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Sociocultural Factors in Marihuana Use in the United States PDF Print E-mail
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Books - Cannabis and Culture
Written by William H McGlothlin   


During the 1960s, the characteristics of the marihuana-using population in the U.S. changed from a predominantly lower socioeconomic minority group to one of middle to upper-upper status. It is argued that this transition resulted from large numbers of middle-class youth participating marginally in the styles set by the hippy or psychedelic movement. This interpretation is supported by the age, social and geographic distribu-tions of current marihuana users, as well as by their attitude, value, personality, and behavior characteristics. The symbolic role of marihuana use also appears to be the most important factor in shaping patterns of use. In comparison with other cannabis-using cultures, the ratio of daily to irregular user appears disproportionately low, and the amounts consumed are definitely much smaller. Most U.S. users can be considered as playing at cannabis use in comparison to patterns in other cultures.

To the extent that symbolic factors play a role in the current marihuana epidemic, as opposed to the pharmacological properties of the drug, usage can be expected to stabilize in the near future and subsequently decline. On the other hand, the extensive introduction of the drug into the culture will undoubtedly result in substantial continued usage. This residual group will likely contain a significant number who consume marihuana or more potent preparations in amounts comparable to heavy users in other cultures, i.e. 200 mg. THC or more.

This work was supported by Research Scientist Award Number K05—DA-70182 from the National Institute of Mental Health.

One of the more interesting sociocultural questions concerning marihuana use can be phrased as follows : How did a drug whose traditional use had been virtually limited to lower socioeconomic groups in the U.S. (and with few exceptions, in other countries as well) suddenly become very wide-spread among the youth of middle- and upper-class groups? The lower socioeconomic minority group characteristics of early U.S. marihuana use are well documented. There are rare accounts of hashish use in the 19th century (Brecher 1972), but the first significant non-medical marihuana use was introduced into the southern and western portions of the U.S. by Mexican-Americans around 1910 (Bonnie and Whitebread 1970; Walton 1938). Utah was the first state to prohibit the drug in 1915. The spread was most rapid among the Negro population — four studies of marihuana use in the Army during the 1940's found ninety percent or more of the sample were Negro (Charen and Perelman 1946; Freedman and Rockmore 1946; Gaskill 1945; Marcovitz and Meyers 1944). Most published descriptions characterized the users of this era as rather passive young males, generally unemployed with poor social and psychological adjustment (Goodman and Gilman 1955; Maurer and Vogel 1962; Mayor's Committee 1944). There are two exceptions to the predominantly minority group nature of early marihuana users. First, a high incidence of use existed among jazz musi-cians (Winick 1960), and pre-1960 usage was generally considerably higher among entertainment and artist personnel than in the general population. The second group is the "Beats" of the late 1940s and 1950s. Marihuana was the drug of choice for this predominantly white protest group, and they also occasionally employed peyote and mescaline along with other drugs (Polsky 1969).

The middle- and upper-class nature of marihuana use in the 1960s is equally well documented. A 1969 Gallup national survey of college stu-dents found 30% marihuana usage among students whose parents' income was $15,000 or over in comparison to 12% for those with parental in-comes of under $7,000. Surveys of five Houston high schools in 1970 varied from 5% reporting some use in a predominantly black school to 48% in an upper-middle-class white school (Preston 1970). Similarly, Blum (1969) found lower-class high schools in the San Francisco area reported one-third as much marihuana usage as middle-class schools. An interesting footnote to this sharp reversal in socioeconomic status and racial back-ground of marihuana users in the U.S. is the recent adoption of cannabis use by university students in other countries whose traditional use had al-so been limited to the lower classes, e.g., Greece, Turkey and India. It is clear that this represents the introduction of a Western style rather than an internal diffusion from the lower classes.


To explain the transition from old to new style of marihuana users in the U.S., it is helpful to examine the chronology of the middle-class drug epidemic of the 1960's. The origin actually dates back to the middle 1950s and the emphasis was on LSD — not marihuana. At this time, several small groups began non-medical use of LSD; Blum (1964) describes one such goup of mental health professionals in the San Francisco area beginning in 1956. Interest in the hallucinogens had been stimulated by Aldous Huxley's description of his mescaline experiences in "Doors of Perception" (1954). Prior to this time a few students, artists and members of the "Beat" subculture had experimented with peyote, but overall, its use was quite rare outside the American Indian population. Availabil-ity of LSD in the 1950s was restricted to licit supplies provided for experi-mental purposes, and the limited non-medical use was mostly centered around professionals having access to these sources. Such non-medical usage continued on a small scale until the early 1960s. Psilocybin and psilocin were synthesized in 1959, (Hofmann, 1970) and the former was also subjected to limited unauthorized use through diversion from ex-perimental supplies. It should be stressed that most of these early hallucinogen users were well beyond the age of today's typical drug user ; that they were to a considerable extent motivated by reports that enhanced self-understanding or other beneficial experiences could result ; and that LSD was especially attractive in that it was legal and carried the respectable origin of the laboratory and science rather than the stigma of illicit drugs such as marihuana. Many of these persons had never used marihuana, and those who did regarded it as insignificant in com-parison to LSD.

