Thoughts on the criminalization of marijuana


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 27 April 2003 Updated: __

These are my personal opinions, as usual.

Let me say right away that in my past, I have used marijuana. The context in which this occurred is my own business, but my last use of this drug was decades ago. I gave it up and have never relapsed into using it again. Nor do I feel any desire to do so. Hence, the following is not motivated by any personal wish to use marijuana, now or in the future. In fact, as a consequence of my own experience, I really want to discourage its use by anyone else.

Anyone wishing to debate this topic can contact me at

1. Introduction

At the time I was using marijuana, I was rebelling against authority and its use right under the noses of that authority was a way for me to pursue that rebellion. Once my situation had changed, I found that using marijuana was inconsistent with my life and career goals.

During this period of my life, I was a late arrival into the "counterculture" of the 1960s. I missed most of that experience because I was seriously involved in my education toward my career goals. Only late in the 1960s and into the early 1970s did I begin the use marijuana. In doing so, I realized that a lot of what I had heard about it was bad information. I then was given new "information" from the "potheads" of that era. Much of that information turned out to be bad, as well.

I continued to use the drug, heavily at times, for several years, but by the mid-1970s, I began to experience several things: a growing fear of being "busted," a continuing lassitude that interfered with my educational goals, and some "bad vibes" coming from my continuing recreational use of the drug. I decided that whatever I was getting from it wasn't worth it, and I mostly quit. I used it at increasingly rare intervals - I don't recall exactly when my last use was, but I think it was in the late 1970s.


2. Some selected historical observations

While I using marijuana regularly, I began to read about it. I discovered the "doper" version of the history of the criminalization of marijuana, which emphasized the almost hysterical nature of the campaign begun by Harry Anslinger, former head of the U.S. commission on narcotics.

Among other things, it was said then that those who are habitual users of the drug eventually develop a delirious rage after its administration, during which they are temporarily, at least, irresponsible and prone to commit violent crimes.

To those of us lying about listening to our music in a very relaxed state after smoking marijuana, the utterly ridiculous nature of these claims struck us as hilarious. As hours passed in near-immobility, we would chuckle to ourselves about how violent we'd become.

At the time, I couldn't imagine how anyone could make such patently absurd statements about marijuana users. Only much later did I reflect on the fact that marijuana was a poor person's recreational drug. No complicated fermenting and distilling needed - just strip the leaves off a common weed and smoke them. Its use was unheard of in white, middle-class America, at least where I grew up. Users were mostly poor Hispanics and African-Americans. I believe the campaign against marijuana was based on lies and mostly driven by racist fears that innocent young white kids would be corrupted by the degenerate underclasses. Otherwise, the stridency of Anslinger's campaign against marijuana makes no sense. Irrespective of its logic, the campaign worked. Marijuana use and possession were criminalized successfully in 1937 through the passage of a tax act. Presumably, the point of this was to prevent the spread of marijuana into the white middle class, especially youth.

Apparently, this worked for a time. As suggested above, when I was in high school (1959-1963), the most illicit thing we could imagine was to get a bottle of whiskey. Smoking marijuana was something I'd never heard of, much less imagined doing.

As noted, once I was introduced to "pot" I began to see the lack of logic in the criminalization of marijuana. In the youth counterculture of the 1960s, marijuana was held to be "harmless" and its prohibition the result of our hypocritical parents. Drugs of all kinds were (and are still) being used in American society: "mother's little helper" (valium - I've actually met Dr. Sternbach, its inventor!), cigarettes (nicotine), tea and coffee (caffeine), alcohol in many forms, diet pills (amphetamines -"speed"), pain-killers (aspirin and acetominophin), etc., etc. Why pick out a particular set of drugs to ban, while allowing open use of the others? Marijuana was claimed by the counterculture to be free of negative side effects or health risks and many comparisons were made to the health hazards and devastation caused by both cigarettes and alcohol. We marijuana users were simply being discriminated against. This view prevails today in the "drug culture" - see here Whatever my personal, negative feelings about marijuana use might be, the hypocrisy associated with the criminalization of marijuana is still very apparent.

