Harrison, Lana D., Michael Backenheimer and James A. Inciardi (1995), Cannabis use in the United States: Implications for policy. In: Peter Cohen & Arjan Sas (Eds)(1996), Cannabisbeleid in Duitsland, Frankrijk en de Verenigde Staten. Amsterdam, Centrum voor Drugsonderzoek, Universiteit van Amsterdam. pp. 181-197.
© Copyright 1995, 1996 Centrum voor Drugsonderzoek, Universiteit van Amsterdam. All rights reserved.

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Cannabis use in the United States

Implications for policy

Lana D. Harrison, Michael Backenheimer and James A. Inciardi

1  Executive summary

What has been the impact of cannabis policy in the United States? Has the United States implemented and demonstrated a rational cannabis policy? What are the dynamics and driving force behind cannabis policy in the United States and how can the success or failure of such policy be evaluated? And most importantly, are the goals of cannabis policy realistic and obtainable?

The major tenet of U.S. drug policy is that the use of illicit drugs is harmful; that they pose injury to the individual who uses them, to individuals with whom the drug user comes in contact, and to society at large. These costs, both personal and societal, take many forms including treatment and other health care costs, productivity in the workplace, crime, emotional and physical suffering of family members and friends, as well as the costs of enforcement, the judiciary, and the penal system. Controlling these costs and other related costs and harms is the major goal of U.S. policy.

However, it is critical to remember that the United States has no cannabis policy per se. Cannabis is a part of the national drug policy, usually treated in exactly the same way as other illicit substances, including the opiates and cocaine. What follows is a discussion of cannabis with respect to various aspects of drug policy.[1]


The available evidence suggests that cannabis was not used by a significant number of people in the United States prior to the 1960s. Before that time, such use was reported as minimal and seemed to be highly centralized within the ghetto and among minorities and assorted 'marginal' groups, such as jazz musicians. In the 1960s, however, cannabis use began to come to the fore, perhaps as a token of rebellion among youth. The number of Americans who had tried marijuana at least once increased from probably no more than several hundred thousand to an estimated 8 million by the end of the 1960s. It is commonly hypothesized that marijuana use first burgeoned among college students before spreading to younger groups. A 1971 survey found over half of the nation's college students had at least tried marijuana. The first national survey on marijuana use of a sample of the U.S. population was conducted by the National Commission on Marihuana in 1971. The survey found 14% of youth aged 12-17 and 15% of adults aged 18 and older had tried marijuana. Use was clearly age related with 27% of 16-17 year olds, 40% of 18-21 year olds, 38% of 22-25 year olds, but only 6% of those aged 50 and older and of the 12-13 year olds having ever used the drug. However, 41% of the adults and 45% of the youth reported they no longer used marijuana, and 9% of the adults and 15% of the youth reported they used less than once a month. Two percent of the adults and 4% of the youth who ever used marijuana were using it several times a day.

The United States is fortunate to have several national surveys that address both the nature and the extent of cannabis use. These surveys are thought to be both valid and reliable indicators. Further, they have been ongoing for about two decades. Throughout the 1970s, the Monitoring the Future and Household surveys were also showing increasing rates of cannabis use, particularly among the young. These rates peaked in 1979 when the Monitoring the Future survey of students in their last year of high school (average age of 17-18 years) found 60.4% reporting they had ever used marijuana, 50.8% had used it in the past year and 36.5% had used it in the past month. The 1980s showed a high but nevertheless declining rate of marijuana use among youth regardless of whether 'ever used,' 'past 12 months,' or 'last 30 days,' was used as an indicator. For 'ever used' marijuana, the reported 1980 rate was 60.3%, the 1983 rate was 57.0%, the 1986 rate 50.9%. Use of marijuana in the 'past 12 months' was reported by 48.8% of the graduating class of 1980, 42.3% of the class of 1983, and 38.8% of the class of 1986. Marijuana use in the 'last 30 days' was reported by 33.7% of the class of 1980, 27.0% of the class of 1983 and 23.4% of the class of 1986. By the late 1980s, there was a feeling that the United States at last was 'turning the corner' on drug use. The lifetime prevalence of marijuana use in 1988 was down to 47.2%, approximately the same figure (47.3%) as in 1975, the first year of the Monitoring the Future survey. Annual prevalence in 1988, was down to 33.1%, far less than the 40.0% figure recorded by the survey in 1975. Thirty day prevalence, in 1988, was 18.0%, a full third less than the 1975 figure of 27.1%. This downward trend in use patterns continued through 1992. The survey data, however, for 1993 and 1994 indicate a reversal of trend. Marijuana use is on the upsurge among youth. In fact, 1994 Monitoring the Future data indicate the increase great enough to push prevalence rates back to about 1988 use levels. This two-year turnaround is noteworthy and data for 1995 will be critical in determining whether or not this trend continues. This increase in marijuana use is not replicated in the Household survey, but data are only available through 1993. The only significant increase in drug prevalence rates between 1992 and 1993 was for 'past year' marijuana use, and only among young adults aged 18-25. Not insignificantly, the 1992 Household survey estimated that some 69 million Americans have, at some time in their life, tried marijuana. This is approximately 33% or about one out of every three Americans. A vast number of these, however, have only used marijuana once or twice, and this must be borne in mind when examining this statistic.


