Few social problems provoke greater controversy than the use of marijuana. It is for this reason that in addition to this article by Mr. Singer The Progressive carries brief comments on the nature of the physical and psychological effects of pot by a distinguished authority, Dr. Stanley F. Yolles, and on the nature of the punishment for violations by Senator Harold E. Hughes. Mr. Singer brings to his discussion of marijuana a considerable background and observation. He is currently Dean of Students at a large New York City high school where his major responsibility is working with boys and girls who are involved with drugs. In addition to a significant amount of individual research, he has received special training from the New York State Narcotics Addiction Control Commission and a special agent of the New York City Police Department Narcotics Squad.
TWO YEARS AGO the news spread like wildfire on a large college campus. "There's going to be a 'grass' sale," was the big story, whispered in hallways between classes and on the lawn. Today, "grass," marijuana, does not create so much excitement on campus. According to a student estimate quoted by The New York Times, "Up to eighty-five per cent of the students at various colleges and universities have tried marijuana at least once," and estimates of the number who use it regularly range from six to twenty-five per cent.
Marijuana use is popular off the college campus, too. Considerable numbers, from high school students to doctors, "turn on" regularly, in spite of the strict Federal and local laws prohibiting its possession and use. The United Nations estimated in 1951 that 200,000,000 people in the world then used marijuana regularly. The figure is undoubtedly much higher today.
In spite of this widespread use, many people, especially the majority of the "over-thirties," know little if anything about marijuana, and the little they think they know is often more fiction than fact. But they should know the truth, for the younger generation is growing up in its midst.
Marijuana and hashish come from the flowering tops of the hemp plant, the female cannabis sativa. This plant grows, often to a height of six to eight feet, generally in warm climates. In its best form it comes from from particularly hot areas, such as Mexico (Acapulco Gold is a favorite), but it has been grown, quite easily in fact, in many areas of the United States.
Marijuana, or "pot" is the weaker of the two. It is made by drying the plant, and then finely chopping the leaves, twigs, and seeds. The finished product is greenish-brown in color and looks much like ordinary tea. Hashish does not contain the twigs and seeds, but only the pure resin of the plant. It is usually prepared as small black or brown cakes which are purer than marijuana, and are, consequently, much more potent.
In the United States, pot is usually sold in "nickel bags." These are small manila envelopes, about two inches by three inches in size, which sell for five (hence the name) dollars, and contain enough marijuana to be rolled into as many as twenty cigarettes. The cigarettes, which are called "joints," look much like ordinary hand rolled cigarettes, but have twisted or tucked in ends, to prevent loose grains of their expensive contents from spilling out.
A joint is not smoked like an ordinary cigarette, and the experienced pot smoker has had to learn a special way to smoke. He purses his lips, but keeps them slightly open as he inhales. As the acrid smoke enters his mouth it mixes with air, making a hissing sound as he inhales deeply. The smoker then holds the smoke in his lungs as long as he can to get the maximum effect of the drug before exhaling.
The butt is called a "roach." It is often held with a tweezers or hair pin, a "roach holder," so it can be smoked down as far as possible. The small amount of marijuana remaining is then remixed back into the bag to be smoked at some later time.
The effects of marijuana on the smoker are as difficult to describe or predict as are the effects of most other highly subjective experiences. They vary from person to person, and even for the same person at different times, This variation occurs becauso the effects of all drugs depend on three interrelated factors. Scientists call these factors the drug itself, the "set," and the "setting." The effect of the first factor, the drug, is fairly obvious. Slimply stated, each drug has its own special effects. Not quite so obvious are the effects of the set and the setting.
The term "set" refers to a person's expectations. When a person expects something will happen, he becomes ready, or psychologically set, for that thing to happen, and his psychological set actually helps to cause the very effect which he expects. Doctors have long known that a patient's psychological set is an important factor in determining the effects of a drug on that patient. When a patient expects that a certain drug will make him tired, for example, or happy, or hungry, it will probably make him feel much the way he expects it to.
Thus, a physician who does not want to prescribe sleeping pills needlessly may prescribe placebos to some of his patients. These are pills which have no chemical effect on the body whatsoever. However, the fact that patients believe them to be sleeping pills usually makes placebos effective as such for many of them.
The term "setting" refers to the environment or social setting in which a person finds himself. This, too, is a significant factor in determining how a drug will affect a person. A drug may be taken while alone, in a friendly atmosphere, or in a hostile or unpleasant atmosphere. Even a powerful drug will produce considerably different effects when taken under these different settings.
Although these three factors, the drug, the set, and the setting, are each important in determining the effects of a drug, the importance of each factor often varies considerably. One of the major causes of this variation is the particular drug in question. The weaker the drug, the less dramatic will be its pharmacological effects on the body, and consequently, the greater will be the effects of set and setting.
