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Written by Jerome Himmelstein   
Thursday, 09 December 2010 00:00


Public perceptions of the dangers of marihuana use and legal penalties against the drug changed dramatically in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Prior to that time, as we have just seen, marihuana had been widely condemned as a dangerous drug; the application of criminal sanctions against the user had been generally approved; and by the late 1950s, the penalties had become quite harsh. Beginning in the mid-1960s, however, the consensus that marihuana was an inherently dangerous drug broke down; the appropriateness of criminal sanctions against the user was broadly questioned; and penalties for use were significantly reduced. Marihuana use did not become wholly socially acceptable, but it was at least partially domesticated.

It has been common to explain these changes as the results of the large-scale spread of marihuana use to what are colloquially called "middle-class" youth—the offspring of the professional, managerial, and business strata, the affluent and the rich, and the college-educated. We have called this the Embourgeoisement Hypothesis. The demographic shift in use to middle-class youth was well under way by the mid-1960s, and both public officials and the media were quick to perceive it. As we have noted, the first magazine articles on the topic appeared in 1964 and 1965. By 1966 the concern about youthful drug use that was perennially voiced in congressional drug hearings had been joined by a more specific worry over youthful middle-class marihuana use.' The observation that middle-class youth were the major and typical users of marihuana became a commonplace. Epidemiologist Lillian Blackford (whose yearly surveys of drug use became a mainstay of the literature), for example, made the following pointed assessment of drug use in suburban San Mateo County in California:

In 1966 it became painfully apparent that San Mateo County had developed a drug problem among young people. In the ten years from 1956 through 1965 there had been 45 juvenile drug referrals, generally concerned with hard narcotics and stemming from our small black and Mexican population. In 1966 there were 157 referrals, many of which were concerned with marihuana and definitely from more privileged youngsters.'

The important question is how precisely the changed social background of marihuana users brought about the concomitant changes in the perceptions of the drug's dangers and in the laws concerning its use. The answer lies partly in the new social interests mobilized within the drug control arena. The spread of marihuana use to middle-class youth gave these youth and their parents, including the policymakers themselves, a direct interest in reforming marihuana laws and thus injected a powerful new force into the drug control debate. At the same time, however, the shift in use altered the entire ideological framework within which that debate took place, in effect transforming the very structure of the drug control arena. The terms in which marihuana users and the law were discussed by nearly everyone changed substantially.

There are, in short, at least two different ways of looking at the impact of the social background of the marihuana user on public perceptions of the drug and on the state of the law—one that looks at the organized interests attempting to shape the lag? and another that examines the ideological framework within which the law was discussed. We shall present a model that incorporates both. Before doing so, however, let us take a closer look at how both public perceptions and the law actually changed. In the conservative days of the early 1980s, it is tempting to minimize the extent to which the societal response to marihuana has changed in the last fifteen years. Marihuana is still far from full social acceptability; the arrest rate for use remains high (over 400,000 a year); and widespread debate about the dangers of the drug continues. The election of President Ronald Reagan and the emergence of the New Right, moreover, augur poorly for further marihuana law reform. Despite all this, both the marihuana laws and the assessments of the dangers of the drug changed sharply in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Despite some demurral, prior to 1964 marihuana generally was regarded as a dangerous drug. In the mid-1960s, this easy consensus gave way to large-scale debate and to a cacophony of opinion ranging from outright praise for the drug to dire warnings about a "marihuana-hashish" epidemic. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg expressed one extreme in his 1966 Atlantic Monthly article.

How much there is to be revealed about marihuana in this decade in America for the general public. . . . The marijuana consciousness is one that, ever so gently, shifts the center of attention from habitual shallow, purely verbal guidelines and repetitive second-hand ideological interpretations of experience to more direct, slower, absorbing, occasionally microscopically minute engagement with sensing phenomena.'

Some eight years later, Senator James 0. Eastland voiced the other extreme in an introduction to his marihuana-hashish hearings.

I consider the hearings which are the subject of this record to be among the most significant ever held . . . by any committee of Congress. . . . They may play a role in reversing a trend towards national disaster. Without public awareness, our country has become caught up in a marihuana-hashish epidemic that probably eclipses, in gravity, the national epidemics that have had so debilitating an effect on the population of a number of Middle Eastern countries.'

