What we know about marijuana -- so far (Fortune, 1971)

December 9, 2012: 9:30 AM ET

Editor's note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. This week, we turn to a feature from March 1971 on the physical effects and potential legalization of marijuana. On December 6, Washington became the first state in the U.S. to legalize recreational use of the drug for adults over 21 years old. Colorado will follow suit in January.

Amid swirling controversy over what to do about pot, scientists are beginning to learn how the famous weed really affects body and mind.1971-joint

By Edmund K. Faltermayer

FORTUNE -- To the straight world, marijuana has come to symbolize all the recent threats to traditional values. To the rebellious young
and their allies, it is a symbol of liberation--perhaps the symbol. Paranoia abounds on both sides, and those who change their views, in the words of one university faculty member who recently came out against pot, lay themselves open to "anger, vilification, and character assassination." Yet despite all the fervor, we have remarkably little solid knowledge about the effects of marijuana, which has now been tried by an estimated 20 million Americans. Says Robert B. Forney, a toxicologist at the Indiana University medical school who has been involved in marijuana research for eight years: "We don't know nearly as much about marijuana as we know about cyclamates or birth-control pills."

The lack of information is all the more troublesome because of the pressures upon government officials, legislators, and the public to decide whether restrictions on marijuana should be loosened. Fortunately, the knowledge situation has begun to improve. Thanks to research programs under way since the mid-1960's, mostly financed by the federal government, a good deal has been learned about marijuana's composition, its toxicity, and the ways in which a marijuana "high" affects physiological and mental processes. New findings are emerging rapidly as the investigation gathers momentum. About $3 million is being spent on research in the current fiscal year, with most of it financed by the National Institute of Mental Health and the rest by the Justice Department's Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

Already, the men who are doing the rigorous research largely agree on several points. As far as effects upon the user himself are concerned, there is a rough consensus that the "grass" generally available in the U.S. is fairly harmless to mature, healthy adults if smoked in moderation--one or two joints (cigarettes) a week. On the other hand, marijuana can be dangerous to anyone using it heavily, and to adolescents and some adults even in moderation. One of the major unknowns is the effect of marijuana use over a long period of time. The answers may be a decade or more in coming, but there is evidence that in some persons the drug can slowly and subtly weaken motivation and cloud thought processes.

An overdose of hashish

While marijuana is a new concern for middle-class America, it is one of man's two oldest intoxicants, along with alcohol. For at least three thousand years in Asia, various mood-altering preparations have been made from the common hemp plant (Cannabis sativa), the fibers of which were once widely used in rope making. Cannabis--the collective name for all hemp drugs--may also be the world's second most popular intoxicant. Over 200 million people in India, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America regularly take cannabis in one form or another. Marijuana consists of chopped leaves, flowers, and stems of the hemp plant, and has a comparatively small amount of the "psychoactive" compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is believed to account for the high. However, the flowering tops of the female plant secrete a varnish-like resin up to ten times as rich in THC as a good joint. Smoked or mixed into food, this preparation is known in India as charas and in the Arab world as hashish. Marijuana is thus a dilute form of a very potent drug.

While hashish can release inhibitions in some persons naturally prone to violence, it more commonly produces rather lethargic behavior and a high marked by vivid hallucinations. An overdose of it can produce hellish agonies. While in Syria in the middle of the last century, the American writer Bayard Taylor took a strong dose of hashish. The initial reaction, he reported afterward, brought "unutterable rapture," but this gave way to one of the first bad cannabis trips experienced by an American. At one point Taylor imagined he had been transformed into a mass of jelly that someone was trying to pour into a mold. Later, his throat felt as if it were filled with blood, and he imagined that blood was pouring from his ears. He fled from the house, found himself on a roof contemplating suicide by jumping. Five hours after the hashish had taken effect he sank into a stupor, and he then remained in a near coma for thirty hours.

Few marijuana users are likely to have a trip anything like that bad, partly because there is less chance of an overdose. When THC is ingested--i.e., swallowed the way Taylor took hashish--it requires up to an hour to pass through the gastrointestinal system and into the blood stream, and only then do some users learn if they have taken too much. Inhaled in smoke, THC passes through the lungs directly into the blood stream, and the effect is felt within ten minutes or so. With this kind of quick feedback, the user can "titrate" his dose, stopping when he gets high and before there are unpleasant effects.

