Sociological Impact of the Decriminalization of Marijuana

I. Introduction and Historical Background

Participants of perceived social deviance throughout the 1950s and 60s—the emergence of hippie culture, “free love,” the Civil Rights movement, and protest of the Vietnam war—were often directly (though not always fairly) associated with drug use; the most common and widespread association being the recreational use of marijuana. That association likely helped to facilitate marijuana’s inclusion into the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 by the Nixon administration. However, negative connotations with the substance began in the early 1900s, after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 saw a massive influx of Mexican immigrants into the United States (Hay, 2015).

Recreational use of marijuana was an established and integral part of the Hispanic culture, and the drug quickly began to take root in the United States, particularly in the south. Prohibition of alcohol had almost immediately made marijuana an attractive, easily accessible, and largely unregulated choice for recreational pleasure (Schlosser, 1994). However, growing racism and prejudice against the influx of immigrants was further inflamed by narratives of the “Marijuana Menace,” a drug which was suddenly and intentionally purported to corrupt morality and incite violent crime (Frontline, 2014). Even the common name we now use for the drug—“marijuana”—was an intentional push to associate what had previously been referred to as “cannabis” with Mexican culture, and thus further inflame the growing anti-immigrant sentiments of the Depression era (Thompson, 2013).

Examples of anti-marijuana propaganda (Sullum, 2018)

Much of this misinformation and anti-marijuana propaganda was deliberately fueled by Harry Anslinger, the U.S. Narcotics Commissioner and leader of the federal Prohibition agency—the originating government agency which would later evolve into the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Anslinger recognized that he was facing potential unemployment when alcohol prohibition ended in 1933, and he swiftly turned his efforts instead to the criminalization of marijuana. Cultural stresses due to the massive financial recession had already created an atmosphere in which much of the white population feared a further shortage of resources and employment from the Hispanic population seeking asylum in the United States. Anslinger recognized and capitalized on the fears and prejudices of the time. In a 1937 testimony before Congress urging federal restriction on marijuana, Anslinger stated: “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret [sic] can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions” (Thompson, 2013). These sweeping, stereotypical, and factually untrue assumptions point toward the deeply problematic and unsound correlations between race and criminality which still permeate every level of the American justice system today.

At the outset of marijuana prohibition, the federal government encouraged any concerned state governments to regulate marijuana independently. By 1931, twenty-nine states had outlawed the substance, and the 1937 Marijuana Stamp Act—again, largely facilitated by Harry Anslinger—effectively criminalized the drug for recreational use (Frontline, 2015). Later reports commissioned by the Kennedy administration supported decriminalization of marijuana due to the perceived low risks of its use. Substantial evidence contradicted previous claims of the dangers of marijuana, but the plant was ultimately classified as an illegal Schedule I Narcotic by the Nixon administration in 1970. This inclusion was made against a report made by the Shafer Commission, a bipartisan committee appointed by Congress to provide recommendations on the regulation of marijuana (Frontline, 2014). The Shafer Commission determined personal use of marijuana should be decriminalized; Nixon vehemently opposed this recommendation (Hay, 2015). Despite the effective prohibition of the substance, eleven states still made the decision to decriminalize marijuana throughout the 1970s and many more lessened their penalties for possession. Today, twenty-nine states have legalized medical marijuana, eight states have legalized recreational use for adults over twenty-one years of age, and almost all states have deprioritized marijuana-related offenses, but the substance remains illegal at the federal level.

II. Cultural Beliefs and Biases

In researching recent efforts in marijuana legalization, it’s become apparent that only a small handful of the total population in the U.S. still holds to the antiquated belief that marijuana is a dangerous or risky substance in need of stringent regulation. Most states now consider the substance legal in some capacity, and two-thirds of Americans support federal legalization (NORML, 2017). The cultural belief that marijuana is dangerous never actually stemmed from scientific evidence, but rather from lingering associations with negative stereotypes deeply rooted in racism and prejudice.