In between there were many who showed the measured concern of a 1965 Time article, which found marihuana "something to be concerned about" but not "to panic over," s or the guarded approval of Dr. Joel Fort, who regarded it as a relatively harmless drug but rejected the "turn on, tune in, drop out mystique." 6

The predominant opinion in the 1964-1976 period held that the dangers of marihuana had been greatly exaggerated in previous years and that the drug was generally a mild "hallucinogen," "intoxicant," or "euphoriant," not a dangerous narcotic.' In the Readers' Guide sample, 57 percent of the articles from 1964-1976 pictured marihuana as "not-so-dangerous," as compared to 23 percent from 1890-1963 and only 5 percent from 1935-1940, the period of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics's greatest antimarihuana publicity (see Table 8). Even the conservative National Review agreed with "the growing speculation in medical circles that cannabis may be no more dangerous than tobacco or liquor."8


More importantly, a broad consensus emerged that moderate, nonproblematic use was possible. Users were deemed capable of limiting their use in order to avoid whatever major harmful effects marihuana might have. For the first time, the "social" or "experimental" user was widely distinguished from the heavy, "problem" user.' Pediatrician Benjamin Spock, for example, counseled parents not to worry about occasional use.

I wouldn't be seriously shocked or disillusioned if I [discovered] . . . that my adolescent child . . . had gone against my advice and tried marijuana once, or even occasionally. In today's drug climate that wouldn't mean to me that he was a pot head or a delinquent."

In all, 80 percent of the articles that dealt with the issue allowed for the possibility of some moderate use as compared to 44 percent in the entire 1890-1963 period and 27 percent in the late 1930s (see Table 9).


Although hardly any policymakers advocated marihuana use, the tendency to downplay the dangers of marihuana and to recognize the possibility of moderate use also marked major federal drug reports and most congressional hearings. In its task force report on narcotics and drug abuse, the Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice described marihuana as a "mild hallucinogen" and argued that the risks of marihuana use were no greater than alcohol." While noting that marihuana use was far from totally innocuous, the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse reached the following conclusion in its 1972 report:

From what is now known about the effects of marihuana, its use at the present level does not constitute a major threat to public health. . . . We believe that experimental or intermittent use of this drug carries minimal risk to the public health and should not be given overzealous attention.'

During the various congressional hearings on the 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, the period's major piece of drug control legislation, there was a consensus—shared by nearly everyone except the Liberty Lobby, the American Legion, and Mayor Yorty of Los Angeles—that whatever the potential harm of heavy marihuana use, controlled moderate use with minimal ill effect was possible." This change in the evaluation of marihuana occurred despite the protestations of federal narcotics officials. Although they continued to declaim the dangers of marihuana, particularly in the late 1960s, they no longer dominated public debate as they had previously.''

The recognition of moderate use moved marihuana a considerable distance from "hard narcotics," any use of which commonly has been regarded as abusive and dangerous, and brought it closer to drugs like alcohol, the potential dangers of which are regarded as avoidable if it is used "responsibly" and "in moderation." The shift in characterization is important. Even the most dangerous drugs may gain a modicum of social acceptability if their excessive or harmful use can be seen as distinguishable from moderate, harmless use.

In short, not only did marihuana become seen in the 1960s and 1970s as less dangerous than previously supposed, but also the nature of the danger was reconceptualized. Once marihuana ceased to be seen as a "narcotic" and once "moderate" use was recognized, the dangers of the drug were less likely to be seen as total, penetrating, and inevitable. The ultimate fruit of this shift was not a belief that marihuana was harmless but a willingness to regard its dangers as limited, avoidable, and hence within the individual user's control.


As of 1965, marihuana laws still bore the mark of the harsh legislation of the 1950s. Simple possession carried penalties of two years for the first offense, five for the second, and ten for the third. Except for the first possession offense, all convictions carried a mandatory sentence with no chance for parole or probation.

The late 1960s and early 1970s, in contrast, witnessed a significant reduction in these penalties. As a first step, a 1966 amendment to the federal law made marihuana violators eligible for parole. Four years later, the major federal penalty reductions were promulgated in the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. Marihuana was separated from "narcotic" drugs and reclassified as a hallucinogen; both simple possession and nonprofit distribution of small amounts were reduced from felonies to misdemeanors; and provision was made for the "conditional discharge" and the expunction of the criminal records of first-offender possessors. The last of these reforms was particularly significant because it provided a way of reducing substantially the stigma of a marihuana conviction. A first-time possession offense literally would leave no mark; for most purposes, it could be treated as if it had never occurred.' 16

During the congressional hearings on the 1970 act, support for penalty reductions of some kind was almost universal, though there was disagreement over how much. Even federal narcotics officials (now housed in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs within the Justice Department), who had firmly opposed any major mitigation in penalties two years before, agreed that harsh penalties did not work and advocated the significant changes that became embodied in the 1970 act." They were joined by the House Select Committee on Crime whose own hearings had stressed the dangers of marihuana.