Marijuana, moreover, generally works more subtly than hashish, and many users must learn to get high. Merely to inhale the smoke as one would inhale tobacco smoke is not enough; the smoke must be held in the lungs for twenty to thirty seconds until it penetrates the alveolar tissues. Even then the novice may be disappointed, for getting high--and enjoying it--depends on personality, dosage, mental set, and the presence of pot-smoking friends. Many who try marijuana abandon it immediately because they dislike the burning, irritating smoke or fail to get high.

The origin of the word marijuana is obscure, but many believe it is of Mexican origin, a composite of the Spanish names Maria and Juana. Mexican laborers brought "reefers" into the U.S. in the early years of this century, but the drug was largely unnoticed until the 1920's and early 1930's, when New Orleans was hit by an extended wave of violent crimes committed by young Negroes found to be smoking the weed. These crimes were mostly committed by men whose behavior would have been violent without marijuana, but marijuana nevertheless became widely known as "the killer drug." Several states enacted harsh penalties for possession, and in 1937, with almost no objective inquiry, Congress in effect outlawed the drug. In 1944, however, a commission created by New York's Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia found--on the basis of the most exhaustive medical and sociological inquiry undertaken in the U.S. until very recently--that marijuana was "not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes."

Of stoned mice and men

It is only in the last several years that scientists have learned enough about cannabis to study it with precision. In 1964, an Israeli chemist, Raphael Mechoulam, isolated and defined the chemical structure of the particular THC compound believed to account for most of the hemp plant's psychoactive properties. But not until the late 1960's were rigidly controlled, reproducible experiments, involving a substance of known composition administered in graduated doses, performed on humans in the U.S. An especially difficult problem, until very recently, was to ensure that individuals smoking marijuana cigarettes were getting standardized amounts of the psychoactive ingredient. The concentration of THC in hemp plants can vary by a factor of fifty. Only in the past two years has the federal government, on a guarded farm in Mississippi, begun cultivating marijuana of known strengths for experimental use.

1971_marijuanaOne established fact about marijuana is that it ranks low in what pharmacologists call "lethality." Not a single human being anywhere in the world is known to have been killed by cannabis in any form. By contrast, an estimated 5,000 Americans die annually from consuming too much alcohol at one time, and barbiturates can kill in amounts as small as twenty times the medically effective dose. Mice and dogs have been killed with THC, but the doses, translated into human terms, were thousands of times the amount present in a person stoned on pot.

The only external physical changes uniformly observed in persons high on marijuana are two: a quickening of pulse and a reddening of the whites of the eyes. It was once widely believed that marijuana also caused the pupils to dilate, but this has been completely disproved; the dilation, if any, is due to the dim lighting at pot parties. In some persons, but not all, marijuana also induces drowsiness. In this and other respects, marijuana differs from LSD, which dilates the pupils, causes wakefulness and restlessness, and raises blood pressure and body temperature. Apparently, marijuana and LSD work on the brain and central nervous system in different ways, because there is no cross-tolerance between them--i.e., a person who can hold a lot of marijuana cannot necessarily hold a lot of LSD. On the other hand, there are indications that marijuana is cross-tolerant with alcohol.

Among the drugs currently being abused by Americans, marijuana fits no neat classification. It is clearly not a narcotic--i.e., a pain-killing substance to which users can become physically addicted. Persons who abruptly stop taking marijuana--or even large amounts of hashish—do not suffer the agonizing withdrawal symptoms experienced by heroin addicts. Psychiatrist Jerome H. Jaffe of the University of Chicago, author of a chapter on drug abuse in an authoritative medical text, somewhat arbitrarily classifies marijuana as a "psychedelic" (mind-altering substance) even though, as he points out, it differs from LSD in important respects and has some of the "depressant" effects of alcohol and the barbiturates.

Recent studies have pretty well demolished three big myths about marijuana, namely, that it is an aphrodisiac, that it enhances creativity, and that it leaves no hangover. There is not a shred of evidence that marijuana increases sexual capacity. In India some priests reportedly use ganja, a medium-strength cannabis preparation, to repress sex drive. While stoned, marijuana users often believe that they perceive new dimensions in music and art, and utter what seem to them to be brilliant philosophical insights. But marijuana does not increase the output or improve the quality of creative work, except possibly of the undisciplined, free-association type. On the contrary, it tends to weaken the ability to pursue creative work to completion. The reason Americans seldom get hangovers from marijuana is that they take it in light doses; with heavy doses, unpleasant aftereffects are quite possible. (On the other hand, another widespread belief--that marijuana stimulates the appetite for food--has been borne out by research.)