Given these trends, the question arises as to how they relate to public policy. The answer, briefly, is that they don't. There does not appear to be any relationship or correlation between policy and prevalence. Public policy is probably best mirrored in the legislation being applied to drug control. When marijuana prevalence rates began to rise during the 1960s, any possession of marijuana was a felony offense under all state and federal laws. The year 1970 saw passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Control Act of 1970 (Controlled Substances Act of 1970), an act which at one and the same time put marijuana in the same schedule of drugs as heroin and LSD while also lowering the maximum penalty for possession of one ounce or less. Between 1969 and 1972, 42 states reduced penalties for marijuana possession and, in the period 1973 through 1978, 11 states decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. It is believed that the lowering of penalties in the late 1960s through mid-1970s was largely in response to parental concerns about children being arrested for marijuana, and the impact of their arrest record on subsequent career attainment.

Nevertheless, beginning in late 1969 and continuing to date, the United States has made a concentrated and concerted effort to stem the tide of illegal drugs, including marijuana, through a program of strict law enforcement. Several enacted statutes including the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) and the Continuing Criminal Enterprise (CCE) laws of 1970 served primarily as a 'get tough' on drugs platform and allowed for forfeiture of property and assets associated with criminal (read illicit drug) operations. Air and sea blockades of producing countries and transhipment points have served as reminders of this country's efforts to interdict drugs and make smuggling unprofitable and dangerous. Operation Intercept in 1969 and a succession of interdiction efforts in the decades that followed, no matter what their relative degree of success, serve notice that the United States is serious in pursuing supply reduction through law enforcement activities.

There also can be no question that during the late 1970s, the Carter Administration seriously considered the propriety of decriminalizing marijuana and indicated it was not interested in prosecuting individuals having small amounts of marijuana in their personal possession. In spite of the Administration stance and in spite of lobby efforts by pro-marijuana decriminalization groups such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the issue could not be brought to a head. Marijuana criminalization, decriminalization or legalization was a non-issue. There was not enough of a public opinion consensus and concern raised to precipitate legislative action.

In the decade of the 1980s and, to date, there has been a continuance of a 'get tough' policy with respect to drugs, and marijuana has been a part of that policy. Several so-called 'get tough' crime measures were passed in Congress. Under the auspices of the Reagan and Bush Administrations, interdiction became a very high priority. The century old Posse Comitatus Act was amended in 1982 to allow the U.S. military to engage in supply reduction activities such as training, intelligence gathering, detection, and use of equipment. This interdiction effort was in fact reasonably successful in reducing the amount of marijuana smuggled into this country. It was far more profitable and less risky to smuggle cocaine. The success of this interdiction effort led to what some saw as a shortage of marijuana, though surveys were still showing marijuana as being easy to obtain. If, in fact, there was a void in the supply of marijuana, it was quickly filled by increased domestic cultivation of marijuana.

The military too adopted 'get tough' measures. Earlier it had placed priority on drug abuse prevention and treatment. In the 1980s the military changed its stance and adopted a zero tolerance policy. Urine screens were introduced into the military establishment as a mechanism of ferreting out (and discharging) drug users and this soon spread as well to civilian workplaces. It should also be pointed out that several states, Maine, Oregon and Ohio, who decriminalized marijuana in the 1970s tightened their marijuana restrictions in the 1980s and no states have further decriminalized marijuana since 1978. Further, Alaska, in 1990, voted to recriminalize marijuana possession.

Nowhere can the 'get tough,' conservative mood of drug policy be better gauged than in the new U.S. Congress seated in January of 1995. For the first time in 40 years the Republicans have control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Some 102 new members have joined this Congress, many of them gaining office on a 'get tough on crime' platform. The House of Representatives has already passed 'The Taking Back of Our Streets Act' (HR 3), which includes provisions for mandatory sentencing, over $10 billion to states to build new prisons, and more law enforcement personnel. On January 4, 1995, the Senate introduced their 'get tough' bill, the 'Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Improvement Act of 1995' (S-3). It specifically targets, with mandatory minimum sentences, acts including selling drugs to minors, and selling drugs near schools (now all designated Drug-Free Zones in the U.S.). While marijuana is not specifically mentioned in either the House or Senate proposals, there is no doubt that the specifics of whatever crime bill is finally enacted will be brought to bear upon marijuana.

