Cannabis prohibition at the federal level in
the United States began with passage of the Marihuana [sic]
Tax Act of 1937. Some forty years passed before some members
of Congress attempted unsuccessfully to decriminalize cannabis.
Also during the 1970s, eleven states officially "decriminalized"
simple possession of usually up to one ounce of marijuana.
In the 2006 election cycle initiatives to make marijuana offenses
the lowest priority for law enforcement passed in Missoula
County, MT; and Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and Santa Monica,
California. An initiative to legalize marijuana in the state
of Nevada failed by a 44 to 56 percent margin; a similar measure
lost by a greater margin in 2002 (39 to 61 percent) and organizers
are continuing their efforts.
Since 1969, governmental commissions as well as respected
NGOs in the US, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain have
endorsed at least decriminalizing marijuana. [See
It can certainly be argued that the case for regulating and
controlling marijuana, as opposed to ceding control of the
market to criminal organizations, has long been established.
Illicit drug problems in the United States— from crack
to methamphetamine to prescription drug abuse — have
only grown. Reform is now badly overdue. Cannabis prohibition
persists yet it does seem inevitable. How will national cannabis
prohibition finally be overturned?
Three Forms of Persuasion
The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that there are three
kinds of persuasion: "The first kind depends on the personal
character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience
into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent
proof, provided by the words of the speech itself." (1)
It will be helpful to examine drug reform advocacy through
Prohibition supporters have successfully positioned themselves
as being concerned about health, child welfare and public
safety. The unfair and untrue yet inevitable implication of
their positioning is that reformers must be on the opposite
side of these ideas. Opponents sometimes go so far as to impugn
the motives of reformers by claiming they want drugs legalized
just to be able to use them even though that is patently absurd.
The federally-sponsored Monitoring the Future project noted
that inhalants as well as alcohol and tobacco are almost universally
available (certainly for adults). They also reported in 2006
that "Marijuana is the most available illicit drug, with
85%–88% of the young adult age strata saying it would
be "fairly easy" or "very easy" to get.
Access generally decreases with age after age 26; but even
at age 45, 70% of respondents say they can get it fairly easily."
Marijuana users also have problems with public perception
if only because they break the law by using an illegal drug.
The challenge for reform is to overcome these negative perceptions
and establish the ethical nature of marijuana users as well
as reform advocates.
One approach of dealing with these issues is to bring marijuana
use into the mainstream by getting people who are basically
of the mainstream to "come out of the closet." The
organization Cannabis Consumers Campaign was created for that
very purpose. As they state on their website, "The goal
of the Cannabis Consumers Campaign is to create public policy
changes by: 1) dispelling the myths and negative stereotypes
that perpetuate marijuana prohibition and all its harsh consequences
and 2) providing a more positive and accurate image of adults
who consume cannabis. By coming out of the closet, we demonstrate
to the general public, the media, and our political leaders
that pot smokers are good, responsible, contributing members
of society who deserve equal status and treatment before the
law and in society as a whole." (3)
Another organization for reform which may have an even larger
impact in character terms is the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative.
According to its mission statement, "The purpose for
which this non-profit corporation is formed is to organize
people of faith to promote drug policy reform; i.e., moving
from prohibition laws toward reasonable and compassionate
drug regulation, education and treatment." (4) IDPI in
its way appeals to both the emotions of kindness and pity
to stir public compassion for drug users.
Frame of Mind
This sort of rhetorical approach typically involves an emotional
appeal. Prohibitionists have used this approach by exploiting
the public's fear of crime, anger at drug dealers, and pity
for drug addicts. Like with other open-ended wars, policymakers
warn against giving up the battle lest things become even
worse. Supporters of prohibition cast the law as necessary
to prevent drug abuse. Yet one would be hard-pressed to prove
that absolute prohibition has a significant impact on reducing
abuse, let alone use rates. Recall the earlier discussion
about arrests and the probability of any individual marijuana
user actually being arrested.
Specifically regarding young people, use, and availability,
the federally-sponsored Monitoring the Future survey of secondary
school students reports: "Most 12th graders felt that
they would be little affected personally by the legalization
of either the sale or the use of marijuana. Three fifths (60%)
of the respondents said that they would not use the drug even
if it were legal to buy and use, and another 17% indicated
they would use it about as often as they do now or less often.
