Skip to main content

INSIGHTS BLOG > Why Is Alcohol Accepted While Cannabis Is Not?

Why Is Alcohol Accepted While Cannabis Is Not?

Written on 24 November 2019

Ruth Fisher, PhD. by Ruth Fisher, PhD

Alcohol Use In America

Cannabis Use In America

Prevalence and Social Attitudes

What Determines an Activity’s Prevalence?

Social Attitudes and Laws

Social Acceptance: Alcohol vs. Cannabis

Social Narratives vs. Reality

The Role of Common Knowledge


Both alcohol and cannabis have been around for thousands of years, and both have been used for recreational, spiritual, and medical purposes. Both have been a part of life in America since our country’s founding. And to a greater or lesser extent, both have been socially accepted at times, while being prohibited at other times. For the past century, however, there has been a distinct difference in social attitudes between the two: while people tend to accept or reject alcohol, they don’t react to it with fear, a sense of taboo, or disgust, like they do with cannabis. Why is that? This analysis attempts to understand why people tend to accept alcohol but denounce cannabis.

To better understand Americans’ attitudes toward alcohol and cannabis, I first examine the role each has played in America’s history. Next, I examine the nature of social acceptance of alcohol vs. cannabis, and then I propose some explanations as to why alcohol has been accepted, perhaps grudgingly at times, while cannabis has been so adamantly rejected.

I conclude that alcohol has always been used overtly, so everyone can see its effects. Users have validated its use and effects for other users and non-users. However, cannabis has always been used covertly, so people can’t see that it’s safe, enjoyable, and effective for treating medical conditions; that is, users have not been able to validate cannabis use for other users and non-users. The overt vs. covert behavior has created feedback loops encouraging acceptance of alcohol, while enabling the contiued stigmatization of cannabis.


Alcohol Use in America

A Brief History of Alcohol Use in America[1]

Since America’s founding, alcohol has been a part of everyday life.

The colonists brought with them from Europe a high regard for alcoholic beverages. Distilled and fermented liquors were considered important and invigorating foods, whose restorative powers were a natural blessing. People in all regions and of all classes drank heavily.

Drunkenness was considered a “personal indiscretion”:

Drunkenness was condemned and punished, but only as an abuse of a God-given gift. Drink itself was not looked upon as culpable, any more than food deserved blame for the sin of gluttony. Excess was personal indiscretion.

Drunkenness was controlled using a combination of physical sanctions (fines or whippings) and conventional mechanisms for control, including limits on tavern hours, requirements for taverns to provide food and lodging, and limits on who taverns could serve, as well as the activities in which patrons could engage.

During the late 1700s through the mid 1800s, however, society experienced rapidly growing immigration, industrialization, urbanization and social change (see Figure 1). Immigrants flooded cities from rural parts of the US and from foreign countries. Massive dislocations, together with loss of support systems, left many unable to cope. They found solace in taverns.

Figure 1

1 us pop

At the same time, the nature of taverns changed, from one overseen by respectable members of society who maintained social control, to one run by “common folk” seeking to commercially exploit liquor.

These radical social changes created a breakdown in the social norms that had previously discouraged alcohol abuse. Heavy drinking became much more common and caused numerous problems: people were late to work and unable to fulfill their job functions, and drunken men were abusing their wives and children or leaving them without means of support.

Whereas abusing alcohol had previously been considered a personal failing, it was now attributed to the corrupting influences of opportunistic suppliers of alcohol. Temperance adherents believed that if supplies of alcohol were halted, people would return to their natural state of decency and sobriety. In other words, people considered alcohol abuse the primary cause of society’s changes and problems, rather than largely their effect.

Prohibition was enacted in 1920 under laws containing “cross-references, contradictions, and modifications of ordinary criminal procedures [that] created enormous administrative and legal problems.” In short, Prohibition was impossible to enforce. “Bootlegging and organized crime stepped in to profit” [2] from supplying the continued demand for spirits, and “[t]hirsty people openly flouted the law in a drunken, thirteen-year-long binge…”[3] Yet, “[i]t must also be borne in mind that for all the corrupt, inept, and discretionary ways that that law was written and enforced, it did reduce the amount that Americans drank,” at least for a couple of decades (see Figure 2).