Marijuana production and seizures

Since cannabis is illegal, there are no valid sources of information on supply. The Bureau of International Narcotics Matters' estimate foreign marijuana production, but the numbers vary considerably from year and year, and changes in estimation methodology make it difficult to interpret trend data. We do not know what fraction of marijuana grown in producer nations like Mexico, Columbia or Jamaica is exported to the U.S. or other countries.

The following table provides Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates of domestic marijuana production for 1988 to 1992 in metric tons.

Table 1. DEA Estimates of Domestic Marijuana Production for 1988 to 1992 in Metric Tons.
1988 1989 1990 1991 1992
Total Production 4,350 - 4,850 5,000 - 6,000 5,000 - 6,000 3,615 - 4,615 2,595 - 3,095

However, other experts estimate domestic marijuana production using survey data on consumption at about 1000 metric tons, about 20% of which fails to reach the market (Chalsma and Boyum, 1994). The total estimate of marijuana consumption in 1992 was about 1600 metric tons, including both domestic and imported marijuana. Clearly, DEA estimates of marijuana production are not consistent with consumption-based estimates.

Cannabis can be seized by several different agencies including the DEA, Customs, the Coast Guard, and the Postal Service, but the estimates they publish cannot be combined since more than one agency may have been involved in the seizure. Nevertheless, the trend data from 1985 through 1992 indicate a large decline in overall seizures. For example, Customs seized approximately 1500 metric tons of marijuana in 1985, compared to 300 metric tons in 1992.

The DEA estimates a pound of marijuana as having a value somewhere between $400 and $3,000. According to a user survey conducted by Chalsma and Boyum (1994), the average price of marijuana was $55 for a quarter ounce. This amounts to about $8 dollars per gram of marijuana, which is very similar to the price charged for marijuana in Dutch coffeeshops.

One final point is that law enforcement resources and priorities heavily influence the trends in seizures. Likewise, they influence the trends in arrests.

Marijuana arrests

Federal, State and local law enforcement agencies share responsibility for enforcing the nation's drug laws though the majority of drug arrests are made by State and local authorities. However, the DEA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also make arrests at the Federal level. For drug violations involving smuggling the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs Service are also party to carrying out drug laws. Due to variations in the ways the separate states collect information, data are not combined to yield national totals, however the FBI estimates the number of arrests for drug violations by State and local police.

Between 1980 and 1993, the number of arrests for drug offenses by State and local police doubled from 580,901 to 1,126,300 (Uniform Crime Reports, 1994). Whereas the 1980 total was dominated by arrests for marijuana (70%) and possession offenses (82%), by 1992, opium/cocaine related arrests (50%) exceeded the number for marijuana related arrests (33.8%). Marijuana distribution arrests accounted for about equivalent shares of drug-related arrests in both 1980 (27%) and 1993 (29.7%) (cf., Maguire and Pastore., 1994; Uniform Crime Reports, 1994). Following a big jump between 1971 and 1973, arrests for marijuana remained relatively stable until 1985. Marijuana arrests dropped in 1986 and again in 1990, but then rose dramatically in 1992 and 1993.

Table 2. Recent Trends in Drug Arrests.
Year Number of Persons Arrested for Drug Offences Number Arrested for Marijuana Sales/Distribution Number Arrested for Marijuana Possession Total Marijuana Arrests
1990 1,089,500 66,460
1991 1,010,000 61,610
1992 1,066,400 70,382
1993 1,126,300 69,831
* Percent of marijuana arrests as a function of total drug arrests.

Looking at the recent trends in drug arrests, Table 2 shows there were approximately 1.1 million arrests for drug offenses in 1990. Of this number, 66,500 (6.1%) were for sale/manufacture of marijuana and 260,400 (23.9%) were for possession for a total of 326,900 cases (30%). In 1993, there were 380,690 arrests for marijuana. This was 33.8% of all drug arrests. Approximately 6.2% of the marijuana arrests were for sale/manufacture (69,831), and 27.6% were for possession (310,859). (Communication from Wayne J. Roques, DEA; Maguire and Pastore, 1994; Uniform Crime Reports, 1994).