I also experienced first-hand the sense of community the dopers had. It was an "us versus them" mentality, with "us" being the "heads" and "them" being the "boozers". It was clear to us that that being a "head" was cool, and being a "boozer" was uncool ("If you're not "a head", you're behind!). There was this sense of solidarity and trust associated with being part of the counterculture. As we all eventually discovered by the end of the 1960s, this was a naïve illusion.

Remember the Steppenwolf song about "The Pusher"? In that song, a "dealer" was someone who sold pot (the love grass), while a pusher sold heroin, a different matter altogether. Dealers were cool and pushers were evil in the counterculture. However, it turned out that the logic of selling illicit drugs means that dealers and pushers are often one and the same person!

In my naïve trust of all facets of the drug culture, I paid $10 for a bag of dandelions from my "dealer" ' once. The dealer let me sample the stuff (but not from the bag he sold me!), which was real marijuana. That got me stoned, and I accepted the bag of dandelions without any further concern, until I got home and came down from the high. It then began to dawn on me that "dealers" were not sainted members of the counterculture. They were simply out to make money by selling drugs (even fake drugs) to others. This same guy had offered me harder stuff several times, but I refused. If you decide to sell illegal drugs, why limit yourself to marijuana? Selling drugs is a felony crime, no matter what you sell. The so-called "hard" drugs (heroin and other morphine derivatives, cocaine and crack, methamphetamines) are almost surely better money-makers for drug dealers than manjuana. They involve serious physical addiction - a nearly guaranteed customer so long as s/he lives that will do most anything for drugs. Even in my naivete, I could see that this was not a good thing. Drugs eventually destroyed the potheads and "hippies" of the 1960s counterculture. They would have killed me too, if I'd let them.

In response to the absurd anti-marijuana campaign of Harry Anslinger, marijuana users began a campaign of their own, intended first to debunk the misinformation propagated by Anslinger and those who followed him. While I was using marijuana, I tended to accept this counter-campaign rather uncritically. Today, I'm much less inclined to accept that marijuana is "harmless" - my own experience suggests otherwise.


3. Is marijuana harmless?

The short answer to this is virtually certain to be "No!" Virtually anything we consume has the potential for harm, especially when consumed in excess. To say that a psychoactive drug like marijuana is "harmless" is to fly in the face of all logic. Anything that affects our brain is virtually certain to have negative side effects to an extent that might vary from one individual to another. Any substance that is smoked is virtually certain to be carcinogenic and bad for the respiratory system. We don't cough when inhaling smoke for no reason - the body reacts negatively to smoke and in order to ingest drugs by smoking them, we must force our bodies to accept something they instinctively reject. I believe there's a lesson there.

What about all the "myths" that have been propogated about marijuana? It might well be the case that many of them are indeed myths. But it strikes me as absurdly naïve to believe that using marijuana, a psychoactive drug, is without any negative side effects. My personal experience says that:

  1. smoking in any form is unhealthy,
  2. a demotivation is indeed associated with marijuana use,
  3. it does tend to make one paranoid,
  4. it does create hazards when doing some task that requires attention (like driving), and
  5. the symptoms associated with my use of the drug ceased when I quit using it.

I'm not a medical doctor and I'm not familiar with the medical literature on the subject, but as a scientist I know that you can always find quotes in the scientific literature that are, in fact, contrary to the broad consensus in the scientific community. I don't trust the pronouncements of a "clean bill of health" for marijuana coming from organizations that have decriminalization as their agenda. This has the same credibility in my mind as Anslinger's campaign of negative, exaggerated propaganda against marijuana, or the pronouncements by the cigarette companies that tobacco had no connection to cancer. Marijuana may be nowhere near as dangerous as some drugs, but it almost certainly is more so than, say, caffeine.


4. Medical uses for marijuana?

The advocates for decriminalization of marijuana have lately been pursuing medical uses for marijuana as a vehicle for decriminalization. There is some evidence that marijuana is useful in treating glaucoma, in reducing pain, and mitigating nausea during chemotherapy treatment.

