Marijuana or Martinis?

 The ACLU has opposed marijuana prohibition since 1968. Since then, some things have changed, but too much has remained the same. In the past 30 years, 10 million people have been arrested for marijuana offenses in the U.S., the vast majority of them for possession and use. Indeed, in 1996, the most recent year for which figures are available, there were 641,600 marijuana arrests in this country, 85% of them for possession -- more than in any previous year!

Marijuana LeafWhy should you care about this issue? First and foremost, because it is wrong in principle for the government to criminalize such personal behavior. A government that cannot make it a crime for an individual to drink a martini should for the same reasons not be permitted to make it a crime to smoke marijauna. John Stuart Mill said it perfectly back in 1857 in his famous essay, On Liberty: "Over himself," he wrote, "over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." And Americans certainly behave as if they believe that: marijuana is the third most popular drug in America after alcohol and nicotine (approximately 18 million adults used it in 1997, and ten million are regular smokers).

The criminal prohibition of marijuana thus represents an extraordinary degree of government intrusion into the private, personal lives of those adults who choose to use it. Moreover, marijuana users are not the only victims of such a policy because a government that crosses easily over into this zone of personal behavior will cross over into others. The right to personal automony -- what Mill called individual sovereignty -- in matters of religion, political opinion, sexuality, reproductive decisions, and other private, consensual activities is at risk so long as the state thinks it can legitimately punish people for choosing a marijuana joint over a martini.

Second, marijuana prohibition is the cause of a host of other very serious civil liberties violations, including the drug testing of millions of innocent employees, and the civil forfeiture of people's homes, cars and other assets on the grounds they were "used in the commission of " a marijuana offense.

MartiniEver since 1937, when it adopted the "Marihuana Tax Act," the government has justified the criminalization of marijuana use on the grounds that it is a dangerous drug. But this claim looks more and more ludicrous with each passing year. Every independent commission appointed to look into this claim has found that marijuana is relatively benign. For example, President Nixon's National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse concluded in 1972 that, "There is little proven danger of physical or psychological harm from the experimental or intermittent use of natural preparations of cannibis," and recommended that marijuana for personal use be decriminalized. Ten years later, the National Academy of Sciences issued its finding that, "Over the past forty years, marijuana has been accused of causing an array of anti-social effects including ... provoking crime and violence ... leading to heroin addiction ... and destroying the American work ethic in young people. [These] beliefs... have not been substantiated by scientific evidence."

Now here we are in 1998 and the government, along with anti-marijuana organizations like the Partnership for a Drug Free America, still persist in distorting the evidence, claiming, for example, that marijuana "kills brain cells" and that it is a "gateway" to hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. These fear tactics are a linchpin in the government's effort to maintain prohibition and the civil liberties violations that flow from it.

By becoming a member of the ACLU, you can support our work in favor of rational and humane drug policies.

Other ACLU resources on Drug Policy:

  • ACLU Briefing Paper #19: Against Drug Prohibition    
  • Ira Glasser on Marijuana Myths and Facts


Books on Marijuana and its Effects: 

Marijuana Myths, Marijuna Facts
by Lynn Zimmer, PhD and John Morgan, M.D.
© 1997, The Lindesmith Center
"This is the most accurate book on the effects of marijuana that has appeared to date, an invaluable resource for anyone interested in this popular drug and the question of how society should regulate it." 
- Andrew Weil, MD, author of Spontaneous Healing.

Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine
by Lester Grinspoon, M.D. and James B. Bakalar
© 1997, Yale University Press
"A valuable compendium of marijuana's beneficial properties."
- Journal of the American Medical Association.

To find out more about marijuana reform, visit these websites:

Whether you agree or not, we invite you to read what others had to say about the ad and leave your own thoughts on our interactive message board. 

Our ad as it appeared in the print edition of the New York Times is reproduced below. You can also read our previous ads from February 1998 on the subject of telephone privacy, March 1998 on sexual privacy, April 1998 on official prayer in schools, and our reader reactions.


NYT Ad Marijuana v Martinis

 Selected reader comments

Beth Rice (05/11/1998)
Thank you for bringing this fact to the light - that MANY responsible, productive adults prefer marijuana over the toxic lasting affects of alcohol. It is an outstanding ad! 

Susan Foley (05/12/1998) 
I hardly ever agree with the ACLU -- shortsighted policy on prayer, for example -- but this time you hit the nail on the head! I don't much care for marijuana, but prohibition is a terrible idea, for all the usual reasons. Let up and spend government energy on something legitimate! 

Brian LaBounty (05/12/1998)
Well, I must say I'm pleasantly surprised to see the ACLU take on this issue in their ad campaign. I've heard about the ACLU's efforts to fight mandatory drug screening for children and adults (and though they have lost those battles in the courts, kudos to them for the effort!), I've never seen such a bold stand against marijuana criminalization (Which, by the way, makes criminals of nearly half the population of the US!) from the ACLU before, and it makes me all the happier that I sent in my membership! 