The major elements of the 1970 act were copied by most states either directly or through the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, which was based on the federal law. By 1974, virtually all states had reduced possession of marihuana from a felony to a misdemeanor."
In 1972, the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse went beyond penalty reduction to decriminalization. It recommended that the possession of marihuana for personal use and nonprofit distribution should be decriminalized. It also urged that public use and distribution of small amounts be punishable by a mere fine.'9 By 1978, eleven states with over one-third of the nation's population (Oregon, Alaska, Maine, Colorado, California, Ohio, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, and North Carolina) had decriminalized marihuana, and a similar change had been formally advocated by President Jimmy Carter on the federal level."

Although decriminalization drew substantial opposition, it also enjoyed widespread support. The commission's proposal was endorsed by a long list of newspapers and by numerous organizations, including the American Bar Association, American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, National Education Association, Consumers Union, National Council of Churches, National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, and American Academy of Pediatrics.'

Support for decriminalization, moreover, surfaced in odd places. As early as 1968, Antoni GoIlan urged the conservative readership of the National Review to reevaluate the criminalization of marihuana use, arguing that the drug was not particularly dangerous and that its use was not an ideological issue. GoIlan's article was followed by a rebuttal, but letters in subsequent issues were overwhelmingly favorable. The case for decriminalization was reiterated in 1972 by Richard Cowan, who stressed that support for marihuana penalties ran counter to the conservative grain: "The hysterical myths about marihuana. . . have led conservatives to condone massive programs of social engineering, interference in the affairs of individuals, monstrous bureaucratic waste." Conservative columnists William F. Buckley, Jr., and James J. Kilpatrick added their support, the former openly admitting that he had once used the drug on his yacht in international waters."

Most importantly, a striking consensus developed even among opponents of decriminalization. Marihuana users, nearly everyone agreed, should not be imprisoned for their offense. In other words, those who did not support de jure decriminalization usually supported a de facto decriminalization. They wanted the law to remain, but the penalties not to be applied. At Senator Eastland's 1974 hearings on the "marihuana-hashish epidemic," for example, despite the voluminous lurid testimony on the evils of the drug and the unanimous opposition to de jure decriminalization, no one advocated punishing the user or returning to the penalties of bygone days. Instead, there was a preference for a de facto decriminalization. David Martin, senior analyst for the subcommittee, put the matter as follows:

I think [decriminalization] is something upon which just about everyone agrees and very few young people. . . are being sent to jail today for simple possession. But there are some who argue that a. . . minimal penalty should be retained in order to make it clear to young people that society has to protect itself against this, and society does not approve of its use."

In other words, criminal penalties should be kept as a symbolic disapproval of marihuana use, but they should not actually be used against any marihuana users.

In summary, despite the widespread disagreement over marihuana in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a certain consensus came to dominate public discussion. The dangers of marihuana were regarded as limited, and the possibility of moderate use was accepted. Penalty reductions of some kind enjoyed broad support. The notion that no one should go to prison simply for using marihuana insinuated itself into public discussion. A limited social space thus was carved out for marihuana.


The spread of marihuana to middle-class youth meant that the average socioeconomic position of late 1960s, early 1970s marihuana users was significantly higher than that of previous users of marihuana and narcotics. This had three important ramifications. First, youthful middle-class users were relatively powerful. Although they did not decisively shape policy, they did put together an organized, educated, vociferous constituency that commanded significant attention. Second, the users were respectable. Independent of any action they took, their middle-class position gave them a relatively high status honor. Third, they were relatively accessible to policy-makers and writers. For the first time, the latter had direct contact with possible marihuana users and thus had an opportunity to see them as total human beings, not merely drug users.

These three components of the marihuana users' middle-class position combined in numerous ways to influence perceptions of the drug and attitudes toward the law. The changes in users' social position systematically altered perceptions of the user (qua user), the arrangement of political forces in the marihuana control arena, and the arguments made about the legitimacy of marihuana laws (see Figure 1).

Perceptions of the User

In the late 1960s, several new themes emerged in public discussion of marihuana users, including what we may call kinship, empathy, and normality. Each in effect constituted a new lens through which use and user were perceived. Each made public discussion more open to positive information on the safety of marihuana use.

Kinship. With the upsurge of marihuana use among middle-class youth, the enforcement of marihuana laws began to have a direct impact on middle-class families and on policymakers and writers themselves, for it was their sons and daughters who were being arrested and threatened with possible felony convictions for the use or sale of marihuana. Arrests of the offspring of the famous and near-famous became so common that William F. Buckley, Jr., was led to quip: "If the sons of Ethel Kennedy and Sargent Shriver are caught smoking pot why should it surprise us if the son of Francis of Assisi smokes pot?" 24

An element of self-interest was thus injected into the public discussion of marihuana. Support for decriminalization sometimes arose directly from having one's son or daughter arrested on marihuana charges. At the 1975 Senate hearings on decriminalization, for example, Senator Philip Hart gave this terse reason for supporting the removal of criminal penalties from marihuana possession:

My education, like a lot of people of my generation, included the fact that one of my children is one of the statistics that you have here. He is a minor and spent 20 days in jail for a stub that big [indicating] [brackets in original]. That is all the education I needed to convince me that it—marihuana prosecution policy—was a topsy-turvy operation and made no sense."