Overall, drug arrests began their rapid escalation after 1983. The trend had been toward an increase in the numbers arrested for sales and distribution over the period, but 1992 signalled a bit of a reversal in the trend. The increase in drug arrests since 1983 is almost entirely attributable to the increase in arrests for opium and cocaine, and not marijuana. After reaching their high point in 1982 at 455,900, arrests for marijuana stabilized through about 1985. Marijuana related arrests decreased by nearly a quarter between 1985 and 1986, when they started to rise again. They fell again by about a third in 1990, and are again on the rise.

Criminal cases filed in U.S. district courts

Records have been compiled on the number of federal defendants charged with drug law violations in U.S. District Courts for several decades. The federal court system handles cases typically against higher level drug dealers and their agents. Between 1945 and 1968, the numbers were relatively stable. The number of drug offenders gradually increased from 1968 through 1974, when they stabilized and started to decrease. That decrease ended in 1980. Over the period 1980-1992, there was a 346% increase in the number of federal defendants sentenced to prison in U.S. District Courts, compared to a 71% increase for non-drug offenses (BJS, 1992b). A study commissioned by Attorney General Janet Reno in 1993 concluded that more than one-fifth of the federal prison population consists of 'low-level' drug offenders, defined as persons convicted of drug crimes who have no prior prison time, no current or prior violence in their records, and no involvement in sophisticated criminal activity (CJN Drug Letter, 1994).

In 1991, 46,337 offenses were filed in U.S. District Courts. In 1992, this figure rose 2.4% to 47,472. Drug law violations constituted 11,954 offenses (about 26% of the total) and increased 7.4% to 12,833 in 1992 (about 27% of the total). Marijuana offenses numbered 3,488 in 1991 (about 29% of all drug law violations and 7.5% of all violations) and in 1992 increased 16.8% to 4,073 violations (about 32% of all drug law violations and 8.6% of all violations) (Maguire and Pastore, 1994).

Some 77% of the defendants charged in U.S. District Court in 1985 with a marijuana violation were convicted. This percentage has risen steadily over the intervening years, reaching 85% in 1991 and 86% in 1992 (Maguire and Pastore, 1994). Of those marijuana defendants convicted in U.S. District Courts in 1985, 67% received prison time. As with convictions, the percentage of those convicted and receiving a prison sentence has risen steadily over the intervening years, reaching 79% in 1991 and 81% in 1992 (Maguire and Pastore, 1994). The average length of prison sentence among those convicted of a marijuana violation in U.S. District Court has, however, not increased in the period 1985 through 1992, this in spite of the enactment of mandatory minimum statutes. In 1985, the average length of sentence was 46 months; in 1992 the figure was exactly the same, 46 months. The intervening time period saw average length of sentences range between 47 and 51 months (Maguire and Pastore, 1994). It would seem that though cases, convictions and prison sentences are increasing for marijuana violations, somewhat surprisingly, the length of prison term is not increasing.

We also reviewed what happened to defendants in U.S. District Courts for the year 1992 with respect to disposition of case. In that year there were 5,657 marijuana defendants before the court. Of that number 917 were not convicted with 814 of these being dismissed by the court. Of the remaining 103 defendants, 15 were acquitted by the court and 88 were acquitted by jury. Turning to the 4,740 defendants convicted by the court, the vast majority, 4,283 entered a plea of guilty. Two defendants pled nolo contendere, 34 were convicted by the court and 421 were convicted by jury (Maguire and Pastore, 1994).

Among Federal inmates for the year 1991 it is possible to obtain a measure of the amount of drugs involved for the current offense. For those involved in marijuana trafficking (4,420 inmates), the median number of grams involved was 136,080 (in excess of 272 pounds) and the mean number of grams was 3,353,580 grams (over 6,700 pounds). For those inmates convicted of marijuana possession (1,506 inmates), the median number of grams involved in the offense was 45,360 (over 90 pounds) and the mean number of grams was 2,100,560 (over 4200 pounds). Unfortunately these data are not available for State inmates (BJS, 1994).

Those inmates in Federal prisons in 1991 were far more likely than those in State prisons to be incarcerated for a drug offense(s). Some 57.9% of all Federal inmates were serving time for a drug offense. For State inmates this figure drops to 21.3% (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1994). Somewhat surprisingly, the Federal prisoners were also far less likely than the State prisoners to have used drugs including marijuana. In 1991, 52.8% of the Federal prisoners said they had ever used marijuana. At the State level this figure is 73.8%. With respect to ever having used marijuana on a regular basis, 32.2% of the Federal and 51.9% of the State inmates replied in the affirmative. When asked about the use of marijuana in the month before the offense, 19.2% of the Federal and 32.2% of the State prisoners replied positively. In terms of using marijuana at the time of the offense, 5.9% of the Federal and 11.4% of the State inmates said this was the case. Of all drugs (alcohol was not included), marijuana was the substance most common to both groups of prisoners, followed by cocaine and then heroin (BJS, 1994).