(Speaking of which, where's my furshlugginer membership card? :) ) 

John Wanless (05/12/1998)
Great ad! But I wonder how effective ads are when the great force behind the war on drugs is that segment of the population that is convinced that marijuana use is morally wrong. To me it shapes up as a political battle. Is there something you can do to organize an anti-prohibition movement. Creating and flexing this political muscle seems to be the only way to break through this strangle-hold on freedom that prohibitionists have maintained. 

Joel Johnson (05/12/1998)
WOW!! The ACLU's endorsement of marijuana law reform is the biggest step towards the end of such draconian legislation in recent time. Hopefully, all American's will soon be free to decide how, when, where and what they put in their bodies. It's long past for the government to step out of such personal decisions. If I dare to dream, maybe we can soon take the billions of dollars spent convicting and incarcerating marijuana offenders and donate it to the ACLU to further the fight for civil liberties. Let Freedom ring! 

Tom Murlowski (05/12/1998)
I've been waiting for the ACLU to step into the Drug War fray. Great ad, but don't forget about the literally hundreds of thousands of peaceful citizens having their lives destroyed by insanely long sentences in prison for benign drug law violations. More urgent than any other aspect of prohibition, these people deserve to have their lives back. Please visit our organization, The November Coalition, at to find out how to help. We must bring peace and compassion back to our nation. 

Thanks once again for getting the word out. 

Will Henderson (05/13/1998)
I have a deep respect for the American Civil Liberties Union. As citizens of the United States, we are fortunate to have a watchdog organization to defend us from political injustice and hypocrisy. Unfortunately, I believe that the ACLU chose the wrong battle in which to fight. Marijuana is not worth the effort. 

No one wants to see another individual persecuted for doing what they want. We all know the foundations of our great nation, and choice is held sacredly by us all. At the same time though, we have to set boundaries on choice. As an educated, compassionate, well-meaning people, we are obligated to define where choice ends and excess begins. 

In reading this comment, please do not stereotype me with those opponents who cast moral judgments and look down upon the users and supporters of marijuana. I am not one of these individuals. If you want to use pot, I think nothing of you either way. But I believe that there ARE reasons why marijuana now is criminal under the eyes of the law and why it should be heavily regulated in the future. 

To those of you who would let forth the battle cry of "the government should stay out of our lives" I ask you to be adults and survey the situation. There are usually reasons that the government intervenes in our lives, and ever so often in our choices. We do not let children buy alcohol because it is a dangerous drug and must be used carefully and in moderation. The government makes laws to represent this concern and I hope you would agree with me that this is for the best. The government makes sure that you or I cannot waltz into our neighborhood pharmacy and purchase, oh say Prozac for the fun of it. It is a controlled substance because of its effects and therefore we need boundaries for its use. For these reasons, the government should intervene with marijuana use. I'm not saying that the current policy is correct or just. I believe that it should be legalized, but we need to be careful. 

anonymous (05/13/98)
I would like to comment on the ACLU's advertisement in the New York Times. The message in that advertisement is very irresponsible. The statistics show that alcohol IS a dangerous drug. Thousands of people every year are killed in drunk driving accidents. The effects of alcohol on the body are devastating. So what did the ACLU gain by comparing marijuana to a martini? However badly you want to deny it, its hard to avoid the reality that marijuana destroys lives too. Maybe not in an instant like a car crash, or over years in the body, but it's greatest effect is on the human spirit. I've lost many a friend to pot. No they didn't die. The didn't suffer any ailments, but they lost their goals, their ideas, and their purpose. I know how cheesy and trite that sounds. I even think it does. But it's true. The greatest tragedy of marijuana is its effect on the youth of America. If it doesn't ruin lives, it assuredly postpones them. 

Kids on pot are not the lively, productive people that their peers are. I'm sorry but it's true. They lose interest in life. Of course these are stereotypes, but more than often they can be applied with accuracy. The family of a child addicted to marijuana is just as somber as that of an alcoholic or a hard core drug user. And yes, I did say addicted. Marijuana has addictive effects. You might have scientific research that points otherwise, but spend a month with a pot user, and see what they need. They NEED pot. Maybe once a week. Maybe once a day. Maybe a couple times a day. Maybe every hour or so. That's how bad it can get. Tell me that is not an addiction. I've seen it, and its sad. If we freely legalized marijuana and put it in the same place as alcohol, we would be doing an unimaginable injustice to America's youth. 

Sure there those of you who use marijuana and are fine. You lead productive lives, and I extend kudos to you. All I am saying with these preceding lines is that before we grant another absolute freedom in the name of civil liberty, let us think about it's consequences and the lives it will effect. I don't want anyone to ban marijuana, but don't make it a "free-for-all" either. 

John Holmstrom (05/13/1998)
I think it's great that the ACLU is taking a public stand on recreational use of marijuana. The Drug War represents the single greatest threat to our civil liberties, since it encompasses so many issues: drug testing, mandatory minimums, illegal searches and seizures in the name of stopping drugs, and cities refusing permits to anti-Drug War rallies in the name of getting tough on drugs... Just to name a few. 

This kind of action is enough to encourage me to join the ACLU 

Micah Wedemeyer (05/13/1998)
I am very skeptical about the legalization of marijuana. I hear one report that condemns it, and another report that praises it. I believe that further studies need to be conducted, and the government needs to seriously consider the possibility of legalizing it. Great job, ACLU! 

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