In 1933, Prohibition was replaced by government regulation and control, where “[t]he role of the state was to oversee orderly distribution rather than to curtail availability.” A lesson of Prohibition was that “[r]esponsible individual behavior could be encouraged and even taught, but not imposed or coerced. After Prohibition, the problems associated with alcohol were seen more and more as ones of personal choice or personal disability.”

Figure 2

2 alc

An Even Briefer Summary of Alcohol Use in America

Alcohol played a part of everyday life in colonial America. Alcohol use was pervasive, but it was managed using a combination of government-imposed restraints and social controls. But then during the mid-to-late 18th century, American society started radically transforming from immigration, industrialization, urbanization and social change. Social and government controls on use of alcohol were lost, and alcohol abuse started becoming rampant. Alcohol Prohibitionists blamed alcohol for the massive social dislocations of the period, and on the promise of restoring social order, eventually managed to enact Prohibition. However, inconsistencies in the law made it impossible to effectively enforce prohibition. Bootlegging prospered and consumption continued, creating social havoc. Eventually, Prohibition was repealed, and government effort changed from trying to prevent supply of alcohol to managing it. Prohibition did have a noticeable effect of decreasing consumption of alcohol.


Cannabis Use in America

A Brief History of Cannabis Use in America


Hemp came to the US with the Puritans in the 1600s. In fact, hemp was so central to life in the colonies that they were “compelled by law” to cultivate it in America.

Hemp arrived in Colonial America with the Puritans in the form of seed for planting and as fiber in the lines, sails and caulking of the Mayflower. British sailing vessels were never without a store of hemp seed, and Britain’s colonies were compelled by law to grow hemp.[4]

Up until the mid-1800s, most clothing was made from hemp. Both cotton and hemp were extremely labor intensive to process, but the cotton gin, introduced during the late 18th century, reduced the relative costs of processing cotton. Around the mid-1800s, then, cotton started to overshadow hemp for use in clothing.[5] Nonetheless, hemp oil and fiber continued to be used in the manufacture of other products. During the 1930s, new technology for processing hemp was invented that drastically reduced hemp’s costs, making it “available and affordable”:

By the 1930s, new machinery, which separated the fiber from the rest of the plant, was available and affordable... According to the February 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics … hemp was then on the verge of becoming “the billion-dollar crop.[6]

Unfortunately, hemp posed a threat to several large industrialists, namely the DuPont Family, William Randolph Hearst, and Andrew Mellon:

In the early 1900’s DuPont was manufacturing pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that were used extensively in the production of cotton... DuPont also held patents for the processing of oil and coal into plastics... If hemp was to see another big surge in demand it could have surely spelled disaster for the company’s bottom line.

William Randolph Hearst also understood the threat that popularized hemp production could have on his paper industry. His business manufactured paper from tree fiber, and he understood that hemp grew much faster and could be manufactured cheaper than the product he was producing. In order for Hearst’s company to thrive, he knew he must be the main producer of paper in the USA and had to do something to prevent the production of hemp.

…Andrew Melon was the owner of Melon Bank which was the financial backer of both DuPont and Hearst … [As Secretary of the Treasury under President Herbert Hoover, Melon] created the Bureau of Narcotics and chose none other than the husband of his niece, Harry Anslinger, to head the department.” [7]

Anslinger was instrumental in legislating the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which effectively banned the use of cannabis in the US.[8] While restrictions on producing hemp were relaxed during WWII, they were firmly reimposed once the war was over. [9] Hemp bans remained in place until the end of the 20th century, at which time restrictions began to loosen.[10]

