Marijuana Retains Much of Its Popularity Despite Stiffer Penalties : Drugs: Almost 66 million Americans have tried pot at least once. Last year, 400,000 of them were arrested.


Ruth knows that smoking marijuana, once virtually ignored by the public and police, is now considered “a very deviant thing. It’s very taboo.”

The 40-something San Francisco professional is married, has children and a respectable job. She knows that even though California’s marijuana law is still relatively lenient, a drug bust could threaten her livelihood.

But she still smokes high-grade sinsemilla several times a week.



“It’s a very nice high,” she said. “Often in these drug stories, people forget to mention that part.”

Ruth is far from alone. Marijuana is the most popular illegal drug today, the crack epidemic notwithstanding.

Perhaps as a result, most states arrest more people for marijuana than for cocaine and heroin combined, government statistics show. Last year, almost 400,000 people were busted on some kind of marijuana charge.

The drug’s popularity stems in part from the fact that it is a known quantity--almost 66 million Americans have tried it at least once, many of them during its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. The 1988 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that 6.6 million Americans used it once a week or more and 11.6 million had used it in the previous month.


It is considered relatively safe. Today’s marijuana may be far stronger than its counterpart a decade ago, as the government says, but Harvard psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon notes there is “no reliable evidence of death caused by cannabis in a human being.”

And it’s relatively cheap. John, a scientist who uses sinsemilla several evenings a week, says one ounce lasts him six months. That ounce could cost as little as $100 and the same amount of lower-grade marijuana can run $40.

In some states, nearly every drug arrest involves marijuana--86% in Vermont, for example, 82% in North Dakota and 81% in Maine, according to FBI figures for 1988.

Eight of every 10 marijuana busts is for possession of the drug, the FBI says.


The reason so many people are arrested on marijuana charges seems obvious to one group--the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which has advocated marijuana legalization for two decades.

Marijuana users “are easier targets” than, say, cocaine traffickers, said NORML spokesman John Dunlap. “They’re a much more passive lot. The government knows it’s an easy public relations victory.”

Dunlap also contends there are just more marijuana smokers out there--he estimates 30 million people use it once a week, far more than the government estimate of 6.6 million.

Many police departments that once paid little attention to marijuana users have changed as attitudes harden toward all illegal drugs.


“The cops basically sort of ignored it” a few years ago, said Bill FitzGerald, spokesman for the Maricopa, Ariz., county attorney, Richard Romley. Today, the county--which includes Phoenix--boasts a “Do Drugs, Do Time” program targeting all drug users.

“Every arrested person will be booked into jail for at least a few hours,” said Romley and Sheriff Thomas Agnos in a paper describing the program.

First-time offenders may enter a diversion program and, according to FitzGerald, three-quarters of the people who did had been arrested on marijuana charges.

Across America, government agencies have staged widely publicized raids on outdoor marijuana fields, indoor growing labs and stores that sell equipment for such labs in an attempt to curtail domestic crops that provide an estimated 25% of the U.S. supply.


The government admits that it conducts these raids in large part to impress a foreign audience.

“We cannot expect foreign countries to undertake vigorous anti-drug efforts inside their borders if we ourselves fail to do likewise,” says the National Drug Control Strategy issued in January.

In perhaps another reflection of changing attitudes about drugs, laws themselves are becoming more stringent.

Of the 11 states that decriminalized marijuana possession for personal use during the 1970s, four have reversed course.


Alaska, which had legalized possession of up to four ounces at home or other private places, voted Nov. 6 to make possession of small amounts a crime again.

Maine, Ohio and Oregon had already tightened marijuana restrictions. But in seven other states--California, Colorado, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nebraska and New York--a marijuana arrest is more akin to a traffic ticket than a criminal charge.

Despite the heightened legal risk, many marijuana smokers cannot imagine giving it up.

John, the scientist who asked that his real name not be used, said a single puff of sinsemilla “facilitates the imagination and has allowed occasional creative breakthroughs,” some of which have led to “papers published in reputable journals.”


His employers do not require random drug tests, but if they did, “That would be enough of an insult to my freedom that I would quit and contribute to the brain drain,” said John, who is single.

To Ruth, who also did not want her last name used, marijuana is “the best aphrodisiac there is.” Alcohol is not a substitute.

“You get drunk with alcohol,” she said. “You get sloppy. And the next day you have a hangover. The worst that can happen with marijuana is you get sleepy.”