The Criminalization of Marijuana, the Persecution of its Users, and Ways to Remedy This Serious Societal Injustice
Marijuana has been criminalized in the United States since the 1930s (Goode, 1969). Before this, its use was criticized, much as the use of alcohol had been criticized in the decades leading up to Prohibition (Tracy and Acker, 2004). However, unlike alcohol, once marijuana use was made illegal, it stayed illegal, and continues to be so. While other Western, democratic nations in the world are now gradually moving toward decriminalization of marijuana within their borders, the United States remains woefully behind the times by stubbornly continuing to make marijuana illegal and by prosecuting individual users. There are many reasons why this is unjust, and those reasons are scientific and sound, yet the majority of the American public remains committed to perpetuating this injustice, as seen in the recent ballot initiatives in certain states to decriminalize marijuana that were struck down by voters in those states.
One of the arguments against marijuana use is that it is a “gateway drug”—a drug that, once used, paves the way to the use of harder, more insidious drugs. The reasoning is that a person who has used marijuana will feel more free and comfortable with trying increasingly harder drugs. The person may become addicted to the marijuana high and want to try to get even better highs with other drugs, or the person may simply have opened themselves to a new world of experimentation by the initial use of marijuana. In order to keep people from becoming slaves to more dangerous drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, it is necessary to make marijuana illegal. However, this reasoning is faulty. Scores of research studies have proven time and time again that marijuana does not, in fact, act as a gateway drug to harder drugs. (Kandel, 2002) Thos who use marijuana, studies have continually shown, tend to just stick with marijuana. There is absolutely no empirical evidence that using marijuana makes a person any more likely to try harder drugs in the future. Yet, the anti-marijuana lobby has been so successful at getting this “gateway drug” message out to the public, that the majority of Americans continue to believe the lie of the gateway drug story (Inciardi, 1990). This is one reason why American society has remained solidly against marijuana being decriminalized in this country.
Another reason why public opinion has remained against marijuana use is the myth that marijuana is addictive. Of course, with the highly addictive drugs like cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, and crystal methamphetamine, the addictive urge for more of these drugs is so strong that the addict will often go to great lengths to obtain more of the drug (or money to obtain more of the drug). Such strong addictions can often lead to the addict committing heinous crimes such as robbery, assault, rape, and murder in order to get more of the drugs they crave. Violence stemming from drug deals gone bad are also a problem for communities. When people believe that marijuana is addictive, they do, of course, become concerned that marijuana addicts will roam the streets, committing all sorts of crimes in order to get more marijuana. However, scientific studies have shown time and time again that marijuana is not addictive. The THC that is the active chemical component of marijuana–the part that induces the marijuana high–has no addictive properties. There is nothing in marijuana’s chemical composition that will induce a physical addiction to it. It quite simply does not and will not happen. The most that may happen with marijuana use is a psychological addiction, and that is easily overcome with self-will (Earleywine, 2002). If fact, marijuana is chemically far less addictive than cigarettes or alcohol, and yet those two drugs are still legal in the United States.
Finally, the American public is largely against the use of marijuana in this country because Puritanical values still have a strong foothold in this country, even nearly 400 years after the heyday of the Puritans on these shores. The United States was, of course, largely founded by religious fanatics come from England–the Puritans. The Puritans were too strict and rigid in their beliefs for even the heavy-handed Anglican Church in England to bear, so they came to North America to found their own colony. Their beliefs spoke against any kind of self-indulgence, any kind of real pleasure as being too decadent and worldly for them. A straight, simple life was all they believed God wanted them to have, and even wearing colors that were too bright was off-limits. For someone to go out and get high was unthinkable in their religion. It was not seemly and would not do. These values have continued to permeate American society since its founding, and has made the United States into one of the most socially conservative, backward, and rigid democratic nations in the world.
One of the most tragic and unjust consequences of the illegality of marijuana is the prosecution against its users. This is where the real injustice of the illegality of marijuana lies. The majority of the people who get arrested and who are doing time in jail today are individual users of marijuana (Isralowitz and Telias, 1998). These are the unlucky people who have gotten caught by the police with marijuana in their possession. Of course, marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in America, so it is understandable why so many people get caught with marijuana. These are regular people who usually have no prior police records, who live average, normal lives, go to school, work, have families and are generally good, upstanding citizens who cause no trouble and who are often involved in their communities (Maccoun and Reuter, 2001). They just happen to enjoy a marijuana cigarette every now and then, just as many people enjoy a tobacco cigarette or a martini every now and then. Yet, these individual marijuana users, who use primarily within the confines of their own homes and who do not sell it or give it to anyone else, often find themselves heavily fined and even jailed (sometimes for years at a time) due to their simple, private use of a simple drug, in what is essentially a victimless crime, where they are hurting no one–not even themselves.