Staggering unemployment rates during the Great Depression fueled resentment and distrust of incoming Mexican immigrants, and their cultural association with marijuana was ample fuel for Anslinger’s newest crusade after the end of alcohol prohibition (Frontline, 2014). Likewise, marijuana also had a long history of being used as a sedation drug for slaves throughout Jamaica and the Caribbean; forced use of the substance eventually evolved into an accepted, recreational habit in these cultures as slavery slowly came to an end (Hay, 2015). Since hundreds of thousands of these slaves were eventually imported to the United States, recreational marijuana usage had also become a normalized part of the African-American culture. So, an existing association of marijuana with perceived “second-class citizens” or those who were “racially inferior” was further exploited and inflamed by political agenda.

The persisting cultural belief that minorities compromise the majority of drug users has led to institutionalized and systemic racism within the justice system. Historically, minorities have been arrested, convicted, and served time for minor drug offenses at ten times the rate of whites faced with similar charges (Drug Policy Alliance, 2018). This demonstrates how an issue that begins as an individual belief or bias can become deeply engrained in societal norms: a relatively minor cultural association between minorities and drug use is propagated and enflamed by political agenda; government propaganda causes this belief to become entrenched in our society; societal belief leads to targeting by law enforcement for these crimes; established bias also creates the more likely outcome of conviction by a jury after arrest. Perceived deviant behavior is most often regulated by law in our society, and we are only now beginning to see a shift in the legislation to reflect our culture’s changing perceptions on marijuana use. One major player with vehement resistance against legalization is the American pharmaceutical industry.

Though in the past, Americans often inherently believed and trusted the advising of government agencies such as the Federal Drug Administration, growing turmoil amid the opioid crisis and other public health threats has created an overwhelming sense of mistrust with many aspects of government regulation (Norman, 2016). The current quasi-legal status of marijuana is no exception. Despite threats to enforce federal laws, numerous representatives and state governors are standing their ground against the current administration’s threats against legalization (Tumulty and Sullivan, 2018). There has been a significant cultural shift against the idea that government agencies are diligently working with the peoples’ best interests at heart. The state-by-state legalization of marijuana is another example of how individualism can have a massive impact on societal institutions. Over time, both anecdotal and scientific evidence demonstrated that marijuana is in fact a beneficial drug, with a low rate of risk and dependency. As a result, our societal view on the supposed deviancy associated with marijuana use slowly began to change. A movement that started with a handful of grassroots activists has now swept the majority of states and the regulation of marijuana is being challenged at the federal level.

III. Social Roles

Despite the overall shift in cultural acceptance of marijuana, the acceptance of medical usage has been more widespread than recreational use. Stereotypes of “stoners” or associations with laziness and social deviance have persisted against those who choose to use marijuana recreationally, which has manifested in the slow progression of legality of recreational marijuana. Recreational users in legal states are also subject to more stringent purchasing limits than those who are medically licensed, and still cannot legally grow their own plants (Wells, 2017). All users are still subject to stringent local laws regarding where and when they can consume and under what circumstances.

Many recreational users still feel the need to hide use from employers, family, and friends due to lingering discriminatory attitudes against marijuana versus other recreational substances, such as alcohol, though that stigma appears to be waning nationwide (Brooks, 2016). A significant milestone in that shifting attitude was the 2017 introduction of legal “pot clubs,” in Colorado. Pot clubs are private venues where recreational users can smoke and socialize, much like your average bar (Markus, 2017). This filled a growing need in the marijuana tourism industry, as most tourists coming to Colorado risked fines from hotels for smoking privately or encounters with police for smoking publicly, effectively giving tourists the opportunity to buy but denying them the opportunity to smoke.