Medical Cannabis

In 1842, WB O'Shaughnessy, “a young professor at the Medical College of Calcutta, who had observed its use in India” was the first person to introduce medical cannabis (Cannabis indica) to the West. O'Shaughnessy was impressed by cannabis’s effectiveness as an analgesic, a muscle-relaxant, and an anticonvulsant.[11]

Cannabis tinctures came to the US by way of England, but imported from India, until supplies were interrupted during WWI. In 1913, “the US Department of Agriculture Bureau of Plant Industry announced it had succeeded in growing domestic cannabis of equal quality to the Indian,” and “by 1918, some 60,000 pounds were being produced annually” in the US.[12]

By the end of the 19th century, physicians were using cannabis tinctures for:

tetanus, neuralgia, dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation), convulsions, the pain of rheumatism and childbirth, asthma, postpartum psychosis, gonorrhea, and chronic bronchitis … [a]s a hypnotic (sleep-inducing drug) … to stimulate appetite … to subdue restlessness and anxiety and distract a patient's mind in terminal illness .. [as] a pain reliever … for senile insomnia … [for] various forms of neuralgia, including tic douloureux (a painful facial neurological disorder), and … [for] preventing migraine attacks.[13]

Eventually, however, physicians started replacing cannabis with “hypodermic morphia” and newly developed synthetic drugs, such as aspirin, chloral hydrate, and barbiturates. Relative to the newly available drugs, cannabis was found to be too variable in its potency, erratic and unpredictable in its effects, insoluble in water (opiates could be injected for fast relief), and less chemically stable than the alternatives. Yet, these alternatives to cannabis had “striking” disadvantages, including aspirin-induced bleeding and barbiturate-induced coma and death. Consequently, physicians and researchers might very well have found safer and more stable chemical variations on THC to replace the other analgesics. But, cannabis — and associated research[14] — was effectively banned under the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act and “Cannabis was removed from the United States Pharmacopeia and National Formulary in 1941.”[15]

Medicinal cannabis remained illegal until 1978, when the U.S. Government was legally forced to make medical marijuana available to select patients, initially for use in treating glaucoma, and later for treatment of HIV/AIDS. This compassionate use program was shut down in 1991.[16] But soon thereafter in 1996, due in part to being deluged with requests by AIDS patients, California legalized cannabis for medical uses. Over the next two and a half decades, 32 more states, together with the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands have followed California’s lead in legalizing cannabis for medical use.[17]

Recreational Cannabis

Chinese immigrants, attracted to the US during the railroad and Gold Rush booms in the mid 1800s, brought with them the habit of smoking opium for recreational use. “Opium dens sprang up in San Francisco's Chinatown and spread eastward to New York.”[18] By the late 1800s, recreational use of opium had become problematic globally. International conventions on opiate use were convened in Shanghai (1909) and at the Hague (1912).

At the same time opium was creating problems during the late 1800s, Chinese and Middle Eastern immigrants to the East Coast brought hashish:

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, oriental-style hashish houses were said to be flourishing. An article in Harper’s Magazine (1883) … describes a hashish-house in New York frequented by a large clientele, including males and females of "the better classes." It goes on to say that parlors also existed in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and especially New Orleans - but fails to mention cities further west.[19]

Cannabis use in hashish houses is not discussed much in the literature. Most sources pinpoint early cannabis use for recreational purposes as having been introduced into the US by Mexicans and Jamaicans: immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920) spread cannabis (Cannabis sativa) use for recreational purposes throughout the local (Latino) populations, whereas Jamaicans immigrating into New Orleans introduced jazz musicians and artists to creational cannabis, from where its use spread northward to Chicago.[20]

At least dating back to the late 19th century, folklore suggested that marijuana use induced fantastic manias and madness. One 1909 story from the Pacific Drug Review claimed:

The marihuana weed is known as the most harmful of narcotic influences, however, and its leaves, when smoked in the form of cigarettes, produce a species of insanity which frequently ends in a horrible death. It is said that Empress Carlotta, the wife of Emperor Maximilian, had her mind dethroned by drinking coffee in which marihuana leaves had been placed. She left Mexico an incurable lunatic at the time of the overthrow of the French in that country, and has never regained her faculties. [21]

Another feature of these early accounts is their association of marijuana use with society’s undesirables. According to a 1905 report from the Mexican Herald published in the LA Times:

Marihuana is a weed used only by people of the lower class and sometimes by soldiers, but those who make larger use of it are prisoners sentenced in long terms...

