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Books - The Marijuana Papers
Written by Alfred Lindesmith   

The attempt to suppress the use of marihuana in the United States through police power and by means of heavy penalties shows no signs of succeeding. For several years, it appeared that the zeal of police in pursuing and apprehending marihuana users was declining. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics reported 1,288 marihuana cases in 1952; by the end of 1960, this total had shrunk to 169, although during the same period the Bureau's budget and staff were considerably enlarged. Since 1960, however, it has become apparent that the popularity of marihuana has dramatically increased, especially among young people of middle class background.

In 1937, when the federal antimarihuana law was enacted, marihuana was viewed as the "new drug problem" and, as Mr. Solomon has indicated in his foreword, was ballyhooed and exploited to the full by the mass media. The campaign that led to the 1937 measure was spearheaded by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and especially by its chief, Harry J. Anslinger. At the hearings on the measure before the House Ways and Means Committee in April and May of 1937, and later in the same year before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Finance, Mr. Anslinger proudly told the story of his campaign and took credit for much of the publicity that had been given the "marihuana menace." At these hearings the marihuana user was described as a violent criminal given to rape, homicide, and mayhem. Continued use of marihuana, it was said, led to insanity.

At the House hearings of 1937, Representative Dingell of Michigan asked Mr. Anslinger: "I was just wondering whether the marihuana addict graduates into a heroin, an opium, or a cocaine user?"

Mr. Anslinger replied: "No, sir; I have not heard of a case of that kind. I think it is an entirely different class. The marihuana addict does not go in that direction."

A few months later he again made this point before the Senate subcommittee:

"There is an entirely new class of people using marihuana. The opium user is around 35 to 40 years old. These users are 20 years old and know nothing of heroin or morphine."

There was only one dissident voice at the 1937 hearings, that of Dr. William C. Woodward of the American Medical Association. Although he did not speak officially for the AMA, Dr. Woodward suggested that the measure was being enacted too hastily, that the menace was exaggerated, that more study was needed, and that "primary data" from government agencies such as the Bureau of Prisons, the Children's Bureau, and other sources should be collected and analyzed. He was badgered, browbeaten, given a very bad time, and his testimony finally ignored. Comic relief was afforded when congressmen heard from commercial growers of hemp that marihuana seeds are fed to birds; the lawmakers wanted to know what the effects were on the birds.

Eighteen years later, in the Congressional hearings that led to the 1956 Narcotic Control Act, it was evident that Mr. Anslinger had drastically changed his views on the marihuana question. He played down the connection between marihuana use and crime, emphasizing instead that marihuana was dangerous primarily because it sometimes led to heroin addiction. He pointed out that marihuana is not an addicting drug and noted that marihuana users were not being counted in the Bureau's national survey of addiction.

Senator Price Daniel asked the following question:

"Now, do I understand it from you that, while we are discussing marihuana, the real danger there is that the use of marihuana leads many people eventually to the use of heroin, and the drugs that do cause complete addiction; is that true?"

Mr. Anslinger, forgetting his 1937 line, agreed. "That is the great problem and our great concern about the use of marihuana, that eventually, if used over a long period, it does lead to heroin addiction."

When congressmen asked him if it were not true that the most heinous crimes were often committed under the influence of the weed, Mr. Anslinger admitted that this did sometimes occur, but marihuana, he said, was not a "controlling factor" in crime.

If it is true that marihuana users were not switching to heroin in 1937, it seems probable that it was the 1937 anti-marihuana law itself that brought about the change. With the risks increased, prices and profits on the now illicit commodity went up, with the result that merchants who had earlier handled one or the other of these drugs, but not both, now began to handle both of them. The marihuana user thus found himself able to purchase heroin from merchants who had previously sold only marihuana.

Before the publication of the LaGuardia Report in 1944, there were rumors that the study would be suppressed. The 1942 article by Allentuck and Bowman, which appears in this anthology, prompted Mr. Anslinger to write a letter of protest which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association of January 16, 1943. In this letter he cited references to support the idea that the use of marihuana leads to insanity. It being freely predicted in the 1930s that the nation's mental hospitals would shortly begin to be crowded with mentally deteriorated or psychotic marihuana users.

On April 28, 1945, the Journal took the unusual step of editorially assailing the newly published LaGuardia Report, with which Allentuck and Bowman had been associated. The language and logic of the editorial are more like those of a police handout or of a prohibition tract than of medical science. The editorial lamented the comment by Down Beat on the LaGuardia Report: "Light Up, Gates, Report Finds 'Tea' a Good Kick." It supported the idea that marihuana is a potent cause of crime and mental deterioration, and suggested the absurd notion that scientific and technical papers on the marihuana question are important factors in law enforcement and in the use of the weed by adolescents.

Subsequent developments have clearly shown that the Lar Guardia study is far closer to the realities of the situation than was the viewpoint represented by the JAMA editorial. Despite sharply increased use in recent years, mental hospitals, for example, have not been inundated by marihuana users; and even the police themselves have to a considerable extent swung over to the Report's position that marihuana use is trivial as a cause of crime, and that the "marihuana problem" is as nothing compared with the "alcohol problem."

By and large, the use of marihuana has in the past tended to be concentrated in the lower, underprivileged classes, whereas alcohol is used in all strata. This sociological fact may account in considerable part for the persistence of the marihuana myths, for it means that most writing on the weed and its effects has been done by persons of the middle and upper classes, who themselves use alcohol rather than marihuana, who often have had no direct experience with marihuana or with the social types who use it, and who consequently tend to forget about alcohol when they express their disapproval of the alleged effects of the weed on persons of the lower strata.

Hindu society provides an instructive example of a very different evaluation of alcohol and marihuana from that to which we are accustomed. Hindus tend to associate the use of alcohol with meat eating and, not without reason, sexual immorality. The aversion to alcohol is supported by reference to the sacred literature. On the other hand, marihuana, in the form of ganja, bhang, or charas, is not religiously or socially tabooed to anywhere near the same extent and is actually frequently prescribed in religious practice and social custom. In short, the status of marihuana in relation to alcohol tends to be the opposite of what it is in Western society. It would be rash indeed to believe that it would be to India's advantage to outlaw marihuana and encourage the use of alcohol.

The histories of alcohol and marihuana suggest that these substances, and others like them, have a psychological value which is beyond the control of legislation and which tends to nullify attempts at prohibition. The destiny of marihuana, like that of alcohol, will probably be determined by the efficiency with which it meets certain common human psychological needs. If, for example, it is a less dangerous and generally more effective intoxicant than alcohol, no conceivable legislation can alter this fact or prevent it from becoming known. Much of the literature on marihuana is designed primarily to frighten adolescents, but the latter are much less influenced in these matters by what they read or by what adults tell them than they are by what they themselves experience and by what they learn from each other.

There are more and more indications that the inappropriateness of present United States policy with respect to marihuana is coming to be widely acknowledged, and the need for a genuine legislative examination of this matter is becoming increasingly evident. The 1937 legislation was passed by Congress largely at the behest of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics without any genuine inquiry into the facts. By 1951, marihuana was customarily lumped with other drugs such as heroin, morphine, and cocaine, and the penalties attached to its use were made more severe along with the others. The story was repeated in the 1956 Narcotic Control Act, when the penalties for marihuana violators were again sharply increased with no more than a casual legislative glance at the actual problem and without even the pretense of an inquiry. When a legislative investigation into the marihuana question is finally made, materials of the sort presented in this book should contribute to the formulation of a wiser and more realistic policy.

Professor of Sociology Indiana University


Our valuable member Alfred Lindesmith has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.

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