What the numbers test tells

These findings, which by and large indicate that marijuana is not very dangerous, must be put alongside other studies that have established beyond doubt that the drug has hallucinogenic properties and that it can impair mental functions. The landmark study of mental effects, involving the first use of synthesized THC in humans, was carried out a few years ago at the federal government's Addiction Research Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Former opiate addicts, serving sentences for violation of the narcotics laws, swallowed and smoked THC under carefully controlled conditions. The subjects were all in good health and had all had prior experience with marijuana. With the lower dose, roughly equivalent to one joint, they all recognized the effects, which occasionally were unpleasant but generally were euphoric. When the dose was increased fourfold, most of the prisoners experienced hallucinations as well as distorted hearing, vision, and the panic reactions associated with a bad trip. The tests provided the first strong evidence that THC is the major psychoactive substance in hemp, and that most of the effects are produced by a specific isomer called delta-9 THC. (Isomers are variations in the molecular structure of a compound.) The tests also proved that with a big enough dose of THC nearly everybody has hashish-like reactions.

More recent experiments have strongly suggested that natural marijuana, too, can impair mental performance. One of the most important tests, involving Stanford University graduate students, was carried out by a group that included internist Leo E. Hollister, one of the country's leading researchers on marijuana, and psychiatrists Frederick T. Melges and Jared R. Tinklenberg. In randomized order, the students were given oral doses of marijuana extract roughly equivalent to one, two, and three good joints, along with a placebo that, unknown to the subjects, contained no psychoactive ingredient. At each dose level the students were given a series of four numerical tests that involved the use of long-term and short-term memory.

While high on marijuana, the students were able to perform one test with no difficulty. Given a starting number around 100, they were required to keep subtracting seven until zero was passed. Arithmetic operations are believed to involve long-term memory, which is not appreciably affected by a marijuana high. With tests involving short-term memory, however, the outcome was different. In two tests each subject heard a list of random digits and then tried to recite them back in proper order. Performance on these tests was impaired even at the lowest dose of marijuana but got no worse at the higher doses.

Even more significant were the results of a test called "goal-directed serial alternation." In this test the subject was given a starting number between 106 and 114, and then asked to add and subtract in a prescribed pattern until he reached a goal between 46 and 54. The patterns and goals were varied each time. The performance suffered at the lowest marijuana dose and got progressively worse as the doses were increased. The subjects had no difficulty adding and subtracting correctly (long-term memory again), but they tended to go slower, to ignore the pattern, or to forget the goal.

A standard for joints

What this shows, the Stanford group concluded, is that subjects stoned on marijuana suffer from "temporal disintegration," i.e., a distortion of time sense caused partly by the impairment of short-term memory. This phenomenon, the researchers said, makes it difficult for a person to retain, coordinate, and serially index "those memories, perceptions, and expectations that are relevant to the goal he is pursuing" at the moment. Temporal disintegration, they noted, also affects speech. It was quite common for the subjects to talk in a disorganized fashion, and to forget in the middle of a sentence what they had started to say.

Scientists have also produced such effects with marijuana that the subjects smoked rather than swallowed. It is difficult to carry out such experiments with precision, even when the THC content of cigarettes is known, because individual breathing patterns vary. Reese T. Jones and George C. Stone of the Univeristy of California have tried to surmount these difficulties. With a standardized joint weighing half a gram and assayed at 0.9 percent THC--a bit less potent than what would be considered a good joint in the street--Jones and Stone were able to get experienced pot smokers high in order to measure mental performance. Performance dropped in one of four tests, involving time judgments, but was unaffected in three others that did not involve such judgments.

Jones believes that these results, together with more recent findings from his own and other experiments, roughly jibe with the Stanford group's findings based on larger, ingested doses. Essential to a thorough understanding of a drug's effects is the working out of a curve that plots reproducible human responses to increasing doses. The various experiments, says Jones, are beginning to provide pieces of a dose-response curve for marijuana.

A host of questions about the drug, however, remain to be answered. Some researchers harbor doubts, for example, that delta-9 THC is the only important mind-altering compound in marijuana. They speculate that some of its effects may be caused by other isomers of THC, or even by some other compound in the hemp plant. One reason for doubts on this score is that, in experiments, experienced users frequently get high on marijuana that, unbeknownst to them, contains no delta-9 THC. Exclamations of "Man, this is pretty good stuff!" are quite common. It is possible, however, that many marijuana highs, like the drugless highs of Zen Buddhists, are caused by the sheer power of suggestion.