There are still issues of social inequality for medical and recreational users alike. It is important to note that in the process of obtaining a medical license, a doctor provides a recommendation for medical marijuana use, not a prescription. Due to marijuana’s persisting illegality at the federal level, there are no HIPPA protections for those that medically use. Many people have found themselves unemployed or unable to obtain employment due to corporate drug screenings – unlike prescribed medications, marijuana use can still be discriminated against by employers, even for those who are medically licensed (Flock and Taylor, 2012). Our culture creates a dysfunctional view of marijuana use because of the separation of these two roles. On the one hand, we are willing to give the sickest and most vulnerable of our citizens complete access to this drug, which was initially only available legally to those with terminal or life-threatening illnesses such as cancer or HIV (Thompson, 2018). On the other hand, despite zero associated deaths, a relatively low dependency rate, and a wealth of benefits (such as lowered opioid dependency, lowered crime rates, and benefit for those with anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses, epilepsy, and other non-life-threatening disorders), our society has stalled against access to marijuana as a recreational substance available for use to the public. Our major societal institutions—the law, the government, and most religions—still brand the drug as dangerous, addictive, and ultimately harmful to the quality of life. The unrelenting bias of the federal government, instigated by political agenda and fueled by corporate investment, creates a conflict of scientific evidence against law; our cultural conflict of allowing access to a relatively innocuous substance for those who are ill but restricting it for those who are not is ultimately divisive and perpetuates the myths surrounding marijuana use.

IV. Social Issues

There persists an issue of discrimination against those who have criminal records relating to marijuana use in now-legal states. Drug convictions can disqualify citizens from educational loans, housing, job opportunities, and most importantly, the ability to vote. California is leading the way in this aspect, with numerous counties now allowing prior marijuana convictions to be sealed or expunged from criminal records after a petition process (Quinton, 2017). Still, this process is slow and expensive; many of those with criminal records lack the means to be able to begin petition. The issue remains rampant in many other states, particularly those without recreational legalization. These convictions have largely plagued minority communities (Drug Policy Alliance, 2018). Though marijuana arrests have sharply declined due to deprioritization and legalization, this issue continues to feed the faulty belief that marijuana is largely used by minorities; they are simply more likely to be punished for it.

Gerrymandering via drug conviction is an example of how racism continues to influence our societal institutions. Societal bias causes minorities to be disproportionately targeted for drug offenses by police, which means minorities overwhelmingly carry criminal convictions throughout their lives (Thompson, 2018). As a result, large groups of people—primarily African-Americans—have lost their ability to vote for representatives in their communities and their government. It’s estimated that one out of thirteen African-Americans (seven percent of the national population) is currently disenfranchised (Green, 2016). The voices of these communities then go unrepresented year after year, which means issues such as the sealing of drug convictions are left unaddressed unless those without drug convictions choose to get involved in the matter. The constituents most in need of representation are effectively silenced; governing societal institutions are then slow to change; in reflection of our laws, negative cultural biases persist.

Additionally, prior drug convictions have barred tens of thousands of minorities from the ability to enter the legal marijuana industry: Almost all twenty-nine states have varying laws barring or restricting previous drug offenders from seeking employment in both the recreational and medical marijuana industries (Thompson, 2017). A massive report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union, based on nine years of data compiled by U.S. Census and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program from 2001-2010, concluded that the African-American population across the entirety of the U.S. is “3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates”; thus, people of color disproportionately hold criminal records related to drug possession despite a negligible difference in the reported rate of use between the minority and white populations (ACLU, 2013). The majority of legalized states include “Good Moral Character” clauses which entirely prevent individuals with any prior drug-related convictions to participate in the legalized marijuana industry (Thompson, 2017). Only Oregon and California allow those with prior drug convictions to hold a position within the legalized industry, and only after an arduous and expensive process of sealing or overturning former convictions (Thompson, 2017). For most, hiring a lawyer and participating in the lengthy legal process is simply not a viable option.