Only 6.1% said they would use it more often than they do at
present while another 8.9% thought they would try it. (Eight
percent said they did not know how their behavior would be
affected if marijuana were legalized.)" (5)
The MTF also noted that "Overall, it is important to
note that supply reduction — that is, reducing the availability
of drugs — does not appear to have played as major a
role as many had assumed in three of the most important downturns
in illicit drug use that have occurred to date, namely, those
for marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy." (6)
The reform group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP)
in some senses presents an emotional appeal in favor of reform.
In its mission statement LEAP says that "The mission
of LEAP is to reduce the multitude of unintended harmful consequences
resulting from fighting the war on drugs and to lessen the
incidence of death, disease, crime, and addiction by ultimately
ending drug prohibition." (7) LEAP's speakers appeal
to public concerns over crime, drug addiction, and other harms.
LEAP's rapid growth — founded in 2002 by five police
officers LEAP now claims a membership of over 5,000 —
is evidence of their success.
The conclusions of the National Commission on Marihuana and
Drug Abuse in 1972 were based on facts and logical reasoning.
The US National Research Council's Analysis of Marijuana Policy
in 1982 also concluded that prohibition was the wrong approach.
A brief examination of current law enforcement data also reveals
the failure of marijuana prohibition.
In 2005 the FBI estimated that US law enforcement agencies
made a total of 14,094,186 arrests on all charges other than
simple traffic offenses. Of those, 786,545 (5.6% of the total)
were marijuana arrests, 696,074 (4.9% of the total) for simple
possession. That same year, law enforcement made 603,503 arrests
for all violent crimes and 1,609,327 arrests for all property
A basic measure of the success of law enforcement's efforts
is the clearance rate. According to the FBI, "In the
UCR Program, a law enforcement agency reports that an offense
is cleared by arrest, or solved for crime reporting purposes,
when all of the following three conditions have been met for
at least one person: Arrested. Charged with the commission
of the offense. Turned over to the court for prosecution (whether
following arrest, court summons, or police notice)."
They report that "Nationwide in 2005, 45.5 percent of
violent crimes and 16.3 percent of property crimes were cleared
by arrest or exceptional means. Of the violent crimes of murder
and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and
aggravated assault, murder had the highest percentage—62.1
percent—of offenses cleared." (9)
Clearance rates have been low for quite some time: the FBI
reported that in 1995 for example only 45 percent of violent
crimes and 18 percent of property crimes were cleared. In
that year, authorities made 15,119,800 arrests nationwide,
of which 796,250 were for violent crime and 2,128,600 were
for property crimes. (!0) It is also true that rates of criminal
victimization were higher ten years ago: The Department of
Justice reported that in 1995 there were 9,604,570 crimes
of violence in the US, a rate of 44.5 per 1,000 persons or
households, and 28,482,360 property crimes, a rate of 279.5
per 1,000 persons or households. By 2005, there were only
an estimated 5,173,720 violent crimes, a rate of 21.2 per
1,000 persons or households, and 18,039,930 property crimes,
a rate of 154.0 per 1,000 persons or households. (11)
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
estimated in its 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health
that 14,626,000 Americans over the age of 12 had used marijuana
within the 30 days prior to the survey (past month users).
There were 25,375,000 Americans aged 12 and over who admitted
to using in the past year. The NSDUH figures are widely believed
to under-estimate the true total. The nearly 700,000 arrests
that year for marijuana possession quite an significant number
especially if one considers how often a regular or monthly
user technically commits the crime of possession during a
year. The chance of any particular marijuana user being arrested
is extremely slim. Even if a possession arrest did occur users
in many states are unlikely to face jail. Even the White House
Office of National Drug Control Policy asserted in 2005 that
"there's very little chance that anyone in this country,
particularly a first-time offender, will be sent to prison
for merely puffing a "joint.""(12)
It is simply foolish to continue pouring limited resources
into a law enforcement-focused strategy when other approaches
could have a real impact on reducing drug use. Among young
people for example, a report by the U.S. Center on Substance
Abuse Prevention found that alternatives programming which
provides targeted populations with activities that are free
of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs is particularly effective
among those youth at greatest risk for substance abuse and
related problems. (13)
The European Union's European Monitoring Centre on Drugs
and Drug Addiction further noted that "The profiles of
young cannabis users, at least in the early stages of consumption,
do not differ from those of young alcohol or tobacco users.