Another mystery that needs to be cleared up concerns the body's tolerance for increasing doses of marijuana. With other drugs, including narcotics, users are able to take larger and larger doses, and addicts require increasing amounts to reach the same high. Apparently, the body does become tolerant to cannabis, at least in the sense of being able to accept larger and larger doses. It requires increasing amounts of THC, for example, to produce ataxia (loss of muscular coordination) in dogs and other animals. Laboratory pigeons have been able to build up to very large doses without impairment in performance of a learned pecking sequence. "We know there is tolerance," says Daniel X. Freedman, chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of Chicago. "How else could people take the huge doses of hashish that are taken in other countries without some of the 'zonked' effects that we see when somebody takes a lot of hash here?"

This sounds directly contradictory to the claims of marijuana enthusiasts that users can get high on progressively smaller doses--a phenomenon called reverse tolerance. For reasons not yet fully understood, there may be both tolerance and reverse tolerance in marijuana use. One possible reason why progressively smaller doses of marijuana can produce the same effect may simply be that the brain learns to get high. Another theory is that it takes a while for marijuana use to awaken certain enzymes in the body. These enzymes, it is thought, convert the THC into the "metabolite" that actually produces the psychological effects.

Flashback effects

A very recent study by Nobel Prize winner Julius Axelrod and colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health suggests another explanation of reverse tolerance. Axelrod's team injected radioactively labeled THC into three volunteers and found that it took eight days for a metabolite of THC created by the body to be excreted. This means that THC does not pass quickly through the body, as alcohol does; a lot of it is absorbed by the body's tissues and then slowly released. Since this is so, some researchers have theorized, the body's tissues might refuse to accept THC beyond a certain level, and thus a higher proportion of later doses would stay in the blood stream to act on the brain and nervous system.

Still another explanation is suggested by the evidence that THC or its derivatives accumulate in the brain. At the Texas Research Institute of Mental Sciences in Houston, rats were exposed to smoke containing THC. At the end of a week the amount of THC in most of the rats' organs declined, but the level in the brain remained constant.

It is not clear whether the factors that account for reverse tolerance have anything to do with the flashback effects that occasionally occur days or even months after a marijuana high has worn off. Four instances of flashback have been reported by psychiatrist Martin H. Keeler of the Medical University of South Carolina. One young man, after smoking more than four joints, experienced confusion, disorientation, and hallucinations for three weeks thereafter and became so upset that he required hospitalization. None of the four subjects suffered from mental disorders that could have produced these effects without marijuana, and none had taken any other hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, which can also produce flashbacks. Keeler believes that the spontaneous recurrence of marijuana effects may be "relatively common," and that in some cases it can be unpleasant enough to constitute a psychiatric emergency.

Marijuana use may entail other risks. Cases of liver damage and bronchitis in humans have been reported. Recent experiments, moreover, have shown that marijuana extract can cause birth defects in animals. Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia are following up on experiments in which they found, among other things, that pregnant rabbits and hamsters injected with marijuana extract often produce stunted or malformed offspring. William F. Geber, who is involved in the studies, notes that the doses are fairly large, and cautions that a drug capable of causing birth defects in animals does not necessarily have the same effect in humans. He also points out that marijuana seems to cause fewer birth defects in animals than mescaline (another hallucinogen) or LSD.

Marijuana at the wheel

One of the most important questions that may be answered during the next year or so is the effect of marijuana on driving. In Washingtondriving_simulator State two years ago, experiments with a driving simulator purported to show that marijuana impairs driving performance hardly at all, and far less than alcohol. But this test was rather unconvincing for several reasons--for one thing, the alcohol doses appeared to be much higher than the marijuana doses. Since then, a group of researchers at the Lilly Laboratory for Clinical Research in Indianapolis has demonstrated that some of the psychomotor responses involved in driving are "significantly poorer'' when one is stoned on marijuana than when sober, and that the impairment is at least as great with marijuana as with alcohol.

More elaborate studies are currently under way. At the University of California at Los Angeles, volunteers are getting doses of marijuana and alcohol--together or separately--and then taking the wheel in the university's driving simulator. The results will not be known until later this year, but thus far researchers have a general impression that marijuana has less over-all effect on driving than alcohol. Nevertheless, they add, marijuana does impair alertness, and the combination of marijuana and alcohol--an increasingly popular combination these days--may increase the alcohol hazard. Since alcohol is involved in half of all highway deaths, this is no trifling matter.

