, a credibility gap exists that is far greater than that associated with government pronouncements on the Vietnam conflict. Moreover, this credibility gap extends not only to research undertaken by government agencies, but also to academic research that is supported by governmental agencies. Exaggerated and disprovable claims for the effects of marijuana may actually encourage experimentation with more immediately dangerous drugs by discrediting all warnings.
If one of the functions of largely unsubstantiated claims about the dangerous character of marijuana use is educational—educating against use—it has obviously failed and failed almost totally. However, it has another apparent function: that of maintaining and justifying the present repressive legal sanctions against use, possession, and sale. On this level, the campaign has been far more successful, but successful because its appeal has not been to users or potential users, but to anxiety-ridden adults whose observations are often filtered through the hysteria of some part of the mass media, as well as their own uneasiness, confusion, distrust, and even envy of the presently young. This helps to sustain a structure of law enforcement that is at best erratic in its application. One consequence of this is to produce a dangerous sense of invulnerability on the part of many users: they know it happens but not very often. One young user equated the risk of arrest with "that of being hit by something falling from a window." Moreover—since the pattern of enforcement is either accidental, capricious, or hostile—when the sanctions imposed are severe, they are defined as unreasonably punitive (and beyond hypocrisy when joined with the language of reform and correction), and when the sanctions imposed are minimal they are viewed as an admission that the society does not believe its own pronouncements about the dangers of drugs.
In general, then, the entire population of high school youth, particularly those who are middle-class in background, is part of a potential audience highly critical of what is often defined as the older generation's hypocrisy or denial of reality. This kind of reaction, of course, obtains in areas well beyond drugs—two that come to mind immediately are politics and sex. It is even possible that we have trained the young in this kind of ideological response; increasingly one notes adult commentators, journalists, educators, and liberal religionists who appear all too eager to confess the guilt of the adult world on this count—often confessing long before the accusation is made. But nonetheless, we must bear in mind that the response of the society to marijuana use is another situation in which the young may learn an attitude toward the society. Even for the young person with little or no likelihood of marijuana use, the response of the organized community is instructive about the community's capacity to be rational, honest, or humane.
There will also be, as we have already observed, a growing number of young persons using marijuana who are, in the terms of their generation, otherwise fairly conventional. They will be the equivalents in many respects of their peers who are experimenting with drinking during this same period. To date, there is no evidence that suggests that the pot user will necessarily come to worse ends than those who to varying degree experiment with alcohol. From what little we currently know about the effects of marijuana, it is possible that the marijuana users may well fare better. They are less likely to become hostile and aggressive, wildly uninhibited, and they would have to work very hard to equal the impressive record of the young who drink and drive.
Again, the greatest risk this group runs may not have anything to do with the effects of the drug as such, but with the quality of societal response to marijuana use. For many of the youthful users of pot—young people for whom use itself and the frequency of use may vary considerably—a dreadful cost factor may suddenly emerge as a result of the vagaries of law enforcement. The possibilities of being found "in possession" (or being caught "holding") are both many and few. These possibilities include a momentary loss of "cool," being investigated for something other than marijuana use, and the like. But once the possibly casual user is caught, he or she ceases to be a casual user and becomes a socially defined user and often a legally liable user. As a result, school careers are often interrupted as suspension or expulsion becomes the response of nervous school administrators. This is something that typically does not follow with equal severity when a liquor violation is reported. It is almost as if such school administrators act to ward off an incipient epidemic, instead of realizing that such arrests are a late symptom of the drug's arrival and diffusion.
Financially costly, emotionally disturbing, and socially stigmatizing contact with the courts is also common. In both, the schools and the courts a language is used to describe the seriousness of the offense that bears little resemblance to what the individual "offender" or his witnessing peers feel about themselves or what they are doing. Thus, an experience that in itself carries little direct potential for alienating the young person from conventional or orderly process of development, may all at once—in an unpredictable way—become profoundly and even traumatically disordering and alienating.
The present legal status of marijuana also increases the risks of social dislocation by pushing the youthful users into contacts with highly alienated subcultures that are sources not only for marijuana but also for hard and soft drugs whose effects are either unknown or known to be dangerous. In a sense, by trying in dubious ways to protect the young from the "ravages" of marijuana we may actually have increased their possible exposure to still other, more dangerous drugs, and we do this at a time when we have also been successful at minimizing our own credibility.