The drug leaves of marihuana, alone or mixed with tobacco, make the smoker wilder than a wild beast...Everything, the smokers say, takes the shape of a monster, and men look like devils. They begin to fight, and of course, everything smashed is a "monster" killed...

People who smoke marihuana finally lose their mind and never recover it, but their brains dry up and they die, most of the time suddenly.[22]

During the first half of the 20th century, recreational cannabis was generally concentrated within the Latino and Black communities. In his newspaper, William Randolph Hearst spread lurid accounts of the fantastical effects of marijuana that were reflective of stories from the earlier folklore. In his stories, Hearst emphasized the link between marijuana use and society’s undesirables of the time, “Negroes and Mexicans”:

Also, Hearst and other copy-cat sensationalist tabloids used scare headlines and stories of Negroes and Mexicans, under the Influence of marijuana, playing anti-white "voo-doo-satanic" music (jazz) and recounted to their predominantly white readers the new disrespect and “viciousness” that Blacks and Mexicans, under marijuana's effect, showed to whites.[23]

Recreational cannabis use became more mainstream during the counterculture revolution of the 1960s, as young, white Americans embraced it, and “The social stigmatization previously associated with drugs lessens as their use becomes more mainstream. Drug use becomes representative of protest and social rebellion in the era's atmosphere of political unrest.”[24]

During the 1970s, pro-cannabis advocates convinced states that cannabis was less harmful than many had claimed, leading state governments to decriminalize it. The subsequent decriminalization at the state level led to more widespread – and more overt – use of cannabis. But the proliferation of drug culture frightened parents, whose renewed lobbying against its use resulted in recriminalization of cannabis at the state level during the early 1980s. [25]

At the Federal level, President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs in 1971. Throughout state decriminalization, the federal government continued to vilify cannabis, associating its use with select members of society, this time blacks and hippies.[26] During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan reinitiated the War on Drugs, and Nancy Reagan continued the stigmatization of recreational cannabis use in society with her “Just Say No” campaign.

The AIDS epidemic and Gulf War ushered in the 1990s and shifted America’s focus away from recreational cannabis and toward medical cannabis and the Middle East. [27] Medicinal uses of cannabis started to gain a toehold with California’s 1996 Compassionate Use Act, which legalized cannabis for medical use. After that, social stigmatization of cannabis slowly started to crack. More recently, over the past two decades, cannabis has slowly become more accepted for medical uses and, to some extent, for recreational uses. But much of the stigma still remains.

An Even Briefer Summary of Cannabis Use in America

Hemp was widely used for a variety of industrial uses in America until the late 19th century. Around that time, hemp began interfering with the business prospects of several industrialists. Shortly thereafter, in 1937, the Federal government effectively banned industrial hemp. Restrictions on hemp production were lifted briefly during WWII to help further wartime interests, but the restrictions were quickly reimposed after the war ended.

Cannabis tinctures were widely used to treat a variety of medical conditions from mid-to-late 19th century. During the latter part of the 19th century, hypodermic needles, aspirin, and other synthetic pain relievers appeared, providing several advantages over cannabis. As such, physicians largely replaced cannabis with the newer medications. Yet, once certain disadvantages of the new treatments became apparent, researchers might have returned to cannabis in search of better solutions. Shortly thereafter, however, the federal government effectively banned both use of and research into medical cannabis.

Asian, Mexican, and Jamaican immigrants introduced recreational cannabis to America during the mid-19th to early-20th centuries. Anti-cannabis campaigns vilifying and stigmatizing users started in the late 19th century and continued throughout the 20th century. During the 1990s, however, America has slowly become more accepting of cannabis, though much of the stigma still remains.