The criminalization of marijuana and the prosecution and imprisonment of private, individual users has had a profound negative impact on American society. It has disrupted lives, ruined careers, and torn families apart, all for nothing. The physical effects of marijuana use are similar to alcohol use, and no more harmful than cigarette use (in fact, some studies suggest marijuana use may be LESS harmful than cigarette use) (Weisheit, 1992). While people certainly shouldn’t smoke marijuana and then go out and drive, they can safely use it at home, much as they would drink at home, and it hurts no one. To actively investigate, hunt down, and imprison private users with the vehemence that the American government does and the American public condones is simply unconscionable.
The question of whether or not victimless crimes should be prosecuted has long plagued American society. While there are some forward-thinking individuals who see the fallacy and lunacy inherent in sending someone to jail for something that affects no one but themselves, sadly, the majority of the American public seems to think that it is perfectly acceptable to send someone to jail for this reason. This attitude can be seen in the swath of restrictive laws on the books in many states that are aimed at curbing and influencing personal behavior within the confines of the home. While most of these laws are not enforced–and really, how can they be, as how can the police know everything that goes on behind closed doors?–the mere fact that they exist is stunning proof of the belief of the American public in the government’s right to control private, personal behavior. This belief goes back to the days of the Puritans at the founding of this country; every aspect of a person’s behavior was subject to control by not only the government, but also by the church in those days. Working on a Sunday (even cooking or carrying a bunch of twigs) was prohibited, as was swearing and wearing clothing that was too fashionable or too bright.
Laws on the books in some states today make similar demands on the personal behavior of the public. A lot of these laws involve sexuality, such as making only the missionary position legal (Florida), prohibiting a man with a moustache from kissing a woman (Montana), and prohibiting co-habitation outside of marriage (Virginia). In one of the rare instances of a law such as this being enforced, a married couple in Georgia were arrested for having oral sex with one another in their own home, this being an illegal activity in Georgia (a policeman just happened to be searching for a burglar in their neighborhood and walked by the couple’s open bedroom window). This couple’s arrest and subsequent fines were upheld in the Georgia supreme court, because the court ruled that the state of Georgia had a valid interest in controlling the moral behavior of its citizens. This very attitude is what still prevails among most of the American public and in the American government, as well. It is believed that the government has a right to dictate the personal behavior of each individual, even behind closed doors and when no one else is involved. This is referred to as community standards….there are standards of behavior that each community demands of its citizens, and the government will see to it that these standards are enforced. Even if what you are doing is behind closed doors, the fact that you are doing it violates community standards and should be punished–at least, that is the current, prevailing opinion.
What can be done to change the tolerance and support of the American public for this grave injustice? That is difficult to determine, as the attitudes that allow for community standards to be enforceable even in someone’s private home are strong and deeply entrenched in American society. To undo these attitudes would take decades of pushing toward a gradual shift in American thinking. We could certainly take a page from the many European countries that have embraced the concept of personal freedom behind closed doors (and even in public, in some instances). It would really take several presidential and Congressional administrations-worth of government officials who supported this change in thinking to slowly implement re-education initiatives designed to alter the prevailing, Puritanical attitudes in this country.
Also of benefit would be strong re-education campaigns involving marijuana. While the public is now bombarded with anti-marijuana messages, many of which contain profound factual errors, if this were to change so that the public is informed of the fact that marijuana is not addictive and not a gateway drug, and if this information is backed up by scientific studies, then the likelihood of the public embracing the decriminalization of marijuana will drastically increase. When these things are complete–a change in thinking regarding community standards being applied behind closed doors and better information regarding marijuana becoming available, then this awful social injustice may finally come to be rejected by the American public, as it has needed to be for so long.
Earleywine, Mitch. (2002). Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence. London: Oxford University Press.
Goode, Erich. (1969). Marijuana. New York: Atherton Press.
Inciardi, James A. (1990). Handbook of Drug Control in the United States. New York: Greenwood Press.
Isralowitz, Richard E. and Telias, Darwin. (1998). Drug Use, Policy, and Management. New York: Praeger Publishers.
Kandel, Denise B. (2002). Stages and Pathways of Drug Involvement: Examining the Gateway Hypothesis. Boston: Cambridge University Press.
Maccoun, Robert J. and Reuter, Peter. (2001). Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, and Places. Boston: Cambridge University Press.
Tracy, Sarah W. and Acker, Caroline Jean. (2004). Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.
Weisheit, Ralph A. (1992). Domestic Marijuana: A Neglected Industry. New York: Greenwood Press.