Marijuana is a mild hallucinogen grown naturally as the cannabis plant. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency classifies it as a Schedule I substance, with high abuse potential and no accepted medical utility. Marijuana can be smoked (in joints, pipes, or bongs) or eaten, often mixed with other foods. Short-term effects appear roughly 30 minutes after smoking and last for several hours. Reported effects include heightened sensory awareness, mild euphoria (“high”), hallucinations, dry mouth, loss of coordination, and lethargy. Mexico has been a leading source of U.S. marijuana for decades, although domestic cultivation is widespread as well. Marijuana production and availability have increased sharply over the past decade, and potency has been steadily increasing since the 1980s.
Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in America and is used more frequently than all other illegal drugs combined. Generally speaking, use rates are consistently higher for males than for females, and use is far more prevalent among youth and young adults. Lifetime use rates for high school seniors peaked at around 60 percent in 1980 and have since decreased and leveled off to around 45 percent. On average, more than one third of high school seniors reported semi-regular marijuana use over the past decade. Most law enforcement agencies describe marijuana availability as high.
Construction of marijuana as a major social problem in the United States occurred during the Great Depression, coming out of its use by Mexican immigrants in the Southwest (especially Texas), where support for its illegality originated. White citizens and lawmakers framed the issue in terms of concerns about immigrant workers’ marijuana consumption and rowdiness. Such complaints, however, masked a deeper concern about immigrant laborers competing for employment with white males. In the eastern United States, officials framed the marijuana problem by focusing on its use among black jazz and blues musicians of the 1930s in cities such as Harlem and New Orleans. Sensationalized press reports and suspect medical science also linked marijuana use to violent crime. Federally outlawed in the United States in 1937, marijuana later became a prominent part of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture movement.
Use risks include short-term memory loss and psychological dependence, accompanied by mild withdrawal symptoms such as restlessness and irritability. Sustained use often leads to poor scholastic and occupational performance. Research also suggests a causal link between marijuana use and vandalism and income-producing crime, particularly among youth. Some research indicates regular marijuana use can serve as a gateway to the use of more addictive drugs such as heroin and cocaine, and this reasoning has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy for keeping marijuana illegal. However, other research challenges this connection.
Nationwide, marijuana violations account for nearly half of all drug arrests, most for simple possession. Incarceration rates have increased substantially since the mid-1980s, due in part to mandatory sentencing for first-time marijuana offenders. This has exacerbated prison overcrowding. More recently, some U.S. city and local governments have enacted legislation decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana. Since 1988, eleven states have approved legislation allowing for the possession and consumption of marijuana to aid in treating glaucoma and the chronic pain associated with cancer or other terminal diseases.
- Liccardo Pacula, Rosalie and Beau Kilmer. 2004. “Marijuana and Crime: Is There a Connection beyond Prohibition?” NBER Working Paper Series, no. 10046. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
- University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. 2007. Monitoring the Future: Overview of Key Findings 2006. Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse.
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