Imprisoning minors for a "stub that big" presumably made no more sense in 1960 or 1940 than in 1975, but the absurdity was underlined for Senator Hart and others by happening so close to home.

The immediate self-interest of policymakers, however, was embedded in a more personalized typification of marihuana users in general, whether direct kin or not. They were no longer pictured as anonymous, distant others—criminals, Mexican laborers, or even teen-agers; they were someone's sons and daughters. The policy question was no longer simply what to do with "marihuana users" but what to do with "our children." Distant, anonymous "marihuana users" might obviously belong in jail, but "our children" were a different story. As Buckley put the issue in his argument for decriminalization:

Somewhere along the line, the American public decided not to legalize pot. This conclusion, it reached, in my opinion, on the grounds that any different conclusion would appear to capitulate to the counter-culture. . . . But at the same time, American parents reached the conclusion, or such is my reading of it, that they did not desire their 18-year-old boys and girls to be sent to jail for smoking pot [emphasis added]."

Once the perceptions of marihuana users became personalized, assessments of the dangers of the drug were bound to change as well. People who did not want their children or those like them going to jail for marihuana use were particularly receptive to evidence that marihuana was not so dangerous a drug or so great a social problem that it warranted criminal penalties. Had no such evidence been available, of course, many persons might simply have had to live with the cognitive dissonance inherent in opposing harsh penalties for a dangerous drug. In fact, however, throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, evidence was available to support virtually any position on marihuana. Worried parents, policymakers, and writers, therefore, could seek out reputable experts, books, and testimony that would assure them that marihuana was not that dangerous a drug. "Before we put all our children in jail, let's take an adult look at marihuana," proclaimed the cover of the 1971 paperback edition of Lester Grinspoon's best-selling Marihuana Reconsidered. The "adult look" included a demonstration that moderate use of the drug was fairly safe. It thus offered a legitimate resolution to the dilemma of the middle-class parent. Removal of criminal penalties for their children's marihuana use was all right because the drug was not that harmful."

In short, the embourgeoisement of marihuana use effected changes in beliefs about marihuana and in marihuana laws because it generated an image of users as "our children," which was incompatible with an image of marihuana as thoroughly evil and with harsh penalties for use. Prior to the 1960s, when marihuana use was limited to the lower strata, the drug was sometimes pictured as "spreading to youth," but the user never appeared as "someone's child" in discussions of criminal penalties. The typical users appeared simply as criminals from the start or as individuals rapidly turned into criminals by marihuana.

Empathy. The heightened respectability of marihuana users, their increased vociferousness, and their decreased distance from policymakers and writers made their viewpoint more accessible and important. Marihuana users ceased to be merely objects to be controlled; they became subjects who deserved a sympathetic hearing. Prior to the mid-1960s, few persons who set policy or wrote about the drug took time to observe marihuana users in a natural setting, and virtually no one put any credence in what these users said about the drug. Marihuana users simply were not readily accessible nor were they persons whose opinions merited attention, except to debunk.

About 1965, this changed. Reporting on the new "pot problem" on Ivy League campuses, Time interviewed collegiate users and recounted with some sympathy their opinion that "pot" was a good drug." Since marihuana users outside of contrived law enforcement settings were likely to laud the marihuana experience and condemn marihuana laws, the new credence given their views inevitably encouraged complementary changes in the attitudes prevalent in public discussion.

Normality. Once policymakers, writers, and middle-class parents in general had the opportunity to observe relatively respectable marihuana users at close range and in everyday contexts, many decided that the users were mostly normal, healthy adolescents except for their drug use. They were not "deviant persons" but merely "normal persons" who happened to commit a few deviant acts. It was a short step from this to conclusions that marihuana use could not have the dreadful effects claimed previously and thus that it did not merit such heavy penalties.

The effects of normalization are evident in a 1970 article by Millicent Hering in American Libraries. The author, a "librarian and mother," initially believed that marihuana use was dangerous and that the laws against it were appropriate. She therefore panicked when she realized that her sons and some of her students were occasional users. As she continued to observe them, however, she could not find any obvious signs of other abnormalities:

My two sons were growing into manhood; they brought many young people into our home. My discussions with them continued and I realized that they surely were not killers or psychotics although some of them professed to have smoked the weed. They were, for the most part, lovable, well-adjusted, even scholarly, kids in the process of growing up."