Figure 1 provides a continuing chronology of the significant events leading to the formation of the psychedelic drug subculture, along with the trend in marihuana use as measured by Gallup college and general population surveys. The first LSD to be clandestinely manufactured in the U.S. appeared in California in 1962. Both the source and the market were confined to the small LSD groups described above. By 1964, clandestine LSD manufacture was becoming more common and in-creasingly sophisticated, however the persons involved in these activities generally continued to be ideologically identified with the emerging drug subculture rather than solely motivated for financial profit. In 1963-1964, a number of leading popular magazines carried feature articles on LSD, particularly in relation to Leary and Alpert and their activities at Harvard University. This national publicity was undoubtedly a major factor in accelerating the spread of LSD use. Also in 1964, the underground press was initiated, providing a means of rapidly disseminating both a psychedelic philosophy and information concerning gatherings and other related activities. Popular music was strongly influenced by the psychedelic movement and, in turn, greatly aided in its growth.


The January 1967 "Human Be-In" in San Francisco was reportedly at-tended by 20,000 persons, and is generally considered the point at which the mass hippy or psychedelic movement emerged. Similar large-scale gatherings became almost weekly occurrence in various locales in Cal-ifornia and spread throughout the country in a matter of months. The LSD trip provided a common ground on an experiential level which served as the unifying principle for hippy communities, and for thousands of otherwise strangers at hippy gatherings. Hippy radio programs sprang up and rock music effectively articulated the flower children's new ethic.

LSD was crucial to the formation of the hippy movement. It produces a very potent drug experience, the major characteristic of which is the temporary suspension of mechanisms which normally provide structure and stability to perceiving, thinking and valuing. This loosening of estab-lished associations, beliefs, etc., has been variously described as deactiva-tion of perceptual filters, loosening of constancies, breaking down of ego boundaries, dehabituation and deautomatization. It does not necessarily produce attitude and belief changes, but it can act as a catalyst, permitting rapid changes under favorable conditions, e.g., the use of natural hallu-cinogens by shamans in primitive tribes.

Once the hippy movement achieved appreciable growth the stage was set for radical modification of beliefs and values on a mass scale -- large numbers of impressionable, affluent and uncommitted youth were at-tracted to take LSD under conditions which strongly encouraged conver-sion to a radical social philosophy, and sustained these new beliefs and life style through community support, an effective communications system, a creative music industry and various other innovative measures.

Marihuana was also uniformly adopted by the hippy subculture, but for most was little more than a mood modifier utilized in daily social interac-tions. This was especially true in view of the low potency marihuana generally available. The adoption of marihuana use by the hippies was a natural outgrowth of their general drug orientation. A source of supply was available via the previously existing marihuana traffic, and it pro-duced a mild passive reaction more in accord with their philosophy and life style than that resulting from alcohol. The effects also have some similarities to the more potent hallucinogens. Overall, however, marihuana use cannot be considered as crucial to the hippy movement. On the other hand, it is difficult to envision the movement's full development without the potent LSD experiences which many, if not most, adherents cited as the essential affirmation of their particular belief system.

The argument that interest focused primarily on LSD during this period, and not marihuana, is supported by the citations in the Readers guide to periodical literature (1959-1972) shown in Table 1. For the period 1959— 1966, there were seventy-six references to LSD compared to only six for marihuana. As seen in Figure 1, the large gains in the per cent of the college and general population using marihuana did not occur until after the vital phase of the hippy movement.


An explanation to the question posed at the beginning of this paper may now be suggested. Marihuana was transformed from a lower-class drug to a middle- and upper-class drug through the mediating role of the hippy movement. The latter was a highly significant movement in the 1960s and, while it did not fully involve more than a small proportion of the total youth population, it influenced the philosophy, music, dress, attitudes, values, and drug-using behavior of a much larger group. Marihuana was not the essential drug for the hippies, but, along with hair styles, dress and music, it provided a means of marginal participation of the masses in the styles set by the psychedelic or hippy movement.


The previous section traced the development of the hippy or psychedelic movement and the subsequent adoption of marihuana usage by the youth of the larger culture. The question remains as to what sociocultural factors contributed to the occurrence at this point in time. As discussed earlier, LSD played a vital role in the hippy movement, but peyote and mescaline had been known for more than one-half century without making Ifeadway among the white population. A patent medicine called "Peyotyl" was even advertised as a means to "restore the individual's balance and calm and promote full expansion of his faculties" (Anonymous 1959). As Eric Hoffer (1951) has noted in his study of mass movements, such phenomena require a leader as well as the ripeness of the times. Timothy Leary played a crucial role here by utilizing the mass media to (1) publicize and advocate the use of hallucinogens and (2) simultaneously propound a radical social philos-ophy. However, it seems likely that if Leary's psychedelic philosophy had been advanced in the depression years of the 1930s, or the war years of the 1940s, it would have gone unnoticed.

