Marijuana's Disappearing Stigma


According to an article in the evangelical news magazine World, "marijuana is losing its stigma," largely because of "its claim to have medicinal purposes" and "the perception that everyone uses it." The piece opens with a "highly publicized drug bust at Texas Christian University" last month in which 15 students were arrested, mostly for selling marijuana, and it notes Pat Robertson's recent endorsement of legalization. But the author, Scott Jennings, offers no solid evidence to back up his thesis, relying exclusively on anecdotes and impressionistic quotes from students, university officials, and a psychologist who "has written about strategies to combat drug and alcohol use on college campuses." In fact, it's not completely clear what Jennings' thesis is: Marijuana is less stigmatized today compared to when?

If this purported trend is tied to medical marijuana laws, the relevant period would be since 1996, when the first such law was enacted (in California). But in the Monitoring the Future Study, which asks high school students how much "people risk harming themselves" when they "try marijuana once or twice," the share of 12th-graders who considered the risk "great" was exactly the same in 2011 as it was in 1996: 15.6 percent. The share who admitted smoking pot in the previous month rose only slightly during this period, from 24.8 percent in 1996 to 26.2 percent in 2011. The increase among college students was a little bigger, from 17.6 percent in 1996 to 19.2 percent in 2010 (the most recent year included in the latest report); the latter figure is exactly the same as the percentage in 1997. As for perceived harmfulness, it actually rose a bit among 18-year-olds between 1996 and 2010 while remaining about the same among 19-to-22-year-olds.

All four of those numbers bounced up and down during this period, but with no obvious connection to medical marijuana laws. Likewise, in the Texas Survey of Substance Use Among University Students (which includes students at Texas Christian), the rate of past-month marijuana use was 11 percent in both 1997 and 2005 (the two most recent years in which survey was conducted). So there is not even a prima facie case that allowing medical use of marijuana has decreased the drug's perceived harmfulness, as the psychologist quoted by Jennings claims, or increased recreational use by high school or college students. Furthermore, research looking at cannabis use by teenagers in states with medical marijuana laws (described here and here) has found no evidence to back up drug warriors' claims that such laws encourage kids to smoke pot. 

Taking a longer view, it's true that "marijuana is losing its stigma" compared to, say, the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. The perceived harmfulness of marijuana peaked in 1991 among high school seniors and in 1992 among 19-to-22-year-olds, when 27.1 percent of the former and 19.1 percent of the latter said experimenting with pot posed a "great risk" of harm. The thing is, it's not true that experimenting with pot poses a great risk of harm (leaving aside the legal hazards), so the Monitoring the Future Study is actually tracking the percentage of young people who believe the government's anti-drug lies (or who say they do). Drug warriors, of course, want that number to be as high as possible, so they always fret about reductions in perceived harmfulness, which they warn are associated with increases in use. That much is true, although it's not clear in which direction the causality runs: Do people try marijuana because they (correctly) perceive it to be not very hazardous, or do they perceive it to be not very hazardous because they or people they know have tried it and emerged unscathed from the experience? Jennings does not seem interested in disentangling these phenomena, taking a disapproving view of "the perception that marijuana is safe or relatively harmless" and the belief that smoking pot is morally indistinguishable from drinking.

That, of course, is Pat Robertson's argument, and an interesting question is why he and other conservatives recently have come around to that view. Presumably it is for the same reasons that record numbers of Americans tell pollsters they support legalizing marijuana: increased familiarity with the drug, whether through direct or indirect experience; disillusionment with the never-ending, always-failing war on drugs; and revulsion at the human cost of draconian drug penalties. Robertson himself says the latter two factors figured in his conversion, and while he says he has never tried marijuana himself, he may know people who have. At 82 (as of next week), Robertson is part of generation in which marijuana use was rare, but most American adults under the age of 60 say they have tried pot at least once. Add in people who never smoked pot but know people who did, and you have an emerging majority with a more accurate impression of the drug than the government wants them to have.

This familiarity is probably the single most important factor in the growing sentiment in favor of repealing marijuana prohibition, because it changes cannabis from a sinister intoxicant used by other people into a drug enjoyed by our friends, neighbors, and relatives (if not ourselves). But as Jennings notes, this tolerance does not necessarily extend to other, "harder" drugs. It would be nice if people applied principles of individual autonomy consistently, such that a drug could be legal (as alcohol is) without being perceived as "safe or relatively harmless." But for the time being, we will have to settle for addressing pharmacological prejudices one at a time.

Yesterday I noted former drug czar Bill Bennett's reply to Robertson.