Hering then sought out authoritative information on marihuana. Faced with a welter of conflicting authorities and certain from firsthand experience that marihuana could not be all that terrible, she chose an expert whose opinion corroborated her own observations—Dr. Joel Fort. Fort's work further convinced her that the dangers of marihuana had been exaggerated and that existing laws were unjust. "I'm not for marijuana," she concluded, "but I am against putting young people in jail who do use it."

In short, convinced that their marihuana-using sons and daughters continued to be otherwise normal and confronted with a lack of expert consensus on the dangers of the drug, middle-class parents, legislators, and periodical writers often were predisposed to believe those experts who downplayed the dangers of the drug.

A number of factors were important in this normalization process. It resulted partly from the users' increased respectability. As Troy Duster notes, high-status persons are less easy to stigmatize than low-status persons. It was the product partly of greater accessibility. As Erving Goffman points out, the closer one gets to any social world, the more "meaningful, reasonable, and normal" it appears." Two other factors were clearly important, however. First, marihuana itself, independent of what people believe about it, is simply not a "killer weed." Whatever its total, long-run impact on human beings, it has no spectacular, short-term negative effects on the user. Youthful middle-class users rarely went on violent rampages, became obviously strung out, or fell victim to "overdoses." Had these things happened, the user's respectability and social accessibility might have bred an increased allegiance to stiffer penalties rather than the reverse. Second, there were available experts who were willing to argue that marihuana use was indeed relatively safe. Had such experts not existed, the firsthand experience of normality would have lacked "scientific" corroboration and might have been more readily discounted.

Prior to the mid-1960s, of course, the marihuana user was neither respectable nor socially accessible. Policymakers and the media were unlikely to have firsthand experience with users or to see them as total persons. Thus, there was no basis for the normalization process. Marihuana users were seen purely in the context of deviant behavior and therefore appeared as thoroughly deviant persons.

Political Forces

Kinship, empathy, and normality together constituted a major change in the way in which marihuana use and users were viewed. Anonymous "drug users" became "our children"; objects to be manipulated became subjects to be listened to; and the deviant person became a normal person who happened to engage in certain deviant acts. This shift of framework in turn made public discussion more receptive to positive claims about the effects of marihuana and hence more supportive of marihuana law reform.
Political Actor. The social position of marihuana users not only affected the public typing of them but also gave users themselves some power to shape public discussion of the drug by forcefully voicing their own demands. Youthful middle-class marihuana users became a new collective actor in the drug control arena. Their power was exerted partly in a direct, organized way. Organizations representing both marihuana users (the National Organization for

Reform of Marihuana Laws) and groups with high rates of marihuana use (the National Student Association) sent spokespersons to congressional hearings on marihuana throughout the period. Through these official spokespersons, marihuana users made their support for reduced penalties and their belief in the safety of marihuana use effectively heard. Users also exerted their power in an indirect, less organized way. In their everyday lives, users vociferously opposed marihuana laws and claimed their right to smoke. Their social respectability and their convenient concentration on college campuses and in high schools made their opposition difficult to ignore totally. Policymakers and writers became conscious of the ferment and had to take it into account. Congressional hearings were suffused with a sense of growing rebellion just beyond the doors of the hearing chambers. Senator Thomas Dodd, for example, opened the 1968 Judiciary Committee hearings on juvenile delinquency with the following admonition:

At the same time, we must consider the changing attitudes among our young people who regard drug use, particularly marihuana use, with alarming tolerance. We must consider changing public opinion and the surge of court cases challenging local marihuana laws in various parts of the nation."

He then referred to the "ideological warfare between a segment of our college youth . . . and police agencies."
Prior to the mid-1960s, marihuana users—lower in the class structure and fewer in number—brought no such political pressure to bear on the policymaking process. There were no organizations of marihuana users and little formal pressure. The LaGuardia Report had noted that the average user in New York City in the 1940s "did not indulge in its use with a spirit of braggadocio or as a challenge to law," and Richard Blum has pointed out the quiescence of even the beatnik user of the 1950s."

Political Audience. Perhaps more important than being a political actor, marihuana users after the mid-1960s provided a visible, respectable, appreciative audience for those public health officials, intellectuals, scientists, and physicians who were interested in debunking the established beliefs and policy regarding marihuana. As noted in the previous chapter, opposition to the Narcotics Bureau's view of marihuana had existed since the late 1940s, but it had been muted, and dissidents had never launched a frontal assault on the established marihuana consensus.

By the late 1960s, this had changed dramatically. Congressional hearings and the media were full of criticisms of existing beliefs and policy by "reputable experts," public health officials, professional and scientific organizations, and individual physicians and social scientists." To an extent, the upsurge of reputable expert criticism simply reflected the growing strength of a health establishment and its increased efforts to shape drug control policy in general.