Costs of enforcement

Including federal, state and local law expenditures, the United States in 1990 spent some $74,249 billion on law enforcement. This includes federal, state, local, county and municipal expenditures. The major category of costs were police protection at $31.805 billion (42.8%) and corrections at $24.961 billion (33.6%). Figured on a per capita cost, in 1990 it is estimated that all components of the justice system cost each resident of the United States $299 (BJS, 1992, p. 5).

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that, in 1990, it cost $14,456 per year to maintain a federal inmate and $15,604 per year to maintain a state inmate. Included in these costs were salary and expenses, food, and supplies, and land rental or purchase costs. Costs of construction, and maintenance are not included. At the Federal level, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) estimate their fiscal year 1995 drug expenditures as amounting to $1.694 billion dollars. This is approximately 64% of the total BOP budget of $2.232 billion, and includes costs for salaries, buildings and facilities, and new construction. For Fiscal Year 1996, the drug-related portion of new prison construction is about $158.0 million. Currently the BOP has 95,300 inmates under their care. Divided by the total BOP budget yields a cost of approximately $23,500 per prisoner. In 1991, 57.9% of all Federal prisoners were there on drug charges. In that same year (1991) some 28,650 drug offenders were sentenced as Federal inmates. Of this number, 6,015 (21% were marijuana related). Thus while specific costs with respect to marijuana cannot be offered, the cited data suffice to say that the cost of imprisoning marijuana law violators is considerable.

Estimating the costs for enforcement is a more difficult charge. Nationally, 3.3% of all government spending in 1990 was for criminal and criminal justice activities, up from 2.9% in 1985. This represents a 24% increase in the period 1985-1990 in constant 1990 dollars. To put this in context, 20.5% of the nation's expenditures in 1990 were for social insurance payments, 15.5% were for national defense and international relations, 14% were for education and libraries, 6.3% were for public welfare, and 4.2% were for hospitals and health. In 1990, 1.4% of all spending was for police protection, 1.1% was for corrections, and 0.7% was for judicial and legal services such as courts (0.4%), prosecution and legal service (0.2%) and public defense (0.1%).

Between 1971 and 1990, justice system expenditures in the United States increased 606%. The greatest increases were for corrections. The expenditure for this activity increased 313.3% in the period 1979-1990 and increased 91.5% in the period 1985-1990. The bottom line is that much of the increase in the nations' prison, jail, probation and parole populations, as well as the increases in criminal justice spending can be attributed to increased emphasis on punishing drug offenders and the increasing severity of sanctions (Graham and Zedlewski, 1990). Unfortunately, it is not possible to reliably extract the amount attributable to enforcement of the marijuana laws, especially distinguishing between possession and sales/distribution offenses.

However, data from California may be informative in this regard. California conducted a careful study of the economic impact of its marijuana decriminalization policy in the mid-1970s. In the early 1970s, with statewide arrests approaching 100,000 annually (over 90% of which were for simple possession), enforcement costs averaged well over $100 million per year (Moscone Committee, as referenced in Brownell, 1988). According to the study, decriminalization resulted in a 74% reduction in what the state had been spending yearly to enforce its marijuana laws (California Health and Welfare Agency, 1977; National Academy of Sciences, 1982). Aldrich and Mikuriya (1988) estimate that the State of California has saved nearly half a billion dollars (about $46 million per year) in arrest costs alone since 1976. Subsequent estimates put the savings since 1988 at another half billion dollars (ABC News, April 6, 1995). In general, states that decriminalized marijuana possession in the 1970s reported savings in police and judicial resources (Slaughter, 1988).

One final note about costs for enforcement is that new laws are increasing the amount of assets seized in connection with marijuana offenses. Such laws make it possible for the government to take profits and property of illicit drug operations and permits participating law enforcement organizations to share a percentage of such forfeited assets. Such seizures represent a significant amount of money. In 1987, the DEA seized $116.4 million in marijuana related cases. This was approximately 23% of all assets seized by the DEA. Forfeiture for marijuana cases in 1988 amounted to $157.3 million, again 23% of seized assets. For the year 1989, marijuana asset forfeitures dropped to $146 million, 15% of total seized assets. In 1990, asset forfeiture for marijuana related cases increased dramatically to $225.2 million, 20% of all forfeited assets. For 1991, $208.2 million in marijuana related assets were forfeited, 22 percent of all forfeited assets (DEA, Domestic Marijuana Eradication: A Success Story, no date). The point to be made is that the government is using the forfeiture laws as a major weapon in its effort to stem the supply of marijuana.