Possibly the smallest, but at the same time most visible group of highschool-age marijuana users are those for whom drug use has become an important subcultural value, young people for whom pot use has taken on both ego-forming and ideological aspects. These are boys and girls for whom drug use is not an occasional adventure into the forbidden or a kick, but an important part of the context of values and the reordering of relationships that impinge directly upon the emerging sense of self-identity of the young person. Disproportionately, this group will include many of the brightest and potentially the most creative of our young people. They tend to come from home environments culturally rich, sophisticated, and socially concerned. They are often young people with the kind of endowment that enables them to ask the hard questions of a society that the society either evades or responds to with the most fatuous of answers. It is extremely important that we understand something of these young people, because they are often the cadres who, more than merely responding to "youth culture," generate new forms of "youth culture."
The main focus of this essay has been on marijuana. This leads to something of a distortion. While drugs—marijuana as well as the Others —appear to play an important part in the current experience of the young, they may well be more symptom than cause. Indeed, it is somehow comforting to adult observers to worry about the young in terms of something as alien to them as "the menace of drugs." It is almost as if some totally remote and strange factor emerged to threaten our young people. We, the adult world, need not be implicated or if implicated, it is only because we have been remiss in developing the proper defense against this menace. While this is not the appropriate place to raise the question of the general condition of the society and its ability to cope with its major problems, it is necessary to indicate that such an examination is the minimal context within which the problem of the young and drugs must ultimately be considered.
Here we suffer from many things, but not from a communication gap. If anything, the adult world has said both too much and too little, and the young have really been listening. The young did not, out of some innocent wisdom, suddenly invent the idea that the contemporary American education industry on all levels has failed its clients—both its pupils and the society at large; there is an abundance of data to that very effect and a large number of adult critics have been saying so for a long time. If there is a difference, it is that while many adults know it, many of the young know it and have to experience it at the same time. (On a personal level, a dilemma of one of the authors, who is in the process of completing a study of the college experience, is to try to persuade a teen-age son to continue his education while the data suggest a great deal of the experience may be meaningless and some aspects of it even destructive. How does one do this without appeals to the purely personal and the purely opportunistic?)
The young did not invent the horrors of segregated society or the ghetto; they did not even invent the description of those horrors. Similarly with the cynicism that surrounds the wedding of statement of national purpose with what we are presently doing in Vietnam. Even the very language of alienation, which many of the young have learned so well, has derived from the more articulate anguish of an adult world. If many of the young have learned to distrust the police, it has to do with more than the drug question. How many of us trust the police when it comes to civil disturbances, civil rights, or peace demonstrations? And if many of the young feel that little can be done and that purely personal solutions should properly be pursued, how many of us—particularly those of us who try to link the character of the recent Presidential primaries and public opinion polls with the ultimate choice of candidates and programs—are about to offer them a viable and effective alternative? We seem to have none for ourselves.
And insofar as much of what is new in the current pattern of drug use is that its users come from homes of affluence and not deprivation, it is important to resume a consideration of the pathologies of affluence that we, as a nation, began to consider out loud before we were shamed into silence by the specter of poverty that still haunts the society. The fact that the poor suffer does not lessen or make less painful the wounds of affluence. In many ways, we have made the world costly for the children of the middle class by essentially making most achievements relatively inexpensive. Earlier generations could strive for achievement (something we have transformed into some kind of universal truth) even if the experiences or rewards of achievement were kindly left unspecified because the consequences of failure were so terrifyingly real; it was perhaps enough merely not to have failed. One aspect of achievement was a capacity for pleasure, for accumulating a capacity for what appeared to be personal experiences. These, too, we left hazy and unspecified. We accumulated this capacity for pleasure very much like a check that no one wanted to cash; we rarely, if ever, wanted to scan the landscape on the far side of achievement.