This supports the idea that universal prevention for young
people should not focus on cannabis alone, but should be aimed
at preventing use of alcohol and tobacco too." (14)
Activists and advocates will have to carry the message of
reform to the broader masses as well as to policymakers using
all three rhetorical approaches as appropriate. National organizations
such as the Drug Policy Alliance, the National Organization
for Reform of Marijuana Laws, the Marijuana Policy Project,
and others will have to educate the public about these issues
and promote discussion of alternatives including decriminalization
and regulation of marijuana. In addition these organizations
will have to both encourage their supporters to get involved
in the political process and encourage tacit political supporters
to speak out and take public positions in favor of reform.
This means supporting ballot measures and legislative moves
at the state and local level in support of marijuana legalization
and other reforms, such as setting marijuana offenses as the
lowest law enforcement priority. At the federal level lobbying
by organizations and constituents will be needed to pressure
lawmakers to halt federal interference in reforms at the state
and local levels as well as to enact change at the national
What will eventually spark a change in marijuana policy?
Arguments based on facts, appeals to the emotions, and the
character of those calling for repeal will all play a part.
The one certainty is that reform will require persistence.
Editors Note: Doug McVay is
the Director of Research for Common
Sense for Drug Policy and the editor of Drug War Facts.
1) Aristotle. Rhetoric. The Internet Classics Archive (Massachusetts
Institute of Technology) http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/rhetoric.1.i.html
(2) Johnston, L. D., O'Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., &
Schulenberg, J. E., Monitoring the Future. National Survey
Results On Drug Use, 1975–2005: Volume II, College Students
and Adults Ages 19–45 (NIH Publication No. 06-5884)
(Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse), August 2006,
p. 354. http://www.monitoringthefuture.org/new.html
(3) The Cannabis Consumers Campaign.
(4) The Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative. http://www.idpi.us/about_idpi/about_mission.htm
(5) Johnston, L. D., O'Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., &
Schulenberg, J. E., Monitoring the Future National Survey
Results On Drug Use, 1975–2005: Volume I, Secondary
School Students (NIH Publication No. 06-5883) (Bethesda, MD:
National Institute on Drug Abuse), August 2006, p. 354. http://www.monitoringthefuture.org/new.html
(6) Johnston, L. D., O'Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., &
Schulenberg, J. E., Monitoring The Future National Survey
Results On Drug Use, 1975–2005: Volume I, Secondary
School Students (NIH Publication No. 06-5883) (Bethesda, MD:
National Institute on Drug Abuse), August 2006, p. 407. http://www.monitoringthefuture.org/new.html
(7) Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. http://leap.cc/About/about.php
(8) Crime in America: FBI Uniform Crime Reports 2005. (Washington,
DC: US Dept. of Justice, 2006), Table 29. http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/05cius/data/table_29.html;
Arrest Table: Arrests for Drug Abuse Violations.
(9) Crime in America: FBI Uniform Crime Reports 2004 (Washington,
DC: US Government Printing Office, 2005), p. 263; http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius_04/.
Crime in America: FBI Uniform Crime Reports 2005 (Washington,
DC: US Dept. of Justice, 2006) http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/05cius/.
(10) FBI, UCR for the US 1995 (Washington, DC: US Government
Printing Office, 1996) http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/05cius/.
(11) US Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal
Victimization in the United States 1994 (A National Crime
Victimization Survey report: NCJ-162126), May 2000. www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/cvius94.pdf
; USDOJ, BJS, National Crime Victimization Survey, Criminal
Victimization, 2005 (NCJ-214644), Sept. 2006. www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/ascii/cv05.txt.
(12) "Who's Really in Prison for Marijuana?" White
House Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2005. http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/publications/whos_in_prison_for_marij/
(13) Maria Carmona and Kathryn Stewart, "A Review of
Alternative Activities and Alternatives Programs in Youth-Oriented
Prevention" (CSAP Technical Report 13), National Center
for the Advancement of Prevention, under contract for the
US Dept. of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and
Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Center for
Substance Abuse Prevention, 1996, pp. 3, 20. http://www.dmhas.state.ct.us/sig/pdf/CSAPTechReport13.pdf
(14) "Annual Report 2006: The State of the Drugs Problem
in Europe," European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and
Drug Addiction (Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications
of the European Communities, 2006), pp. 43–44. http://ar2006.emcdda.europa.eu/download/ar2006-en.pdf