Public opinion

It is important to realize that facts and data per se have little to do with drug policy or cannabis policy. It appears that public opinion, often as expressed by the mass media, drives drug policy. As frustrating as this might be to social scientists and academics, the introduction of data and facts, no matter how valid and reliable, has little to do with winning or losing the forum of public opinion. Several points can be made in this regard.

  1. The mass media is a powerful shaper of public opinion. It was used in the 1930s by Harry Anslinger to make marijuana public enemy number one and, in 1937, to gain passage of the Marihuana Tax Act. Today, it is more powerful than ever. Every story with an emotional appeal is covered by the media. The connection between drugs and crime is constantly emphasized. Seizures, interdictions, shootouts - all aspects of supply reduction -are deemed newsworthy. Unfortunately, the demand reduction aspects of drug policy do not sell many papers or offer much gain in network ratings. For example, the results of the Monitoring the Future and Household surveys which showed declining rates of drug usage throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s get news coverage on perhaps one day in major newspapers and national news broadcasts. However, these same newspapers and broadcasts report almost daily incidents of drug-related crime. The result is that the public perceives drug use is on the increase, particularly during the height of the 'drug war,' when prevalence rates were falling steadily.

    With respect to marijuana or any of the illicit drugs, it is the PERCEPTION of the drug, the PERCEIVED harm, its ALLEGED connection to other illicit substances and its REPORTED role in crime, violence and illicit activities that shape public policy. This is not to say there is no truth or facts in the development of public opinion. It is to say that the perceived harm and consequences, not necessarily the actual harm and consequences will influence the public and thus shape policy. Unfortunately, the U.S. has a woefully undereducated and misinformed public helping to set drug policy.

  2. Within public opinion, another driver of marijuana policy in the United States has been the general health movement. Public opinion now holds that regular exercise, careful nutrition, and weight control are the ways to good physical and mental health. Whether this movement turns out to be a fad and fades and/or disappears remains to be seen. What can be said is that the general health movement is very popular. This movement would essentially hold that marijuana is unhealthy, harmful and 'bad'. Thus the use of marijuana is not compatible with the physical health movement so in vogue with the public. Of course, the fact that over a third of the U.S. adult population is overweight and this percentage is rising doesn't mesh well with the healthy ideal in U.S. society either.

    Data from Monitoring the Future survey are very instructive in this regard. In 1991, 40.4% of 13-14 year old students, 30.1% of 15-16 year old students and 27.1% of 17-18 year old students reported 'great risk' in trying marijuana once or twice. When 'once or twice' is changed to 'smoke marijuana occasionally' the 13-14 year old students percentage rose to 57.9, the 15-16 year old students percentage rose to 48.6, and the 17-18 year old students percentage rose to 40.6. The percentage saying 'great risk' rose even higher when the issue is 'smoke marijuana regularly'; 83.8% of the 13-14 year old students, 82.1% of the 15-16 year old students and 78.6% of the 17-18 year old students so responding. In the period 1991 through 1994 there has been a steady erosion in the percentage of junior high and high school students perceiving 'great risk' in the use of marijuana, regardless of what category of use is considered.

    These data raise two points. Perceived harm and risk in Monitoring the Future survey seem to lead prevalence rates by at least a year. When perceived harm and risk go up, prevalence rates the following year tend to decrease; when perceived harm and risk go down, prevalence rates the following year go up. The Monitoring the Future survey has documented that shifts in attitudes about the perceived risks associated with the use of marijuana preceded the downward trend in marijuana use (Bachman et al., 1988). Increases in the perceived risks associated with cocaine use, as well as increasing disapproval of cocaine use, also preceded the decrease in prevalence rates (Bachman, Johnston and O'Malley, 1990). Thus, it is totally possible to have predicted the rise in marijuana prevalence in 1993 and 1994 from the 1992 and 1993 data on perceived harm and risk. Availability of the drugs did not decrease, nor was there any trending observed in lifestyle factors (i.e., religious commitment, truancy) that commonly covary with involvement in illicit drug use (Bachman, Johnston and O'Malley, 1990). The researchers attribute the upward trending in perceived risks and disapproval to increasing health consciousness in general. They conclude that a large proportion of youth pay attention to new information about drugs, especially risks and consequences; and that such information, presented in a factual and credible fashion, plays a vital role in reducing the demand for drugs (Bachman, Johnston and O'Malley, 1990).