Any future crackdown on marijuana-stoned drivers will face a major handicap. At the moment there is no way to determine whether a person involved in an automobile accident was high on pot at the time. Many persons in that state can talk coherently and exhibit no visual symptoms other than reddened eyes, which can be due to simple fatigue; thus it may be difficult to detect their condition if they lie about it. All that seems possible within the next year or so is some method of determining whether a person has smoked pot in the past few days or weeks. The marijuana counterpart of the Breathalyzer, a $750 instrument with which policemen can quickly determine the level of alcohol in the blood, is a longer way off.

For a great many Americans, the most worrisome question about marijuana is the extent to which use of it leads to hard drugs. So far the evidence is inconclusive. The largest body of evidence comes from a survey of 2,213 opiate addicts who had come to treatment centers operated by the National Institute of Mental Health. This survey, conducted several years ago, showed that 80 percent of the addicts from urbanized parts of the country--but not those from the South--had used marijuana before going on to opiates. Sociologist John C. Ball of Temple University, who directed the survey, says that "marijuana is the common drug of entry into illicit drug use," and that in the big cities the progression to opiates is part of a "whole behavioral process" in which groups of teenagers move from marijuana to delinquency to heroin. This is far from the whole story, as Ball concedes. Most of the addicts in the survey came from low-income backgrounds and thus did not represent a cross section of the population.

Generally, it is believed that only a very small proportion of marijuana users even try heroin. Marijuana's defenders have rightly pointed out that among middle-class youths in recent years the progression, if any, has not been to heroin--a drug of despair--but to other hallucinogens, amphetamines, and barbiturates offering new kicks. Several studies have shown that a sizable proportion of daily marijuana users--as high as 100 percent--have at least experimented with these drugs. But such surveys may already be out of date, because of rapidly changing fashions on the drug scene. In many places middle-class youths are beginning to turn away from hard drugs, and the staple intoxicants are becoming marijuana and alcohol, the latter usually in the form of wine. There is also disturbing evidence, however, that a small but growing minority of middle-class youths are getting hooked on heroin, and that many of them started with marijuana.

A skid-row existence

Apart from the progression of marijuana users to other drugs, there is considerable worry that large numbers of people will abuse the weed itself, adding to the social and economic burdens already created by an estimated nine million alcoholics. It may be years before we know how many of today's marijuana users will turn into potheads, more or less stoned all the time. Among alcoholics, addiction frequently does not show up until ten or fifteen years after a person begins social drinking.

Unquestionably, the number of teenagers and young adults who have tried marijuana, and thus are potential "cannabists" of the future, is continuing to increase at an epidemic rate. A recent Gallup poll showed that 42 percent of the country's college students had used the drug at least once, compared to only 22 percent a year earlier, and that over one-sixth used grass weekly.

However, recent evidence from California--which has been a bellwether of national drug trends--suggests that marijuana usage may eventually level off. For four years San Mateo County near San Francisco has carried out a survey of drug use in high schools. Between 1967 and 1969 the proportion of male seniors who had tried marijuana doubled, but in 1970 the figure edged up only very slightly, to 51 percent. The proportion who used the drug ten or more times during the year also increased only slightly, to 34 percent.

Since the U.S. has had little experience with long-term use of hemp drugs, most of the evidence concerning long-term effects has until lately come from abroad. Some studies in India, Egypt, and Morocco have shown that many patients in mental institutions are users of cannabis and that continued heavy use can lead to a slothful, skid-row existence. Generally, however, these studies have been rather unscientific, and they have tended to focus on lower-class users, who may be prone to mental disorders and idleness for a variety of reasons, including poor diet.

Psychiatrist Henry Brill, however, believes that some of the long-term hashish users he has seen abroad are suffering from a specific ailment. These men cover the entire range of the economic spectrum, be says, and are not simply people who would tend to have problems in any case. "Their movement is disjointed and their speech is singsong. This is different from anything else I have seen."

The "amotivational syndrome"

In the U.S. the few long-term studies undertaken so far have produced contradictory evidence. A survey of 2,200 U.C.L.A. students, now in its second year, shows that steady marijuana users who have smoked three or more cigarettes a week for two years have been able to hold their own academically with occasional experimenters. A recent study by Boston University's department of psychiatry, however, is less comforting. The psychiatrists compared twelve young men who smoke marijuana once a week or less with another twelve who smoked it virtually every day. Both groups represented the same mix of socioeconomic backgrounds and educational levels. The heavy users, the researchers reported, exhibited a "generally poor" ability to hold jobs, and many were doing work "well below their intellectual capability."