It seems to me that a lot of this is a "smokescreen" (pun intended) for the decriminalization of marijuana, rather than being driven by compelling reasons for medical treatment with the drug. There may well be valid medical uses, but it also seems to me that all of these purported medical benefits have alternative treatments that would be as effective as marijuana, without the high. I know of no medical use wherein marijuana is the sole alternative, although I hardly can be said to be familiar with the medical literature, as already noted.

To the extent that the medical profession is willing to embrace medical uses of marijuana, I am certainly in no position to gainsay their recommendations. However, it seems to me that plausible medical uses for marijuana are pretty limited. If promoting medical uses is one facet in a decriminalization effort, I support it, but I don't believe medical uses for marijuana are themselves important enough to be a cornerstone of the effort.


5. Did criminalization work?

In spite of the 1937 tax act that effectively criminalized marijuana use, the use of the drug did eventually spread deeply into white, middle-class America. In the face of stiff fines and possible jail sentences for felony convictions, the marijuana laws have been flouted for decades, virtually as openly as the prohibition of alcohol was decades ago.

It is pretty clear that alcohol prohibition was a failure, although the consumption of alcohol did in fact decline, at least during the first years of the Prohibition era (1920-1933). Prohibition was a case where some people felt obligated to legislate behavior of others, primarily on a moral basis. The consumption of alcohol - a drug that is certainly at least as dangerous as marijuana and, arguably, has been responsible for considerably more crime and destroyed lives than marijuana - has a long history in white, middle-class America and so its prohibition was doomed to eventual failure.

Superficially, marijuana prohibition would seem more likely to be successful than alcohol prohibition, since it was not deeply ingrained in white, middle-class America. And yet, marijuana prohibition has not worked. Instead, the outcome has been indistinguishable from that of the prohibition of alcohol. Forcing people to buy marijuana illegally has increased the cost of the drug and has forced marijuana users into direct and continuing contact with the illicit drug business (which I've already suggested is basically "diversified" well beyond marijuana), thereby putting them into circumstances promoting experimentation with other drugs that clearly are more dangerous than marijuana.

Advocates of maintaining felony penalties against marijuana use continue to use some clearly fallacious arguments:

a. The "gateway" argument

Marijuana, it is argued, is a "gateway" drug - its use is typically the first of the illicit drugs that someone uses. Using marijuana is simply a precursor to the eventual use of even more dangerous drugs like heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamines, as users seek ever greater "highs" from their drugs.

It's my firm belief that this argument is outright balderdash. It confuses association with cause and effect. By similar logic, it can be argued that pickles are a "gateway" to crime, because virtually every criminal has, at one time or another, eaten a pickle. The absurdity of this argument is clear in the case of connecting pickles with crime. In my experience, I had no wish to use hard drugs and never felt any desire to move up the chain from marijuana. But I did have many offers to do so from the dope dealers I was forced to seek out. It wasn't hard to imagine the lure of an even greater high.

If liquor stores also offered heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines, you would find that alcohol would be just as much a "gateway" drug as marijuana.

b. The "bad message" argument

It is said that if we reduce or eliminate the felony penalties for marijuana use, we would be "sending a message" that we condone the use of marijuana.

The fact is that not very many marijuana users are listening to the message that felony penalties offer. Otherwise, marijuana use wouldn't be as widespread as it is. The severity of the penalties for crime has never been much of a deterrent to crime. It's well-recognized that when picking pockets was a hanging offense, pickpockets still worked the crowd at public hangings! What we're doing with felony penalties for marijuana use is sending a message, all right, but it's not a message that should be sent: our marijuana laws are grossly inappropriate. Most marijuana users are hurting themselves at most - elminate marijuana use as a crime and the amount of crime associated with marijuana would drop precipitously.

c. Protecting our youth

It's said that the "message" of most importance is to our youth. We need to make sure that our gullible youth are not persuaded by decriminalization that marijuana is perfectly acceptable. Hence, we need to maintain a tough stance against its use.