    The second point to be made (from 1994 Monitoring the Future data) is that some 74.3% of 13-14 year old students, 71.3% of 15-16 year old students and 65.0% of 17-18 year old students still perceive harm in using marijuana on a regular basis and a significant minority (48.6% of the 13-14 year old students, 38.9% of the 15-16 year old students and 30.1% of the 17-18 year old students) see harm and risk in smoking marijuana occasionally. Also, 17-18 year old students generally express their disapproval of individuals who use marijuana. In 1994, some 57.6% expressed disapproval of people even trying marijuana once or twice, 68.9% disapproved of smoking marijuana occasionally and 82.3% disapproved of smoking marijuana regularly. The 1993 Household Survey found that a third of the U.S. population associated great risk with smoking marijuana once or twice, 45% associated great risk with occasional marijuana use, while 77% associated great risk with regular marijuana use. There is thus significant opinion that marijuana is harmful and can pose 'great risk.' By way of comparison, over 70% of the population associate great risk with trying cocaine or heroin once or twice.

  3. As cited earlier, with the passage of amendments to Posse Comitatus and emphasis on interdiction efforts, some perceived a possible shortage of marijuana, but it appears that domestic cultivation of marijuana filled any voids. In so far as 17-18 year old high school students are concerned, there is not now nor has there ever been a shortage of marijuana. No matter what the particular law enforcement effort or latest legal statute, 17-18 year old students have been remarkably constant in their belief that marijuana is either 'fairly easy' or 'very easy' to get. In 1975, 87.8% of 17-18 year old students thought marijuana 'fairly easy' or 'very easy' to get. This peaked at 90.1% in 1979. It reached a low point of 82.7% in 1992 and was 85.5% in 1994. Thus, no matter what efforts were being made on the supply side to stem the tide of marijuana availability, 17-18 year old students for a full 20 years have perceived the drug as 'fairly easy' or 'very easy' to obtain. This perceived availability by the young over the years is very disturbing to those who fear marijuana as a corrupting influence on the youth of our nation and might well be cause enough for supply reduction efforts to (still more) increase.

  4. Parents and parent groups are drivers of public opinion with respect to drug abuse and the use of marijuana. Because marijuana is often viewed as a 'gateway' drug to other illicit drugs and illicit behaviors and because marijuana is a drug of the young, parent movements have become vocal and strong supporters of anti-drug and anti-marijuana positions. Groups such as Partnership for a Drug Free America, PRIDE, and other parents groups are well organized, well financed, and dedicated to the principle that all drug use is bad. Through promotions on television and radio, through the schools, through lobbying the Congress and through role models (athletes, politicians), these groups wage a continuing anti-drug war. Another group recently formed to combat drug abuse, American Cities Against Drugs, held a national conference May 14-16, 1995, with major support from the U.S. Government's Center for Substance Abuse Prevention and the private, philanthropic organization, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. There currently is no pro-marijuana group that has the resources and spokespeople to oppose this anti-drug sentiment.

  5. Another critical aspect of public opinion that has implications for any movement towards decriminalization of marijuana is the sentiment against cigarette smoking. The movement towards a smoke free environment can be seen in direct actions such as no smoking on all domestic air flights (and one major airline has banned smoking on international flights as well), no smoking in any Federal building, and increasing taxation of cigarettes. The State of Maryland and New York City have recently enacted, with massive public support, a smoking ban which prohibits smoking in ALL public buildings and places including restaurants, stadiums, and state universities. The only exception to this law are bars and restaurants where alcohol is served. Since marijuana is by and large smoked in this country and since carcinogens have been identified in marijuana, the anti-smoking sentiment has naturally enough encompassed the use of marijuana.

Future direction of marijuana policy

Given the conservative mood of the people of the United States, the 'get tough on crime' posture of the U.S. Congress and the power and disposition of public opinion, it is most unlikely that any change in U.S. policy towards marijuana is imminent. Any movement towards a toleration or decriminalization policy would likely emanate from outside the country. It would probably take some type of harm reduction movement internationally to persuade the U.S. to rethink its current policy.

Such movements have, however, occurred. The success of other nations with needle exchange programs - the reduction in HIV infection, and hepatitis - led the United States to at least be willing to evaluate needle exchange programs. The first needle exchange program began in the Netherlands in 1984, and in Europe, many needle exchange programs were organized early in the AIDS epidemic (McCoy and Inciardi, 1995). Evaluations of these programs show promising reductions in HIV infection. As a result, several needle exchange programs were initiated in this country under local auspices and with the implicit understanding that enforcement authorities would not intervene in such programs. Federal law prevented (and still prevents) the federal funding of needle exchange programs. From a research perspective, however, the exchange programs can be evaluated using Federal monies with a view to ascertaining their degree of success or failure. To date, needle exchange programs in the U.S. have been deemed effective and it is conceivable that a shift in Federal policy could occur in the not too distant future, a shift that would allow the Federal funding of needle exchange programs. Realistically, it is not likely that marijuana tolerance will enjoy the same degree of success. The issues of the young using marijuana, the potential health consequences, the movement towards fitness and health, the conservative mood of the nation - all argue that marijuana tolerance is not likely to occur in the foreseeable future.