Essentially, minorities have been unfairly targeted for illegal possession and distribution of marijuana for decades; now that the substance is legal, they have been widely excluded from participation in the legal market. Because of the quasi-legality, the black market for marijuana has now dwindled, leaving the lucrative financial benefits of the industry overwhelmingly in the hands of the white population: the population which first demanded criminalization the substance; purported and encouraged associations between marijuana, minority races, and criminal behavior; and then demanded and shaped the substance’s legality for our own personal benefit and monetary gain. Those who distribute illegally are still subject to penalty under the law, which continues to perpetuate the harmful societal associations with minorities and criminal behavior. The gentrification of the marijuana industry is a reflection of the larger issue of racism that still permeates nearly every aspect of our society.

V. Challenging Social Conditions

Marijuana is challenging the current state of politics in its pseudo-legal status: while legal in some form in the majority of states, the drug remains illegal at the federal level. Despite bipartisan support of ending prohibition, current Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made numerous threats to begin enforcing federal laws regarding marijuana, something which was publicly “unprioritized” under the Obama administration (Angell, 2018). Legislation was introduced March of 2018 by 62 bipartisan representatives, requesting that the federal government not pursue prosecution of individuals and businesses complying with local state laws concerning medical and recreational marijuana (Angell, 2018). The provision was approved by the House floor and was adopted by the Senate Appropriations Committee, but the Sessions is still able to direct the efforts of the Drug Enforcement Administration as he sees fit. This creates a dysfunction in our society because even those operating legally under state law have a looming threat of federal enforcement of their trade.

In the past, arguments against marijuana legalization often centered around two issues: increased adolescent drug use and increased crime rates (including DUIs). The newest data—still limited information, due to the brevity of the period of legality—has shown no negative correlation to these issues. In fact, legalization has decreased gang violence, illegal trafficking, and violent crime rates in border states; decreased crime rates overall in legalized states; and despite steadily rising teen drug use over the past two decades, has not been shown to further facilitate or encourage drug use in youth residing in legalized states (Messamore, 2017; Sarich, 2014; Ingraham, 2017). This preliminary data was surprising to opponents and even some supporters of legalization. However, it is still too early to definitively see the long-term impact that legalization will ultimately have on states and their communities; federal legalization would likely have a significant impact on accessibility and regulation.  

Decriminalization of marijuana has also challenged social perceptions. As mentioned before, in the throes of a nationwide opioid epidemic, attitudes are shifting not only positively toward marijuana usage, but negatively toward the pharmaceutical industry as a whole (NORML, 2017; Norman, 2016). The pharmaceutical industry has spent the past decade under intense public scrutiny for unethical practices such as price fixing, artificial inflation, and offering extravagant kickbacks or incentives for doctors to unnecessarily or over-prescribe medications (Norman, 2016). One of the end results of these profit-driven practices has been a nationwide opioid epidemic; it recently became enough of a problem to be declared a “Public Health Emergency” by the current Trump administration (Allen and Kelly, 2017). Many states have turned to marijuana legalization not just as a source of tax revenue, but also as a means to combat exponentially rising opioid dependence and its related fatalities. The pharmaceutical industry has thus lobbied adamantly against legalization, funneling money to anti-legalization groups nationwide and keeping the pockets of powerful political figures – such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions – generously lined (Ingraham, 2016). The industry continues to purport the idea that marijuana is dangerous while simultaneously working to synthesize the drug artificially, the ultimate goal there being to have control over the trade of THC.

VI. Conclusion

While many who used marijuana were previously subjected to negative stereotypes concerning “stoners,” “hippies,” or “drug users,” two-thirds of the American population now supports ending marijuana prohibition. As the declining opioid use in legal states shows, many people realize that the numerous benefits of marijuana are a viable alternative to often risky and highly addictive prescription medication. As with the ending of alcohol prohibition, the cessation of marijuana prohibition at the federal level will be a battleground slowly won, state by state.


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Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2018, all rights reserved.

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