Young people are constantly being thought of as stupid and gullible. Yes, their lack of experience does make them vulnerable, but I think we hurt our ability to communicate effectively with young people by being patronizing and hypocritical. We adults indulge in many drugs on a nearly daily basis: caffeine, nicotine (one of the most addictive drugs in the pharmacopoeia), alcohol, pain-killers, antihistamines, various prescription drugs, etc., etc. Saying to our young people that drugs are bad is hypocritical and contrary to our own actions. And if we exaggerate or misrepresent the perils of illicit drugs, we lose credibility. Treating young people as if they're stupid is counterproductive, as well. Tough penalties on marijuana use simply alienate young people, without convincing them that drug abuse is dangerous. It damages our credibility in other matters, as well.


6. Why do we have a drug problem in the U.S.?

Drug dependence, whether it's actual physical addiction or psychological dependence, is the real source of our drug problem, irrespective of which drug we're discussing. Our "war" on drugs has failed because it's predicated on the assumption that all we have to do is choke off the supply of illegal drugs and addicts will heal themselves. It seeks to reduce the motivation on the part of users to abuse drugs by making them into criminals! All we're doing, in reality, with our war on drugs is creating job vacancies in the drug business (instantly filled!) and destroying the lives of drug users (especially, marijuana users) needlessly. There's way too much money to be made by drug dealers (and organized crime is an eager participant in the process) for those vacancies to be unfilled. Of course, there's a huge vested interest on the part of law enforcement to maintain the stiff penalties on marijuana use - they can increase their budgets if they can convince us of the validity of this "war". The big investments in the "war" provide them with purpose and job security.

Even if we could somehow win the war on drugs, and reduce its availability to zero, we simply would increase the abuse of legal drugs (notably, alcohol). People use drugs for a reason, even if we don't understand or agree upon what that reason might be. There probably are many reasons, actually. If we deny users a particular drug, it's likely they'll simply turn to some other drug as a substitute.

If we could eliminate abuse of alcohol without reintroducing prohibition, we'd do ourselves a lot of good. But few people believe that the legal producers and distributors of alcoholic beverages are criminals - instead, we tax the production and consumption of alcohol and prosecute only its abuses (including public drunkeness and drunk driving). No one is suggesting we initiate a "war" on brewers, vinyards, distillers, and alcohol distributors to solve our alcohol problem! Everyone realizes that punishing alcoholics for their abuse is not solving the issue of their alcoholism.

The issues we need to address regarding marijuana are identical to the issues associated with alcohol. Why do some people feel such a strong need to abuse drugs, be it alcohol or marijuana? I'm in no position to answer this, except perhaps from a personal perspective. For young people, experimentation with drugs (including alcohol and marijuana) is common, sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes because it's "forbidden fruit" and therefore interesting. Most people (young or not-so-young) don't become alcoholics or develop psychological dependence on marijuana - but some do. For such people, any use of any drug is dangerous - they just seem to be prone to "addiction." I don't know to what extent this is genetic, a result of their upbringing, or whatever. But it seems to me that if we want to eliminate drug abuse, we need to understand what makes drug use so "addictive," even when true physical addiction is not involved, and seek to develop methods based on a proper understanding of what makes some people into drug abusers.

For many people, alcohol and marijuana are recreational drugs. They don't necessarily abuse them and, in the case of alcohol, society seems willing to accept consumption in moderation without suggesting that the users are depraved criminals.. Drug dependence is not a crime, it's a physical and mental health problem. Most people agree that this is so regarding alcohol, but this recognition ought to be equally valid for marijuana.

The use of "hard" drugs (heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, etc.), and serous hallucinogens (LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, peyote, etc.), as well as "designer" drugs (PCP, halcyon, etc.) is indisputably dangerous. These drugs either have physically addictive properties, or are much more directly associated with the potential for inducing self-destructive and even violent behavior. Of course, the use of these drugs is also basically a social and mental health problem, rather than inherently criminal. Sadly, criminalization of the use of these drugs has also not worked, either, although the case in favor of it is marginally better than the case for criminalization of marijuana. We cannot expect to win the "war" against hard drugs, either. We must develop a plan for combating drug abuse at the level of the user, but should not make a criminal out of the user in the process. Actions taken against producers and distributors of illegal drugs don't work well simply because such crime is extremely profitable. Take one "drug kingpin" down and there are many ready to take over that role. If we reduce the demand for the product, the source for profits dries up and they'll seek other means to make a profit.