Because marijuana is a relatively mild drug, the effects of set and setting are especially important in determining its effects. The person who expects to be greatly affected by marijuana will, in all probability, be greatly affected by it, while the skeptic may notice little or no effect at all. Similarly, the person who uses it in a comfortable social setting will be much more likely to find its effects pleasant than the one who uses it under less than optimal conditions.
Herein lies the greatest shortcoming of some of the laboratory experiments which have attempted to evaluate the effects of marijuana on humans. For set and setting in a laboratory cannot possibly be anything like what they are at a pot party or in one's home, the places where pot is most often smoked.
The best way, then, and perhaps the only way to understand the effects of marijuana is to smoke some at a pot party. Or, if this is too radical a proposal, talk to pot smokers. Although your conclusions may not be considered valid by some scientists, this is the only way, short of smoking it yourself, to achieve any genuine understanding of what pot does to the people who smoke it.
Asking a veteran pot smoker what it is like to be high will usually elicit the same answer he gives to the novice who asks, "How will I know when I'm high?" The usual answer is, "You'll just know." And the new user does, at some point, "just know" that he is high. If pressed further, the veteran will probably explain that he just feels good. His head feels funny--a tight, full, buzzing feeling which comes in waves, alternately building to a peak and receding.
It is a happy, friendly feeling, much like the high many people experience with alcohol. Like the drinker, the smoker often giggles and talks a great deal, and he also has somewhat dulled attention and a distorted sense of time.
Drs. Norman E. Zinberg and Andrew T. Weil of the Boston University School of Medicine, who have conducted recent research projects on marijuana, reported in The New York Times May 11, 1969, that unlike an alcohol high, pot users "appear to be able to compensate 100 per cent for the non-specific adverse effects of ordinary doses on ordinary psychological performance." Even driving ability appears to be unaffected by marijuana use, according to a soon to be published study by the Washington State Department of Motor Vehicles and the University of Washington.
But best of all, the pot smokers brag, there is no marijuana hangover. Most smokers claim they even feel better the morning after than they did the morning before.
A question which is often raised by non-smokers is whether or not marijuana is an aphrodisiac. Medically, it is not. Marijuana generally produces one effect--euphoria. To the extent that a feeling of euphoria may increase some people's sexual excitation, it might be considered, for them, an aphrodisiac. But it is no more so than, say, a few martinis.
On the other hand, Dr. Hardin Jones, of the Donner Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, claims marijuana is a mild aphrodisiac because "it enhances sensitivity and makes a person more receptive to sensual stimuli..." But this condition, says Dr. Jones, "lasts only a short period of time, and chronic marijuana users find that sex activities without the drug are difficult and confusing."
Another question which is often raised concerns the mixing of marijuana and alcohol. Although there does not appear to be any experimental evidence available, it is known that few smokers drink whiskey while smoking. Whiskey, most claim, makes it much harder to become high on marijuana. Some smokers enjoy drinking sweet wine while smoking, however, insisting that wine makes for a better high. But this contention is widely debated among devotees, all trying to achieve the best high.
Real objects often appear slightly distorted to marijuana smokers, but extremely large doses are necessary to produce any true hallucinations. Even frequent pot smokers, "pot heads" as they are called, will probably never experience any hallucinations, as it is highly unlikely that they will ever consume the large doses necessary to produce them. A smoker knows when he has smoked enough, and unlike many drinkers, he simply does not want more. Once high, he rarely continues smoking, even if there is pressure from others to do so.
As for bad effects, most smokers claim there are none, and medical experts generally tend to agree, although some do not. A notable opponent is the American Medical Association, which contends that frequent users are often lethargic and neglect their personal appearance, and, because the smoke is irritating, may suffer from respiratory disorders. Some other authorities claim even more serious disorders. The Massachusetts Medical Society, for one, lists among the dangers of marijuana use, acute intoxication, personality deterioration, and even possible psychosis in predisposed individuals.
Dr. Jones claims marijuana 1) is habit forming; 2) is addictive "with continued use;" 3) promotes a curiosity about harder drugs; 4) produces cumulative effects; 5) interferes with normal perceptions; 6) disturbs the reference memory; 7) may bring on wholesale abandonment of goals and ambitions.
Most researchers, on the other hand, feel that marijuana is harmless, or at least relatively so. And their research findings seem to confirm their feelings. A monumental scientific study on marijuana was conducted at the behest of the late Mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia. In 1938, Mayor LaGuardia and the New York Academy of Medicine appointed a Committee on Marijuana, consisting of twenty-eight leading physicians, psychiatrists, chemists, pharmacologists, and sociologists. The Committee concluded decisively in 1944, following its six years of research, that marijuana use:
-Does not cause aggressiveness.-Is not at all related to crimes of violence-Does not alter the individual's personality structure-Does not cause mental or physical deterioration-Has possibilities for considerable medical applications.
