Social Reaction Theory and the Decriminalization of Marijuana

Social Reaction Theory:
Labeling- The Decriminalization
And Taxation of Marijuana
Elizabeth Hall

http://www.dlsreports.com/forum/r20940013-Re-What's-Up-With-The-Color-Scheme (Mouseferatu, 2008)

Picture of a marijuana plant 

In today’s society, the subject of the decriminalization and taxation of marijuana is a hot button issue.

States like California have already legalized the distribution and sale of medicinal marijuana and with the state of their economy could use the revenue from the taxation raised from legally sold marijuana if the state could decriminalize this substance across the board. In discussing the history of the criminalization of this law, we will do so in relation to the labeling theory that criminologists use today. This theory looks at the careers of criminals as being a product of disparaging societal relations and disgracing social encounters and the subjective nature of the law. The key tenets of the theory are as follows:
*      Those who currently are making the laws bias the criminal natures of certain behaviors. This means that what is considered to be a crime is only such because people label the behavior as a crime.
*      People are labeled as well as acts.
*      Whether the behavior is positive or negative, prejudiced explanation of behavior is required.
The theory also works off the assumption that once one is labeled, as for example, a pothead, meaning a person who smokes marijuana, the rest of their life will follow suit as a pothead with all of the social stigmatization that follows that association. It also suggests that lawmakers can change what deems an act to be illegal, to suit their own needs, as was the case with marijuana (Siegel, 2007).

The passage of the Harrison Act in 1914 was put in place to discourage the use of morphine and opium, since there were a large percentage of addicts in that day. This was due to travelling medicine salesmen peddling their cure alls, and recognized doctors prescribing the drugs for various medical conditions. The legislation required that any person involved in the sale of, distribution, importation of, manufacture, or even giving it as a gift to register and send special forms of transfer to the government, and mandated that they pay tax on any of these products or by products transferred as well. Marijuana was not even considered a part of this legislation until later when the government tried to use marijuana to solve the immigrant problem that arose during the Great Depression. (Schaffer Library of Drug Policy, n.d.)
During the 1920’s, Mexican immigrants brought marijuana into the United States as they came here to find a better life for themselves. At this time, it was a legal product. In the 1930’s, the Great Depression caused a shift in public opinion due to lack of jobs, and the general belief that the reasons Mexicans were regarded as rowdy and causing general disorder was because they smoked marijuana. Americans felt that the immigrants were taking jobs from Americans and the belief that smoking marijuana was of government creation. (Frontline, 1997-1998)
Harry Anslinger was head of the narcotics bureau at this time, and was afforded the daunting task of controlling a weed that grew here naturally as well, because of the production of hemp for ropes. He was not interested in a federal law prohibiting marijuana, because that would put too much strain on the resources of the FBI, so he went after a Uniform State Narcotics Law which put the burden on the state to pass a law deciding for themselves how much money would be budgeted to fight the spread of marijuana. He did not succeed in getting this legislation passed; meanwhile, pressure is still growing to take care of the situation. During this time, The National Firearms Act was brought before the Supreme Court and upheld. That act dealt with the control of machine guns. It stated that you could not give or let someone borrow a machine gun without first obtaining a government stamp to transfer a machine gun. The catch was that since the government did not produce any stamps, machine guns were controlled. Soon after, the treasury brought the marijuana matter to the courts. The Marijuana Stamp Act was passed in 1937 much to the dismay of Anslinger. This forced the issue back on the Bureau’s shoulders, and with such a small budget, he was obliged to formulate a plan. Since it would be next to impossible to stamp out the weed, he decided to fight the problem in the media. He describes the drug’s effects as such that if you used it you would go horribly insane, kill people and generally lose your mind. Since research is generally funded by the government, it is conducted to research whatever side of the issue they support. It was not discovered until the 1960’s that these were not the effects of smoking. For decades, anyone who used marijuana was labeled as rebels and troublemakers due to the government’s shaping of policies for their own interest. (Frontline, 1997-1998) Over the years, there have been many programs stemming from criminal justice policy dealing with addiction and the problems that come from it, and marijuana use would seem to fall under Narcotics Anonymous. Programs to reach juveniles are in place as well, such as the DARE program.  Up until recently, people who used marijuana were labeled as unreliable, and lazy among other things. During the Reagan Presidency, the national campaign to “just say no” emerged, and continues to this day.

Presently in America, it seems that public opinion has changed in the opposite way. Now there are more people in favor of marijuana use, particularly for medical reasons. In Mendocino County, California, it is estimated that marijuana tallies almost two thirds of local revenue. It is big business in this country, and it is being argued that if the government would produce Marijuana Tax Stamps, the plants would be decriminalized across the board, and the government could save our economy with the revenue it would collect from the taxation. (Reagan, 2009)
If this legislation were passed, there would be many people released from jails and prisons from the legalization of this product. The labels associated with being a smoker: lazy, unintelligent, unmotivated, and unreliable would be lifted. Once again, since the labels are changing, and pot smoking is not considered to be as evil of a sin, in the public’s view, the laws are making National Headlines, and the Courts are considering changes in policy.
There are other Social Process Theories in criminology. They are Differential Association Theory, Neutralization Theory, and Social Control Theory. All of these theories have their own key tenets and relations to crime rates and juvenile delinquency. Social views and exposures are the driving force behind the laws enacted and the policies mandated in our legal system. (Siegel, 2007)


Frontline. (1997-1998, Winter). Busted: America's War on Marijuana. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from Dr. David F. Musto Interview: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/
Mouseferatu. (2008, August 12). Michael's Insight Get the low-down on cable broadband Insight Communications CEO's blog. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from DSL Reports: http://www.dslreports.com/forum/r20940013-Re-Whats-up-with-the-color-scheme
Office of National Drug Control Policy. (2006, July 19). ONDCP Drug Policy Information Clearinghouse Fact Sheet. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from Drug Use Trends October 2002: http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/publications/factsht/druguse/
Reagan, T. (2009, March). Marijuana Incorporated: Inside America's Pot Industry. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from Marijuana Incorporated: Inside America's Pot Industry: http://www.cnbc.com/id/28281668
Schaffer Library of Drug Policy. (n.d.). Library Resources. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from Schaffer Library of Drug Policy: http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/index.HTM
Siegel, L. (2007). Criminology: The Core (Third ed.). Belmont, CA, United States: Cenegage Learning.

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