Prevalence and Social Attitudes

To understand the differences in social attitudes between the use of alcohol and that of cannabis, we need to first understand (i) generally speaking, how we decide which activities to engage in, and (ii) more specifically, how social attitudes shape those decisions.

What Determines an Activity’s Prevalence?

What determines how widespread an activity will be in society? Generally speaking, more people will engage in an activity when: it satisfies a common need, there are few substitutes, it is legal, it is socially accepted, and it poses a low threat to physical harm. Let’s discuss each of these in a bit more detail.

The activity satisfies a common need

Alcohol and cannabis both satisfy a range of common needs for people, including:

  • To recreate
  • To relax or relieve stress
  • To cope with problems
  • To address medical conditions
  • To rebel
  • To experiment
  • To relieve boredom

Substitutes for the activity are available

Alcohol and cannabis both have similar substitutes available for satisfying people’s needs, including, for example,

  • Tobacco
  • Other legal and illegal drugs
  • Exercise/athletics
  • Meditation
  • Video games

The activity is legal

In the US, the use of alcohol has generally been legal (for adult use), while the use of cannabis has generally been illegal.

The activity is socially accepted by society

The use of alcohol has generally been socially accepted, while the use of cannabis has generally been socially stigmatized (see next section, “Social Attitudes and Laws”).

The risk of physical harm associated with the activity is low

People have generally recognized that even casual use of using alcohol carries some risks, such as those associated with drunk driving and violent behavior. Many people also recognize that chronic users of alcohol risk more serious health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and various cancers. However, people don’t generally regard addiction or serious health conditions as problems associated with casual use of alcohol.

In contrast, many people do associate serious risks with even casual use of cannabis. People fear that even casual cannabis use will lead them to become addicts, to use harder drugs, or to potentially become mentally ill.

Social Attitudes and Laws

What Are Social Attitudes?

People exhibit zillions of different traits and behaviors, such as how tall they are, how long their fingers are, or which foods they eat. Most of these traits and behaviors don’t matter socially, but some do. And what matters in one society at a point in time is not necessarily the same as what matters in a different society or at a different point in time. When society deems a particular trait or behavior to matter, society attaches a label to that trait or behavior classifying it as being beautiful or ugly, good or bad, or socially acceptable or unacceptable. The labels we attach to traits and behaviors that we think matter determine our social norms, that is, they determine which traits and activities society deems acceptable or unacceptable. [28]

Examples of traits that were considered beautiful in past societies include:[29]

  • Ancient Egypt: Braided Wigs And Lots Of Eyeliner
  • Ancient Greece: Unibrows And Bleached Curls
  • Heian Japan: Super-Long Hair And Smudgy Eyebrows
  • Renaissance Italy: High Foreheads And Strawberry Blonde Hair
  • 18th-Century France: Double Chins And White Skin
  • The Edwardian Era: Tousled Hair And An Hourglass Figure
  • The Roaring '20s: A Slim Silhouette And Bobbed Hair
  • 1950s: Flawless Skin And A Curvy Shape
  • 1960s: Androgyny And Lots Of Eyelashes
  • 1980s: Diversity And Big Hair For All

Examples of behaviors that were considered unacceptable in the past include:[30]

  • Premarital sex
  • Premarital cohabitation (“living together in sin”)
  • Women wearing pants
  • Being left-handed
  • Getting tattoos

Certain traits or behaviors that society believes are especially repugnant are deemed extremely unacceptable or stigmatized. When society stigmatizes a trait or behavior, it creates extreme “us vs. them” thinking. People who bear stigmatized traits or engage in stigmatized behavior face social disapproval, rejection, exclusion, and discrimination:

In the extreme, the stigmatized person is thought to be so different from "us" as to be not really human. And again, in the extreme, all manner of horrific treatment of "them" becomes possible. [31]

Examples of stigmatized traits and behaviors include:

  • Homosexuality
  • Obesity
  • Mental illness
  • Having HIV/AIDS
  • Using illegal drugs

