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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. 268-272.
© Copyright 1995, 1996 Centrum voor Drugsonderzoek, Universiteit van Amsterdam. All rights reserved.

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10  Public opinion


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

It is important to realize that facts and data per se have little to do with drug policy or cannabis policy. It appears that the simple truth is 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, have little to do with winning or losing the forum of public opinion. A survey of Area Opinion Leaders conducted in 1991 by NIDA in the Washington, DC area, attempted to determine how policy makers make drug policy (see NIDA, 1993). The study obtained the opinion of approximately 162 individuals who influenced policy decisions and directly or indirectly, addressed the illicit drug problem. Initial respondents were selected, and snowball sampling with some random selection was employed to select the sample of the study.

The opinion leaders were asked to name and assess the accuracy of their sources of information on illicit drugs. Most opinion leaders mentioned more than one source of information, with the most common being direct contact with drugs users or drug programs (86%), followed by the media (82%), and research on drug use (78%). A variety of other sources were mentioned to a lesser extent. When asked to assess the accuracy of information from the 3 sources, 53% of opinion leaders perceived their direct contacts with drug users or drug programs as very accurate, compared to research which was seen as very accurate by 30%. The media was seen as the least accurate source of information with only 6% saying it was very accurate, although 72% said the media was a somewhat accurate source of information.

Of the opinion leaders who reported having used research, about a third (36%) said it was very helpful, and 57% said it was somewhat helpful. The most frequent criticisms were that research failed to ask the right questions to achieve useful results (50%), and that research too often focuses on inappropriate populations (i.e., the general population who are not typically drug users) (49%). An estimated 41% said research is typically biased in its approach, 39% said it presents contradictory results, and 39% said it rarely yields useful recommendations.

The opinion leaders expressed a need for greater practical utility and applicability of research results. Nearly two in five opinion leaders criticized research for failing to make recommendations. They also expressed concern that hidden or hard-to-reach populations who are the most likely to use drugs, are the least often studied. Obviously, there is a need for greater collaboration between the research and policy making communities in the U.S. Researchers need to think about the policy relevance of their research studies. Policy makers need to make their needs for particular types of information known to the research community and funding agencies. Improving communication would go a long ways towards improving the policy relevance of research, and providing more effective drug policy based on proven research results.

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 Marijuana Tax Act. Today, it is more powerful than ever. Every story with an emotional appeal makes the news. The connection between drugs and crime is constantly emphasized. Seizures, interdictions, shootouts - all aspects of supply reduction -are deemed newsworthy. Sadly, 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 MTF and Household surveys which showed declining rates of drug usage throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s gets 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 the public perceives that 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 will 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 shape opinion and therefore 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. 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 MTF survey shows health concerns are correlated with drug use. 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 of harm' 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. Further, 17-18 year old students continue to express their disapproval of people (who are 18 or older) even trying marijuana. In 1994, some 57.6% disapproved of trying marijuana once or twice, 68.9% disapproved of smoking marijuana occasionally and 82.3% disapproved of smoking marijuana regularly.

    These data raise two points. Perceived harm and risk in MTF 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 MTF 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). It is thus totally possible to have predicted the rise in marijuana prevalence among school students 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 MTF 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, as already cited, 17-18 year old students generally express their disapproval of individuals who use marijuana. The 1993 Household Survey found that a third of the 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 even 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 and domestic cultivation of marijuana began in ernest. However, in so far as high school 17-18 year old 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 also 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 the 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 and 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, NORML included, that has the resources and spokespeople to oppose this anti-drug sentiment.

  5. Another public opinion driver that bodes ill for any movement towards decriminalization of marijuana is the anti-smoking movement. 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 naturally encompasses the use of marijuana.

While it is difficult to measure the social costs associated with marijuana, it seems reasonable to infer that there are some. Marijuana use is implicated in crime, emergency room visits and deaths, treatment episodes, and workplace accidents and injuries. Although 'common wisdom' in the U.S. holds that it is the least harmful of the current illicit drugs, from a legal standpoint, it is treated much the same as the narcotic drugs. Public opinion does not support any real changes in marijuana policy in the U.S. The final equation (and be reminded it is public opinion that sets the equation) is that the costs outweigh the benefits.


BACHMAN, J.G., L.D. JOHNSTON, P.M. O'MALLEY, AND R.H. HUMPHREY. 1988. 'Explaining the recent decline in marijuana use: Differentiating the effects of perceived risks, disapproval, and general lifestyle factors.' Journal of Health and Social Behavior 29:92-112.

BACHMAN, J.G., L.D. JOHNSTON, AND P.M. O'MALLEY. 1990. 'Explaining the recent decline in cocaine use among adults: Further evidence that perceived risks and disapproval lead to reduced drug use.' Journal of Health and Social Behavior 31:173-184.

THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION. February 11, 1974, p. 8; February 1, 1984, p. 14; January 11, 1989, p. 33; January 30, 1992, p. 30; and January 13, 1994, pp. 30-31. 'Their Opinions, Activities and Goals.'

NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON DRUG ABUSE. 1993. Views of Area Opinion Leaders About Drug Abuse in the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Area: 1991. Rockville, MD: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, NIDA.

ROPER CENTER FOR PUBLIC OPINION RESEARCH AS CITED IN MAGUIRE AND PASTORE (EDS). 1994. Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1993. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, USGPO.

SLAUGHTER, JAMES A. 1988. 'Marijuana Prohibition in the United States: History and Analysis of a Failed Policy.' Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems 21(4), pp. 417-475.

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Last update: May 25, 2016