This was only part of the story, however. Another cause of the health establishment's newly found activism concerning marihuana was that for the first time in the United States there existed a large, educated, vociferous constituency that was receptive to expert research, writing, and testimony that challenged the harmfulness of marihuana and the propriety of harsh penalties. Prior to the mid-1960s, dissident officials and intellectuals had no natural audience to address; now they did.

A symbiotic relationship, then, developed between marihuana users and a mixed bag of health officials, physicians, scientists, and intellectuals. Without identifying with the drug culture, the experts gave precise formulation and legitimacy to the beliefs and demands of the users; without regarding the health establishment as their official representatives, the users provided the experts with an interested audience to address."

Arguments About the Law

In various ways the changes just described increased the interest in and sensitivity to "positive" (exculpatory) information on marihuana. The inevitable conclusion was a reassessment of the drug. Marihuana was deemed by many to be significantly less dangerous than had been previously believed. This judgment in turn became an important argument in favor of reducing penalties for use. Marihuana use was simply not dangerous enough to warrant long prison sentences.

The danger argument, however, was not the only or even the primary argument in favor of reduced penalties. It was not accepted by all proponents of reform and did not figure prominently at many points in the marihuana debates of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The most common arguments made in favor of reducing or removing criminal penalties for use were what we shall call the criminality, credibility, and career arguments, each of which reflected the middle-class position of the marihuana users.
Criminality. The criminality argument asserted that harsh penalties for marihuana use were inappropriate because the users were not really "criminals," except for their actual drug use. The designation of users as noncriminals was meant in both a narrow and a broad sense. Narrowly conceived, it meant simply that unlike the users of other drugs, marihuana users generally did not commit any major street crimes, such as burglary, robbery, or homicide. Broadly conceived, it meant that the users came from a "respectable" social background and simply did not belong in prison. The case for the noncriminality of the user thus rested as much on the user's social and educational position as on his lack of criminal record. Psychiatrist Helen Nowlis, for example, argued against criminal penalties for marihuana and LSD users in the following terms:

I feel very stongly that unless one defines criminal in terms of the way in which you set up the law, in terms of the concept criminal, that the overwhelming majority of them are not."

To support her contention, Nowlis cited the case of a young man convicted of a felony for selling three LSD sugar cubes. She noted that the offender was a college graduate with a good grade point average and a long list of reputable extracurricular activities. "Is this a criminal in the ordinary sense of criminality?" she pleaded.
Similar arguments were made by a group of college-based psychiatrists and by the American Orthopsychiatric Association:

Therefore we advise against criminal penalties and legislation directed at marijuana use which, if strictly enforced at present, could lead to branding as criminal a portion of American youth to whom we look for constructive social contribution and leadership."

The Association has substantial doubt whether the mere possession of marihuana is a proper basis for the imposition of any federal penalties, let alone the lengthy prison terms which the Administration's bill would impose. This conclusion is rooted in considerations which go substantially beyond the relative lack of dangerousness in marihuana use. Among the foremost considerations should be the fact that untold millions of fine young Americans use marihuana at least on an occasion. These are youths who have no criminal tendencies whatsoever and who often exemplify admirable character traits."

In each case there was an exquisite sensitivity to the users' social status and what they did beyond the narrow context of the criminal law. The tacit assumption was that the character of the user, as well as the nature of use itself, ought to be taken into account in making the law.

Credibility. A second argument against harsh penalties was that they were not credible with marihuana users and therefore were ineffective deterrents. Users, it was argued, strongly believed that marihuana was less dangerous than many legal drugs and that they had a right to use it. They thus had no respect for marihuana laws and were in open conflict with law enforcement authorities. In such circumstances, marihuana laws could hardly have a deterrent effect. Reestablishing the effectiveness of these laws and the credibility of those who enforced them would require at least a partial reduction in penalties.

Career. A final rationale for reducing penalties was that a felony conviction or a prison sentence might ruin the career of the offender. Writing in the National Review, Richard Cowan urged conservatives to rethink their support for criminal penalties by pointing to "lives disrupted and even ruined, families divided, records besmirched, a life of ostracism."" Despite its opposition to outright legalization, in 1968 the American Medical Association's Council on Mental Health objected to heavy penalties for

the youthful experimenter who, by incurring a criminal record through a single thoughtless act, places his future career in jeopardy. The lives of many young people are being needlessly damaged.39

The core of the career argument, however it was expressed, was a preoccupation with the potential damage that criminal penalties could do to the future lives of those young people convicted for use.40

What is striking about all three of these arguments—criminality, credibility, career—is that they originated in the late 1960s. Prior to that time, no one thought to question whether or not the marihuana user was really a criminal; no one worried about the credibility of the law among users; and no one pondered the possible effects of conviction and imprisonment on the user's future life. Marihuana users were simply presumed to be "criminals" in every sense of the term, and no distinction was drawn between the character of the user and the nature of the act. Users were neither powerful nor respectable enough for their opinions about the law to matter and hence for credibility to be an issue. Finally, they were not seen as persons with futures or careers that could be ruined. These issues were not explicitly discussed because they were not problematic as long as users were drawn primarily from the lower strata and marginal groups.41