Social Norms vs. Laws

What’s the difference between social norms and laws? I like this characterization of social norms that describes them as being organically formed when people interact with one another:

Social norms, like many other social phenomena, are the unplanned result of individuals’ interaction. It has been argued that social norms ought to be understood as a kind of grammar of social interactions. Like a grammar, a system of norms specifies what is acceptable and what is not in a society or group. And, analogously to a grammar, it is not the product of human design.[32]

Law, on the other hand, is a product of human design. I think this provides an insightful characterization of the difference between social norms and laws, or legal norms:

Legal norms are often seen as a means to regulate behaviour when neither self-interest nor social norms produce the desired behaviour in individuals. This suggests, on the one hand, that the law should regulate those areas in which social norms do not exist and provide support and extra enforcement in those areas where social norms exist. It also suggests on the other hand that there seems to be no questioning of the intrinsic efficiency and fairness of existing social norms.[33]

The first sentence in the quote indicates that it is not uncommon for social norms and laws to differ in what they consider to be acceptable social behavior. Examples of behaviors for which social norms often differ from laws include: tax evasion, production of low-quality products, corruption, harassing behavior, use of illegal substances.[34]

The last sentence in the quote suggests social norms may not be efficient or fair, in which case one function of the law is to make “imperfect” social norms “more perfect” (whatever that means).

Since social norms are formed organically during social interactions, this begs the question: what makes legal authority more authoritative than social authority? The literature suggests that when the people empowered to make the laws are considered to be legitimately empowered, then the laws they make are considered to possess legitimate authority.[35]

How Do Social Attitudes and Laws Shape Our Behavior?

Sociologists and psychologists generally consider our needs for esteem (status, self-regard) and belonging and our fear of rejection to be universal human needs. Being accepted as part of the group is a primal urge that has helped us survive for tens of thousands of years. People meet these primal needs by adhering to social norms, that is, by doing what’s considered socially acceptable and by shunning what’s considered socially unacceptable. More simply, we crave social approval, “the positive appraisal and acceptance of a person by a social group,” so we act in ways that are socially acceptable. And we abhor social disapproval, “the rejection and condemnation of a person for an action or behaviour the group sees as wrong,”[36] so we avoid behaviors deemed socially unacceptable.

As for why we generally obey the law, sociologists and psychologists posit several explanations:[37]

  • Because otherwise we risk legal fines and sanctions
  • Because laws possess legitimate authority
  • Because laws often serve to coordinate activities by members of society to help them avoid conflict or other undesirable situations
  • Because laws often serve to signal information about risk or public attitudes
  • Because it’s generally expected (i.e., socially acceptable) that people will obey the law

We also have deeper reasons for obeying both social norms and laws: to avoid self-sanctioning, that is, to avoid feelings of guilt, self-disapproval, or shame.

Guilt… An internalized normative incentive means that an individual essentially sanctions himself. Guilt is disutility that arises when a person behaves in ways he thinks morally wrong…

Esteem and disapproval. Esteem is a normative incentive that exists if a person cares intrinsically (in addition to instrumentally) what others believe about his behavior…

Shame. … shame is used to mean the disutility caused by disapproval … though with an emphasis on particularly intense and widespread disapproval.[38]


Social Acceptance: Alcohol vs. Cannabis

We now have a better understanding of the history of alcohol use in America, the history of cannabis use in America, and how social attitudes and laws shape our behavior. We are thus better prepared to answer the question: why do people tend to accept alcohol but denounce cannabis?

Social Narratives vs. Reality

Consider the differences for alcohol and cannabis between what members of society claim to be true (“the social narrative”) and what actions or information show to be true (“reality”).

Alcohol Reality. Since the colonization of America, alcohol use has been a part of everyday life. During the mid-to-late 1800s, American society experienced radical change. Immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and loss of social support systems created social dislocation, unemployment, and chaos. People’s inability to cope with the changing environment led many to drink. Alcoholism was both a cause and an effect of unemployment and destitution, and it further contributed to child neglect, domestic violence, and severe health problems.[39]

Alcohol Narrative. Alcohol antagonists (members of the Temperance Movement) blamed alcohol for society’s problems and claimed Prohibition would solve those problems.