7. Marijuana and crime argument

It has been said that marijuana use leads to violence. At the very least, marijuana use is said to encourage crime to support a drug habit.

Unlike hard drug users, there is very little association between marijuana use and crime (ignoring prosecutions for marijuana use, of course) - violent crime, in particular. Even non-violent crime (robbery) to support a "marijuana habit" is rare . Note that marijuana is not physically addictive although it certainly can be associated with psychological dependence and overuse.

We tolerate the pain and heartache caused by alcohol without anyone being prosecuted as a felon for alcohol consumption, per se. Why should someone smoking a joint have his or her life destroyed with a felony prosecution and conviction? The message is that we are legislatiing morality, a notoriously dangerous thing to do.

Lest you believe otherwise, consider that the logical conclusion of legislating morality is a religious state, like Iran - the consequences of this are repression and degradation of its people. This is inconsistent with the Constitutional separation of church and state in America, even as the religious right continues to attack that separation. Curiously, the religious right has more in common with Islamist extremists than with the values that have made America the great nation that it is. The religious right is also firmly behind continuing to prosecute marijuana users with felony statutes. As usual, this inconsistency doesn't deter the vigor of their opposition to decriminalization of marijuana. I wonder to what extent the origins of this are actually racist?

If we take away the criminal penalties for drug use, and instead choose to regulate its use and production as we now do with alcohol, then we can eliminate a great deal of the criminal empire that has arisen to support illegal drug use. They may well find other crimes to pursue, of course.


8. So what about decriminalization?

An important lesson from alcohol prohibition should have been learned, but apparently has not been: criminalization of substance abuse does not work, and never will. Holland is a nation that has essentially decided to tolerate marijuana use. Marijuana and its derivative, hashish, are sold openly and consumed openly. Having recently been to Holland, I'm not pleased by what I've seen. Holland's railway stations are cesspools of drug abuse, prostitution, and thieves. Can this be attributed solely to their decriminalization of marijuana use? I don't think so. It seems to me that Holland is a small country isolated by its tolerance for marijuana consumption. It's likely that the illicit drug peddlers have gathered there because it's a relatively safe haven for them to ply their "trade". This has the inevitable consequences of concentrating the evil done by drug dealers. But it's also absurd to believe that decriminalization would, on its own, reduce the consumption of drugs.

Efforts to decriminalize marijuana, or to reduce the penalties for its use to misdemeanor status, are routinely being defeated, using most of the same old arguments I've described above. The state of Oklahoma recently defeated a measure to make marijuana use a misdemeanor. Perhaps the nation's current oscillation favoring the so-called "conservative" agenda of being "tough on crime" is at least partly responsible. We continue to spend billions fighting drug use, even as drug use continues virtually unabated.

I repeat that I'm not encouraging anyone to use marijuana - in fact, I want to discourage anyone from considering its use. But using marijuana is basically as close as we ever get to a crime with no victims, except those whose lives have been ruined by being tried and convicted of a what continues to be a felony crime. Decades of this have led inevitably to dangerous "street" drugs, enrichment of organized crime, and needless punishment for those users who are caught. I maintain it's time we give up the "experiment" of criminalizing marijuana, just as we had to give up the "experiment" of alcohol prohibition. It's wasting our financial resources, fighting a "war" we are no closer to winning than we were in the 1930s, when the fight to prevent the spread of marijuana use began.

Decriminalization by itself will not lead to a reduction in drug use - that much is pretty clear. It might well increase the consumption of marijuana! Marijuana is not a "harmless" drug, but it's no more problematic than alcohol, a drug that is openly used (and abused). The resources that now go into a losing battle with drug use in the U.S. should be redirected into studies aimed at learning how to reduce the root causes for drug abuse. If we're to produce a real reduction in drug abuse in the U.S. (with respect to all drugs, not just marijuana!), the policies we as a nation pursue should be based on information produced by careful scientific study and on techniques that actually have been shown to work. Decriminalization of marijuana use should be combined wtih a serious program to get at the roots of the problem posed by drug abuse!