A generation is now emerging that tests our imagery of failure and finds it even more mythic than our imagery of achievement. It is possible that the affluence that exists for a large section of our society has allowed a Deweyian commitment to survive its brutalization and banalization at the hands of professional educators. What the young in some cases want, and what appears to adults as unreasonable, is that the prize be located at the top of the Cracker Jack box, not at the bottom. When they find that the prize is not a meaningful social experience, they are prepared to seek out experiences whose dimensions are almost totally personal and private. The attraction of drugs and subcultural activities within which the "drug experience" plays an important role is precisely that they allow the illusion of intense and immediate experience that is almost totally and safely referential to the self and not to the world. Unfortunately that sense of self remains pathetically thin and unsubstantial for there is little that is intrinsic to this private world. It is not that they "drop out," but that they haven't as yet been "turned on" by the world. Even with the drug experience, with its supportive and learned rhetoric of intense experience, they continue to ask: what is there to do? It is not that they are frantic or full of inner turmoil, but that they are bored.
For this last group of youthful marijuana users, the real danger is not that they will fill our prisons or psychiatric facilities, not that they will become addicted to more dangerous drugs, and not that they will do harm to anyone but themselves. A small number of them will, with a tragic lack of necessity, do some of these, but the real danger is that they will lose a sense of their real capacity for experience and that they will abandon, and in many cases have already abandoned, claims for an influential role in the collective enterprise of the society. Their future will become a progressive drift toward a totally privatized existence:, In a sense, while they appear to be in revolt against suburban values—an appearance reinforced by their easy appropriation of the language of adult commentators—when at all specified, their values appear to be precisely the values of suburban life, the values of suburban life stripped of ritualistic references to larger social purposes.
In essence, they merely want to be left alone to "do their thing," with as little unenjoyed or alienating labor as possible. While many of them strongly identified with the hero of The Graduate, few of them could describe what it could possibly be that he wanted that was different from what his parents had or were, except perhaps the desire to remain the child of affluent parents. There is in this development a profound feeling of loss, but one is equally uncertain about realistic alternatives. For these young people marijuana use ranges from a temporary easing of the pains of boredom to a protected illusion of their own existence and importance, as a way of protecting themselves from the illusion they have learned from us—that something significant ought to happen.
Throughout this essay we have leaned in the direction of a necessary redefinition of the legal status of marijuana, a redefinition in the direction of liberalization of access. In no way, however, do we think that marijuana should be freely available to adolescents. Adolescents should no more be encouraged to use marijuana than they should be encouraged to use alcohol. But, by the same token, we don't feel that experimentation with marijuana is in itself an immediate indication of impending personal or social disaster. Indeed, many of the young people we have talked to who previously were pot smokers are now turning on to alcohol. Possibly they sense that it is even easier to get, involves less of a hassle with parents and community, and that—if properly defined by group values—can provide them with the same important illusions that marijuana previously provided.
How, then, does a community respond to this issue? Clearly, law reform, if ultimately possible, appears nowhere on the immediate horizon. More important, the underlying crisis of our young people would not be substantially altered by that occurrence. One could not help but be struck by how many of the youthful supporters of Senator McCarthy abandoned pot along with their beards in the situation of what appeared to be a direct encounter with social life. One was also struck by the number who continued to "turn on" with marijuana, but how much less important it became. One was further struck by how many were unmoved by the entire campaign because of a deep-seated pessimism about the possibilities of genuine participation in social affairs and how confirmed they must now feel in their dark view. This begins to suggest something of the style of solutions: that we begin to take both young people and ourselves more seriously—in terms both of our commitment to social life and of our capacities for personal pleasure.
As we have said, it is not that the young do not listen; they appear to listen all too well. Nor is it that they don't talk; they talk too much. The problem is that adults rarely listen and that our talk, when it occurs, often doesn't make sense. At least not to the young. It is perhaps understandable that this is the way things happen in the midst of the complexities of family life. The failure of this kind of effective communication is equally evident in the schools of the country. This too can be explained. The question remains: Where do we go from here? It might begin with the admission to ourselves and to the young that they are not necessarily what we expected them to be; indeed, no more like we expected them to be than the present social world is what many of us expected it to be. That we are prepared to begin talking in terms that allow the young to recognize themselves as well as recognize our expectations, and the reasons for these expectations. That our talk be honest—honest about them, about ourselves, and about our communities. And, of crucial significance, that we will not surrender them to the forces of hysteria, bigotry, ignorance, and dishonesty in our communities.