Alcohol Reality. Prohibition didn’t solve society’s problems. On the other hand, Prohibition led to increases in government controls on the use of alcohol. Reinstatement of controls, together with changes in the social environment – adaptation to urbanization and construction of new support systems – helped to mitigate America’s drinking problem. During the post-Prohibition period, alcohol returned to being a part of everyday life.

Alcohol Narrative. While people do perceive certain risks associated with drinking alcohol, social norms have tended to downplay the dangers associated with alcohol abuse.

Cannabis Reality. Since the colonization of America, hemp use has been a part of everyday life but was eventually replaced by other products during the early 1900s. Cannabis was introduced as a medical treatment during the mid-1880s, but hypodermic morphine and aspirin replaced the use of cannabis during the late 1800s to early 1900s. Recreational cannabis was introduced during the mid-to-late 1800s, but it was not used by mainstream society until the 1960s.

Cannabis Narrative. Hemp and medical cannabis never induced overt opposition. Recreational cannabis, on the other hand, has been ruthlessly vilified in folklore and by the press since the late 1800s. During the early 1930s, government became an additional, aggressive participant in the anti-cannabis crusade. As an example of the sensationalism used in cannabis propaganda, select anti-cannabis posters announced:

Teen-age Dope Slave[40]

Weird Parties, Wild Orgies[41]

The Official Truth: If you smoke it, You Will Kill People[42]

Marijuana: What will your mother say when she finds your corpse?[43]

The US National Institute of Health (NIH) “is the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world.”[44] The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), a department of the NIH, was established in 1974 with a mission “to advance science on the causes and consequences of drug use and addiction…” The NIH and NIDA have funded thousands of studies on cannabis, many of which conclude that cannabis causes schizophrenia, deterioration of mental and physical health, and criminal behavior and that cannabis serves as a gateway to the use of harder drugs.

Cannabis Reality. Several commissions have been tasked by government figures to conduct in-depth studies of cannabis use. Those studies concluded, “contrary to earlier research and popular belief, use of marijuana did not induce violence, insanity or sex crimes, or lead to addiction or other drug use.”

1944 LaGuardia Report: “In 1944, the New York Academy of Medicine issued an extensively researched report declaring that, contrary to earlier research and popular belief, use of marijuana did not induce violence, insanity or sex crimes, or lead to addiction or other drug use.”[45]

1972 Shafer Commission Report: The Commission’s findings, subsequently reprinted by the New York Academy of Medicine, indicated:

No significant physical, biochemical, or mental abnormalities could be attributed solely to their marihuana smoking... No valid stereotype of a marihuana user or non-user can be drawn... Young people who choose to experiment with marihuana are fundamentally the same people, socially and psychologically, as those who use alcohol and tobacco... No verification is found of a causal relationship between marihuana use and subsequent heroin use.... Most users, young and old, demonstrate an average or above-average degree of social functioning, academic achievement, and job performance...[46]

Discussion. So, then, while there has been clear evidence of problems associated with alcohol use, once controls were established to mitigate its overuse, it became a socially accepted part of society. In contrast, despite the fact that no clear evidence of cannabis’s harm has been established, its ruthless vilification by antagonists has led to its continued social stigmatization within American society.

Clearly, this examination of the contrast between social narratives and reality has only intensified the mystery as to why alcohol has been socially accepted but cannabis has not.

The Role of Common Knowledge

Let’s consider how the prevalence and overtness of alcohol use, as compared with the covert nature of cannabis use, has shaped their respective social acceptances and perceived risks of harm.