With the increase in youthful middle-class users in the 1960s, this changed. Because of their social background, these new users were unlikely to appear to be involved in major street crime. Furthermore, they were likely to be respectable in other ways and thus did not possess the auxiliary traits of the criminal status. It therefore became difficult to regard them as criminal persons simply because they had committed the criminal act of marihuana use. Similarly, the new users had the power and status to command attention, so their attitude toward the law had to be taken into account in shaping policy. Finally, middle-class youth generally were presumed to be going somewhere: They had futures; they were building careers. Therefore, the issue of how a marihuana conviction would affect those futures became relevant.

In short, the rise of youthful middle-class marihuana use changed the terms in which marihuana laws were discussed and broadened the range of arguments that could be made legitimately against existing marihuana laws. This buttressed the case for law reform and made support for such reforms more likely.


The new middle-class position of the late 1960s, early 1970s marihuana user affected marihuana laws by altering the dominant stereotypes of the user, by adding new political forces to the drug control arena, and by generating new arguments against existing laws. None of these effects probably was decisive in itself; rather, each contributed to the other and to the ultimate outcome.

Perhaps the crucial factor was the change in ideology, in the system of beliefs that framed public discussion of the drug. The increase in marihuana use by middle-class youth directly and dramatically altered the ideological framework within which the drug and laws concerning it were publicly discussed. These pervasive changes in the terms of public discussion favored a reassessment of the drug's dangers and the reform of marihuana laws.

The transformation of the ideological framework was neither explicit nor recognized by everyone involved. What changed was the tacit understanding of how the marihuana issue should be discussed. It now seemed natural to typify marihuana users as "someone's children" rather than as anonymous others. Whereas once such a question was unthinkable, it now seemed appropriate to question how a conviction for marihuana use would affect the user's future career. Because these new ways of discussing the marihuana issue seemed so obviously "right," hardly anyone realized how novel they were.

These changes in the taken-for-granted put new constraints on public discussion and thus reshaped the terrain on which individual and social actors fought out the marihuana issue. It is, therefore, misleading to see marihuana law reform as resulting simply from the conscious, organized efforts of self-interested policymakers and politically mobilized marihuana users. The reassessment of marihuana's dangers and the support for law reform of some kind were simply too broad and too pervasive to be explained by these factors alone. Self-interested policymakers and politically mobilized marihuana users operated in a changed ideological framework that was receptive to their view of marihuana and their arguments for law reform.