To the Boston University researchers the findings tend to bear out the contention of U.C.L.A. psychiatrist Louis Jolyon West and others that some chronic marijuana users display an "amotivational syndrome." Long-term use of marijuana, West believes, can lead to "decreased drive, apathy, distractability, poor judgment, introversion, depersonalization, diminished capacity to carry out complex plans or prepare realistically for the future, magical thinking, a peculiar fragmentation of thought, and progressive loss of insight." For a few steady users, he adds, marijuana use may even be a form of "self-administered, chemical lobotomy," i.e., the equivalent of a brain operation performed on anxiety-ridden persons to put them more at ease.

West concedes that his evidence is based on his own professional observations of patients rather than on controlled experiments. Others question whether such a syndrome exists at all, and emphasize that West's views are drawn from a very small number of observations. Nevertheless, similar clinical evidence bas turned up elsewhere. D. Harvey Powelson, chief psychiatrist for students at the University of California at Berkeley and once an advocate of legalized marijuana, claims he has observed students slowly and subtly changed by the drug. Certain long-time users, he says, exhibit "mushy thinking." Some seem to be aware "that they've lost their will someplace, that to do something, to do anything, requires a gigantic effort." Powelson believes heavy marijuana use, after six months or a year, can cause changes in thinking processes "similar to those seen in organic brain disease—islands of lucidity intermixed with areas of loss of function."

While marijuana use clearly entails risk, many authorities contend that it is no more dangerous than many other substances that are widely used and socially approved. "Marijuana is a nonproblem," says Max Fink, a psychiatrist at New York Medical College who is involved in studies of hard drugs as well as marijuana. Several thoughtful observers, indeed, have recently advocated legalization of marijuana. Under their proposals, it would acquire a status somewhat comparable to that of alcohol. It would be produced in mild strength under government supervision, taxed heavily, and sold only to adults (possibly in government-run retail outlets). In his forthcoming book Marijuana Reconsidered, psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon of Harvard University Medical School changes his former stand and proposes that marijuana-be legalized. More research is needed, Grinspoon says, "but no amount of research is likely to prove that cannabis is as dangerous as alcohol or tobacco." John Kaplan, professor of law at Stanford University, concedes that the dangers of marijuana are "far from negligible," but he, too, has made a plea for legalization in a recent book, Marijuana--the New Prohibition.

Advocates of legalization offer some persuasive arguments. According to a confidential estimate supplied to the White House, taxes on legal marijuana could produce as much as $900 million a year in revenue. With government supervision, moreover, buyers would know what they were getting. Right now the grass in the U.S. varies greatly in strength, from 5 percent THC in the case of marijuana brought in by G.I.'s returning from Vietnam, to 2 percent in good Mexican stuff, and as little as one-tenth of 1 percent in Indiana hemp. A good deal of what is available today, in fact, has lost all potency in storage. And some is not marijuana at all but oregano or hay. The most serious argument for legalization, however, is that it would relieve the police of the impossible task of stamping out marijuana use--an undertaking that, in the opinion of some, tends to undermine respect for the law in general. The police could then concentrate on stopping the traffic in more dangerous drugs, including hashish.

A case for caution

Despite these arguments, legalization now would be unwise for several reasons. A society has the right to restrict the variety of intoxicants that are easily available to its citizens. Even if marijuana were no more dangerous than alcohol, as the pro-legalization forces contend, it still might make sense to proscribe it. The U.S. has too many problems with alcohol--use of which is irrevocably woven into the fabric of American life--to add the unknown hazards of cannabis. Furthermore, we simply do not know enough as yet about the extent to which marijuana is a danger to users and to the social fabric. The evidence so far suggests some disturbing possibilities. We will know a good deal more two or three years from now. Meanwhile, the pollsters' finding that about three-fourths of the U.S. population is against legalization should help the country put off the decision until more research is in.

Until then the federal government and the states should continue to prosecute large-volume sellers of marijuana, but states that have not already done so should lower their penalties for mere possession. These could be as moderate as fines that are issued for speeding (as has been proposed in New York) and still help to maintain a posture of social disapproval. Legalization would be taken by many, particularly young people, to mean social approval, and this could undermine the efforts of parents, school administrators, and employers to keep down marijuana use. A posture of mild illegality would, of course, put marijuana in a legal gray area, somewhat like prostitution. But a period of untidy legal status may represent the only wise course between counterproductive efforts at suppression and premature legalization.

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