Since colonial times, alcohol has been a part of most people’s everyday life. They see how many mainstream people use alcohol, and they see how alcohol affects people when used in moderation and when used to excess. The social acceptance of alcohol has led people to openly use alcohol. Overt use by other mainstream members of society, together with peoples’ direct experiences with its use, validate the continued social acceptance of alcohol (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

3 alcohol loop

In contrast, recreational cannabis has been socially stigmatized since it was first introduced into American society. More mainstream members of society have only used recreational cannabis since the 1960s. And while some people have used cannabis relatively overtly (e.g., college students and hippies), many other more mainstream members of society have used cannabis covertly. The safe and enjoyable covert use of cannabis has prevented members of mainstream society from validating its use for other mainstream members of society. Due to lack of validation and direct experience, mainstream America has continued to deem recreational cannabis socially unacceptable. The self-reinforcing feedback loop established early on has thus persisted through time to prevent cannabis from becoming socially acceptable (see Figure 4).

Figure 4

4 mj loop

To clarify, members of mainstream society may very well know other mainstream members of society who use recreational cannabis. The difference between the various groups (users and non-users, mainstream and stigmatized) is the following. For people opposed to cannabis, the negative effects of propaganda, perhaps combined with relationships with stigmatized users, generally outweigh any positive effects they may have experienced from relationships with mainstream users. In contrast, for mainstream non-users and users of cannabis who support its use, the positive effects from relationships with other mainstream users, and/or from direct experiences of using cannabis themselves, have outweighed the negative effects of propaganda. This confusing text is better communicated graphically, as in Figure 5.

Figure 5

5 pro anti table

For some time, there have been enough mainstream members of society who have used cannabis recreationally with positive effects to validate its use for many non-users. In fact, according to Pew Research, around the early 2010s, more American supported legalization of cannabis than opposed it (see Figure 6). [47]

Figure 6

6 mj pew

I believe cannabis would have been accepted sooner by mainstream society, but-for common knowledge problems. [48] The first common knowledge problem probably appeared sometime in the 1970s or 1980s:

Mainstream people in society (users and non-users) didn’t know that so many mainstream people in society used cannabis.

As a result, cannabis use was not validated and thus not socially accepted as early as it might have been, if people had been more open about their use. That doesn’t necessarily mean most non-users would have used it, just that they would have seen that cannabis use was no more dangerous than alcohol (in truth, plenty of research has shown that cannabis is safer than alcohol[49]) and thus not opposed its use.

Later, as more people started using cannabis and/or learning that other people were also using cannabis, we had the second common knowledge problem:

Everybody knew that everybody used and/or approved of cannabis,

But everybody did not know that everybody knew that everybody used and/or approved of cannabis.

So more people would have admitted to accepting cannabis, if they had known that other people would also have admitted to accepting cannabis.

(The common knowledge problem is what enabled Harvey Weinstein to continue harassing women for so long. Resolution of the common knowledge problem is what led to his downfall and what started the #MeToo movement.[50])

I now believe that if cannabis had not been stigmatized and outlawed before mainstream America had had a chance to decide for itself about its nature, its use would almost certainly have become socially accepted much earlier.

A contributing factor is surely the effective ban on cannabis research after the release of the LaGuardia Commission Report,[51] which surely prevented researchers from sooner discovering the endocannabinoid system and the many medical benefits of cannabis. Earlier discoveries of the medical benefits of cannabis would also have led to its earlier social acceptance.

Update: An analysis I conducted of the discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) (Would the Endocannabinoid System Have Been Discovered Earlier without the Ban on Cannabis?) convinced me that the ECS would not have been discovered any earlier, even if even research on cannabis had not been effectively banned.



[1] Unless otherwise indicated, the historical information presented in this section was taken from Paul Aaron and David Musto (1981). Temperance and Prohibition in America: A Historical Overview. Alcohol and Public Policy: Beyond the Shadow of Prohibition. Retrieved from







[8] According to one source (, it wasn’t the costs associated with the Marijuana Tax Act per se that led to the demise of the new technology. Rather, enforcement of the Act was used as a weapon to harass owners of the new technology.



























[35] See, for example,














[49] See, for example,