1. U.S., Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Narcotic Rehabilitation Act of 1966, 89th Cong., 2d sess., 1966, pp. 175-176, 385, 449, 458-460.
2. Stanley Einstein, ed., Proceedings of the First International Conference on Student Drug Surveys (Farmingdale, N.Y.: Baywood, 1972), p. 199.
3. Allen Ginsberg, "The Great Marihuana Hoax," The Atlantic Monthly, November 1966, pp. 104, 107-112.
4. U.S., Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws, Marihuana-Hashish Epidemic and Its Impact on United States Security, 94th Cong., ist sess., 1975, p. v.
5. "Pot Problem," Time, 12 March 1965, P. 49.
6. Joel Fort, "Drug Use and the Law: A Case for Legalizing Marijuana," Current, December 1969, pp. 4-13.
7. These descriptions are found, for example, in "Marihuana: Millions of Turned-on Users," Life, 7 July 1967, pp. 16-23; "Mild Intoxicant," Scientific American, February 1969, pp. 42-43; Lester Grinspoon, "Marihauna," Scientific American, December 1969, pp. 17-25; Millicent B. Hering, "The Law and Maryjane," American Libraries, October 1970, pp. 896-899.
8. Antoni Gollan, "The Great Marihuana Problem," National Review, 30 January 1968, pp. 74-80.
9. "To Parents: Plain Talk on Marijuana," Business Week, 21 March 1970, p. 121; "The Latest Medical Facts About Marihuana," Good Housekeeping, May 1971, pp. 185-186.
10. Benjamin Spock, "Preventing Drug Abuse in Children," Redbook, May 1971, p. 36.
11. U.S., President's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, Task Force: Narcotics and Drug Abuse (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1967), pp. 12-14, 24-26, 126-131.
12. U.S., National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972), pp. 90-91.
13. These hearings included the following: U.S., Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Narcotic Legislation, 91st Cong., ist sess., 1969; U.S., Senate, Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, Special Subcommittee on Alcoholism and Narcotics, Federal Drug Abuse and Drug Dependence Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation Act of 1970, 91st Cong., 2d sess., 1970; U.S., House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means, Controlled Dangerous Substances, Narcotics, and Drug Control Laws, 91st Cong., 2d sess., 1970; U.S., House of Representatives, Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Drug Abuse Control Amendments-1970, 91st Cong., 2d sess., 1970.
14. Federal Bureau of Narcotics, "The Dangers of Marihuana—Facts You Should Know," in Marihuana, ed. Stanley E. Grupp (Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1971), pp. 78-84; Donald E. Miller, "Legislative and Judicial Trends in Marihuana Control," in Marihuana, ed. Grupp, pp. 297-302; Donald E. Miller, "Marijuana and Legal Controls," in Marijuana, ed. Erich Goode (New York: Atherton, 1970), pp. 155-171.
15. This view of alcohol is itself of relatively recent vintage. The nineteenth-century temperance view held that safe, moderate drinking was impossible. See Harry Levine, "Demon of the Middle Class: Self-control, Liquor, and the Ideology of Temperance in 19th-century America" (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1978).
16. For summaries of how marihuana laws changed in the 1960s and 1970s, see Richard J. Bonnie and Charles Whitebread II, "History of Marihuana Legislation," in Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, ed. National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, Appendix I, pp. 491-498; Harvey R. Levine, Legal Dimensions of Drug Abuse in the United States (Springfield, Ill.: Charles Thomas, 1974); Michael P. Rosenthal, "The Legislative Response to Marihuana: When the Shoe Pinches Enough," Journal of Drug Issues 7 (1977):61-77; Richard C. Schroeder, The Politics of Drugs, 2d rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1980).
17. U.S., House of Representatives, Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Increased Control Over Hallucinogens and Other Dangerous Drugs, 90th Cong., 2d sess., 1968, pp. 101-103; House of Representatives, Controlled Dangerous Substances, pp. 193-211.
18. Rosenthal, "Legislative Response."
19. National Commission, Marihuana, pp. 127-167.
20. Schroeder, Politics of Drugs.
21. National Organization for the Reform of Marihuana Laws, "The Marijuana Issue" (1977), p. 12.
22. Gollan, "Great Marihuana Problem"; Richard Cowan, "American Conservatives Should Revise Their Position on Marihuana," National Review, 8 December 1972, pp. 1344-1346; Buckley, "End the Pot Penalties," Washington Star-News, 10 November 1974; Kilpatrick, "Thoughts on Marihuana," Washington Star-News, 4 December 1974.
23. Senate, Marihuana-Hashish Epidemic, p. 125. See also Senator Eastland's introduction and Robert Kolodny's testimony, pp. v-XX, 117-126.
24. William F. Buckley, Jr., "Private Enterprise and Dope," National Review, 8 September 1970, p. 964.
25. U.S., Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Marijuana Decriminalization, 94th Cong., ist sess., 1975, p. 6.
26. Buckley, "End the Pot Penalties."
27. Lester Grinspoon, Marihuana Reconsidered (New York: Bantam, 1971).
28. "Pot Problem," Time.
29. Hering, "The Law and Maryjane."
30. Troy Duster, The Legislation of Morality (New York: Free Press, 1970); Erving Goffman, Asylums (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961), p. x.
31. U.S., Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, Juvenile Delinquency, 90th Cong., 2d sess., 1968, pp. 4328-4329.
32. David Solomon, ed., The Marihuana Papers (New York: New American Library, 1966), p. 295; Richard H. Blum and Associates, Utopiates (New York: Atherton Press, 1964), p. 3.
33. The term "reputable expert" denotes those persons who by virtue of educational credentials and official position can legitimately claim expertise on matters of drug use and drug control. It does not presume a judgment on the quality or validity of their ideas.
34. For the importance of the audience in shaping the artistic and intellectual message, see Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (New York: Vintage, 1957), pp. 191-200.
35. Senate, Juvenile Delinquency, 1968, p. 4505-4506.
36. House of Representatives, Hallucinogens, p. 229.
37. Senate, Narcotics Legislation, p. 934.
38. Cowan, "American Conservatives."
39. Council on Mental Health, "Marihuana and Society," in Marihuana, ed. Grupp, p. 56.
40. For additional examples of criminality, credibility, and career arguments, see the following: Senate, Narcotics Legislation, pp. 245-246, 301- 302, 663-683; Senate, Federal Drug Abuse Prevention, p. 194; House of Representatives, Controlled Dangerous Substances, pp. 199-204, 331-344, 449ff.; House of Representatives, Drug Abuse Control Amendments, pp. 549-556, 568-575; Senate, Marijuana Decriminalization, pp. 2, 49-96.
41. As noted in chapter 4, although marihuana was seen in the 1930s primarily as a drug "spreading to youth," it never became a drug "of youth." Thus stereotypes of use and user were never adjusted accordingly.

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