Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

"Sending the Wrong Message": Did Medical Marijuana Legalization in California Change Attitudes about and Use of Marijuana?

Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

"Sending the Wrong Message": Did Medical Marijuana Legalization in California Change Attitudes about and Use of Marijuana?

Article excerpt

This study was designed to assess the affect of legalization of medical marijuana on drug-related attitudes and use among youths and young adults in selected communities in California and other states. Telephone survey data, collected as part of a study of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Fighting Back initiative, was utilized to examine reported attitudes about and use of drugs in California and other states before and after Californians passed Proposition 215 in 1996. Descriptive, bivariate, and logistic regression analyses were used to examine attitudes and use among 16 to 25 year olds in California and 10 other states. This study found that although some marijuana-related attitudes changed between 1995 and 1999, use did not increase. These findings suggest that recent policy changes have had little impact on marijuana-related behavior.


Marijuana policy has been a contentious issue in the United States. Over time, federal marijuana policy has become increasingly restrictive and punitive, while state policy has been more fluid and lax. Recently, citizen-sponsored state referenda to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes have challenged federal policy, sparking a national debate. Critics have argued that medicinal use "sends the wrong message" to youth. The purpose of this paper is to test this argument by examining marijuana attitudes and behaviors before and after a seminal California law was passed.

Current federal drug policy can be characterized as a "zero tolerance" approach, with primary emphasis on supply reduction, enforcement strategies, and legal sanctions. Historically, federal marijuana policy began with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and became more restrictive over time with the passage of the Boggs Act and the Narcotic Control Act during the 1950's (Bonnie & Whitebread, 1974). The Boggs Act established uniform penalties and mandatory minimum sentencing (Bonnie & Whitebread, 1974), and the Narcotic Control Act escalated the penalties and fines for the possession and sale of narcotics and made other provisions and guidelines for the enforcement of narcotic laws (including marijuana).1 Despite the harsher penalties that were enacted in the mid 1950s, recreational marijuana use not only continued, but increased dramatically during the 1960s. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug (along with heroin and LSD), meaning that it had a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical utility, lack of accepted safety for use even under medical supervision, and was subject to the most stringent regulatory controls. Despite these increasingly elevated sanctions over time, recreational use and the corresponding costs associated with marijuana enforcement increased, and efforts to relax federal policies since the 1970s, such as rescheduling marijuana, have failed.

Although states are subject to federal law, most have experimented with their own policy approaches. During the late 1960s and 1970s, almost all states reduced the penalties for marijuana use (Resnick, 1990). By the end of 1971, only three states maintained mandatory minimum felony penalties for possession (Bonnie & Whitebread, 1974). Oregon was the first state to decriminalize marijuana in 1973; by 1978, twelve additional states, with collectively more than a third of the total U.S. population, had done so (Model, 1993). Californians passed the Moscone Act in 1976, which decriminalized possession of marijuana and removed prison sentences. For the next 20 years, until the medical marijuana initiative was passed in 1996, California's marijuana laws did not change substantially.

In November 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, which allows patients to cultivate and use marijuana for medicinal purposes with the written or oral recommendation of a doctor. A number of other states have since passed medical marijuana initiatives. …

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