A guiding principle driving the sociological understanding and analysis of deviance is the recognition that behaviors themselves are not inherently deviant; rather it is the social perceptions and reactions to a behavior that makes a particular behavior deviant.  This explains why opinions and attitudes towards different forms of supposedly deviant behaviors regularly change.  A notable change in one type of deviance, using marijuana, is revealed in a report compiled by the Pew Research Center.

According to David F. Musto, a century ago marijuana was an obscure drug used almost exclusively by Hispanics in the Southwest.  Its limited association with this ethnic group is largely why marijuana initially became illegal.  With the onset of the Great Depression, both federal and state governments sought ways to expel nonwhites from the country as their cheap labor was no longer necessary.  Making one of this group’s pastimes illegal was a way to stigmatize Hispanics and rally public support for a population transfer.  With a populace stirred into a moral panic by racism, nativism and propaganda movies like Reefer Madness, there was little resistance to the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act which effectively made cannibas illegal.

In the 1960s marijuana experienced a cultural comeback when it became the drug of choice for baby-boomers who saw the drug as a safer alternative to the alcohol and methamphetamine that plagued their parents’ generation.  Marijuana was even legal for a brief period after the Supreme Court found the 1937 marijuana act unconstitutional.  However, because of widespread concern that drugs were corrupting the moral fabric of America’s youth, in 1970 marijuana was one of many drugs outlawed by President Nixon’s Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.  Interestingly, marijuana was the only drug targeted by this act that did not include a medical exception.  In the 1980s, President Reagan increased penalties for breaking drug laws, and subsequently the prison population in the United States swelled to a size seemingly unimaginable in a wealthy democracy.

The graph below from PEW’s report captures how federal action came during times of heightened public support to make marijuana illegal.

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Yet, the graph also captures how in the early 1990s, support for the legalization of marijuana started to increase.  According to the PEW report, around this time California pioneered using the drug for medicinal purposes; seventeen other states (including D.C.) have since followed California’s lead while six other states decriminalized possession of small amounts.  In 2012, citizens in Colorado and Oregon voted to completely legalize marijuana despite federal law.  This relaxing and even elimination of marijuana laws mirrors favorable opinions of marijuana and growing support for its legalization.

It is difficult to tell if legalization, medical or otherwise, drives public opinion or vice-versa.  Regardless, an especially noteworthy finding of the PEW report is that right now, more than half of the United States’ citizens think marijuana should be legal.  Sociologists always take interest when trend lines cross in public opinion polls because the threshold is especially important in a majority-rule democracy; and the PEW report finds for the first time in the history of the poll, a majority of U.S. citizens support marijuana legalization.

This historical research data on opinions about marijuana reveals how definitions of deviance, and in many cases the ways those definitions are incorporated into the legal system, grow out of shared social perceptions.  Although there have been some notable genetic and cultivation advances, marijuana has changed relatively little in the last forty years; yet our perceptions of this drug (and therefore its definitions of use as deviant) regularly evolve and we can expect opinions, and therefore our laws, to further change in the future.

Jason Eastman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Coastal Carolina University who researches how culture and identity influence social inequalities.

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