The impact of cannabis policy in the United States

What has been the impact of cannabis policy in the United States? There is no clearcut answer, and one needs to take a variety of information into account to try and address this issue. The bottom line is that any relationship between policy and prevalence is unclear. A number of factors are relevant in an individual's choice to use any particular drug, and individuals may not be able to understand the complexity of these influences nor clearly articulate why they use a certain drug.

Perhaps one crucial issue to address is whether the U.S. policy of suppression of cannabis use by increasing sanctions and penalties has served to reduce use. The arrest rates for marijuana law violations were fairly stable between 1973 and 1985. Over the same period, prevalence increased steadily through the 1970s, starting a deep downward trend in the late 1970s. The decrease started before the so called 'drug war' began and cannot be clearly linked to changes in enforcement policies.

Additional information on the relationship between drug use and social policy may be gleaned from changes in marijuana use in the 11 states in which it was decriminalized between 1973 and 1978 [Oregon, Colorado, Alaska, Ohio, California, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, New York and Nebraska (Slaughter, 1988)]. Although sales remained a criminal offense, decriminalization reduced the sanctions associated with marijuana possession (an ounce or less) to a $100 civil fine (Inciardi, 1981). Studies were conducted in Oregon (Drug Abuse Council, 1977), California (California Health and Welfare Agency, 1977), and Maine (State of Maine, 1979) within a few years of decriminalization. Unfortunately, baseline information was not available in these states, and the studies basically provide only crude impact measures. The studies were also conducted at a time when marijuana use was increasing among the general population of the U.S. Nevertheless, the studies detected little increase in use following decriminalization. The most frequently cited reasons for non-use by respondents was 'not interested,' cited by about 80% of non-users. Only 4% of adults indicated fear of arrest and prosecution or unavailability as factors preventing use (Maloff, 1981).

In an analysis of four administrations of the Household Survey (1972, National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse; 1974, 1976, 1977, National Institute on Drug Abuse), Saveland and Bray (1981) concluded that the increases in marijuana use were most rapid in those states maintaining severe penalties against possession of marijuana. Changing penalties appeared to have no noticeable impact on the prevalence of marijuana use (Saveland and Bray, 1981).

A supplement to the Monitoring the Future study looked at the rates of marijuana use among 17-18 year old high school students and young adults in their early 20s between 1975 and 1980, in ten of the eleven states that decriminalized marijuana. (Alaska is not included in the study.) The investigators concluded that decriminalization had virtually no effect either on marijuana use or on related attitudes and beliefs about marijuana use (Johnston et al., 1981). More recent research on adolescent marijuana use in Alaska, which had the most liberal marijuana laws in the US until they were repealed in 1991, concluded that while adolescents showed higher rates of lifetime and annual use of marijuana than their peers in the coterminous United States, they had lower rates of daily use (Trebach, 1987; Slaughter, 1988).

Granted, these examples of changes in drug policy - i.e., marijuana decriminalization and the increasing propensity of arrest, prosecution, and sanctions in the criminal justice system - may not be radical enough departures from general social policy to really gauge the effects of drug use under conditions of differing social policies. However, in general, the evidence at hand is that within the U.S., variations in criminal sanctions have not impacted significantly on rates of marijuana use.

So...what does? The only real evidence is that previously mentioned from the Monitoring the Future Survey in which changes in the perceived risks of marijuana preceded changes in prevalence rates. Therefore, raising consciousness about the health risks associated with marijuana use should lead to decreases in marijuana use. If we can find ways to increase concerns about health risks that are salient to the most 'at risk' populations - particularly youth - we can hopefully reduce the overall prevalence of cannabis use. One interesting point about youthful drug use is that although tobacco use continues to decrease among the adult population in the U.S., it has largely been stable among youth aged 18 and younger since the early 1980s. The health messages about the harms of cigarette smoking are not salient to young people, or perhaps they are not as vigorous as the targeted marketing strategies used by the tobacco industry. This information could be instructive in devising strategies to reach youth about the harms associated with marijuana use.


  1. In the U.S., the vast majority of cannabis use is marijuana and not hashish. The terms marijuana and cannabis are used interchangeably in this report.
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