Although the study was completed twenty-five years ago, it is still the most comprehensive work in its field. The President's Crime Commission, in its report issued some two and a half years ago, came to the same general conclusions. A British Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence only a year ago found no evidence that pot smoking led either to violence or serious dependence.
After extensive experimentation, Drs. Zinberg and Weil concluded, as reported in their article in The New York Times, that "marijuana is a relatively harmless intoxicant." Other researchers, such as Dr. Max Fink of the New York Medical College, go even further. Dr. Fink was reported by the Times on February 2, 1969, to have contended that there are "no facts about marijuana being dangerous."
Why, then, was the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and much subsequent Federal and state legislation enacted, making marijuana illegal for individuals, and research into its medical uses virtually impossible? The primary reason appears to be a basic ignorance of the truth about marijuana. Although the LaGuardia Committee Report is well known scientifically, few people, legislators and law enforcement officials included, have ever read it, or even heard of it.
But what of the charge that easily ninety per cent of today's heroin addicts began by smoking marijuana? This charge is completely true. However, the conclusion which one is tempted to draw--that marijuana use leads to heroin use--cannot be substantiated. For although most heroin users began by smoking marijuana, the consensus of surveys of the number of pot smokers as compared with the number of heroin users leads to the common sense conclusion that the vast majority of marijuana users will never even try heroin. Dr. Roger 0. Egeberg, the new health chief of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, stated recently, "I don't personally think marijuana leads to heroin." It is extremely difficult to find a dealer who handles both drugs. Furthermore, although most heroin addicts were former pot heads, they also used alcohol, and for that matter, as, children, milk. No one would contend that milk drinking leads to heroin addiction, yet to blame marijuana requires much the same logic.
It must be admitted, in fairness, that marijuana smokers are more likely than non-users to experiment with other drugs. But perhaps more significant is why this is likely to be the case. To a large extent, it appears to be attributable to the fact that most of what young people have heard about marijuana from adults is un
true. When they smoke marijuana they quickly find that they do not hallucinate, or steal cars, or become psychotic, or turn into "dope fiends." Why then, they feel, if adults are not to be believed about marijuana, should they know the score about other drugs?
About the worst that can honestly be said about marijuana at the present time is that its sale and possession are illegal. Mere possession is, in many places, a felony, which means that a conviction can have far reaching consequences. This is especially true for young people, whose entire lives may be affected by a single conviction.
So stringent are these laws that many authorities, including a considerable number of those who are critical of marijuana, are currently urging a relaxation of anti-marijuana laws, or at the least, a lessening of the criminal penalties which are being imposed. Among them are Dr. James L. Goddard, former director of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Roger Egeberg, and Dr. Stanley F. Yolles, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who have stated that current criminal laws relating to marijuana are not only unrealistic, but also unenforceable. Representative Claude Pepper of Florida, and Senator Harold E. Hughes of Iowa are only two of a number of members of Congress who have assailed the severe legal penalties imposed on marijuana users. It is encouraging that many localities will probably soon follow the lead of Illinois, which recently reduced the charge for possession of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor; yet, even as this was happening, President Nixon was urging that current laws be made even tougher.
The anti-marijuana laws might logically seem to be a considerable deterrent to its use, but obviously this is not the case. Prohibition did not stop the sale and consumption of alcohol, and anti-marijuana laws are proving even less effective where pot is concerned. Rather, these laws are making marijuana considerably more attractive to today's youth, rebellious as many of them are. They are also putting much of the profits derived from its importation and sale directly into the hands of organized crime.
On the basis of these facts, what might be a rational approach to the marijuana problem?
The first step certainly appears to be a recognition that marijuana is not in itself a serious problem, or at least that it is a problem only insofar as contemporary American society makes it one.
But this problem, the one which society has created, is significant. And it is far more serious than the arrest records of the relatively few unlucky young marijuana smokers who are caught. For youngsters know that marijuana is not addictive, as are alcohol (pharmacologically, a drug) and barbiturates (which are more dangerously addictive than heroin). They know, too, that marijuana is considerably less habit forming than tobacco, another dangerous drug. Yet alcohol, barbiturates, and tobacco, as well as many other drugs, are legal, usually usually not even requiring medical supervision, because "the establishment" likes to use them. Only because the establishment does not use marijuana is it illegal.
The damage done by these attitudes on the part of many adults has had far-reaching effects on today's youth. For they see them as hypocrisy and as ignorance--two of the major causes of the phenomenon which is popularly called the "generation gap."
Legalizing marijuana, understanding what it is and treating it more realistically and more honestly, may not seem a large step toward bridging this gap. But it may be a large step toward a better understanding of the younger generation. And this, in turn, may be the first real step toward bridging the generation gap.