Alienation among the younger generation has frequently been sug-gested as a major contributor to the hippy movement and the middle-class drug epidemic. Weakening of family and community groups, chronic social and technological change, and the lack of historical relatedness have been mentioned in this regard. Others have suggested that the assassinations of the Kennedys added to the disillusionment — undoubtedly the Vietnam war has played a major role.

Another important factor is that social conditions permitted options which did not previously exist. When an adolescent grows up in a struc-tured society which demands he assume adult responsibilities at a relative-ly early age, the alternative of turning on and dropping out is not avail-able. An affluent society which allows prolonged periods of economic dependence and leisure greatly increases the possible choices as to life styles. Anything which leaves the individual without an established place in the social structure increases the likelihood for radical departures from the existing norms.


This paper has proposed that the hippy or psychedelic movement was the direct determiner of today's pattern of marihuana use in the larger popula-tion. Evidence is provided by the pronounced under-representation of lower socioeconomic and minority groups in the current marihuana-using student population. For obvious reasons, these groups were not responsive to a movement advocating dropping out of an over-materialistic society — hence the hippy population of the 1960's was virtually 100% white, and largely of middle- and upper-class background. Similarly, the subsequent drug-taking spin-out of the hippy movement on the larger youth popula-tion continued to have much more impact on middle-class whites than on the lower socioeconomic groups.

When a movement has passed its vital stage it becomes more difficult to trace its impact on the larger culture, but many characteristics of the current marihuana-using population support the interpretation that the behavior developed out of the hippy movement. First, marihuana use con-tinues to be concentrated among youth as shown in the following national surveys (U.S. National Commission 1972: 65, 67 ; Gallup, March 1973 : 24, 25):


It is generally the same age group that actively participated in the hippy movement, and that most susceptible to the mass adoption of fads and styles. Second, the prevalence of marihuana use is distinctly higher in the West where the hippy movement had its origin and achieved its greatest influence (Table 3).

The symbolic role of marihuana use for expressing rebellion and protest has been frequently suggested and is documented in several studies. Smith's longitudinal study of 1800 high school students found self- and peer-ratings of rebelliousness to be one of the best predictors of those who either were, or would subsequently begin, using marihuana (Smith 1973). The adoption of this hippy practice was an especially attractive protest symbol. The establishment had grossly exaggerated the dangers of marihuana and was thus vulnerable to attack. Rebellious youth soon learned that m9derate use of marihuana entailed little apparent danger or physical harm. Except for the consequences of the marihuana laws, they could flaunt the estab-lishment's position with little risk. Other more hazardous drugs used by the hippies were less readily adopted.

With more than fifty per cent of the students now having used marihuana in some schools, the behavior is obviously not an indication of statistical deviance. However, studies restricted to the more frequent marihuana users have consistently shown an attitude, value, personality, and behavior pattern which is compatible with that of the hippy or psychedelic move-ment. One longitudinal study, begun before the marihuana epidemic, found that high school students who subsequently became frequent mari-huana users in college exhibited a more non-conformist philosophy, were less disciplined and less decided about future goals than those who used occasionally or not at all (Haagen 1970). Other studies have found frequent users exhibit a more unstable life style with respect to residence, work, school, and goals ; receive more traffic violations ; are more likely to seek psychiatric counseling; are less religious, belong to few organizations and participate less in athletics ; have sexual relations at an earlier age, more frequently and with more partners ; exhibit much more liberal and leftish political views, see themselves as outside the larger society, have less respect for authority and are more likely to be activists, especially against the Vietnam war. Personality tests show frequent Commissionsers to score lower on dogmatism scales ; to be more susceptible to hypnosis and other non-drug regressive states ; believe more strongly in para-normal phenomena, such as astrology; demonstrate a strong preference for a casual, spontaneous style of life as opposed to one that is orderly and systematic; and to score high on risk-taking and sociocultural alienation scales. In summary, those individuals who became frequent marihuana users tended to be least accepting of the beliefs, values and behavior of the dominant culture and most responsive to the alternative position ad-vocated by the hippy movement.


If the thesis of this paper is valid, the patterns of current marihuana use would be expected to reflect the symbolic or fad-type motivation for use. In comparison to patterns of cannabis use in other cultures, the ratio of regular to casual users would be expected to be low, the amounts consum-ed small, the duration of individual use short. In general, it would be ex-pected that the large majority of current marihuana users in the U.S. are essentially playing at cannabis use ; that they are participating in a pop-ular style rather than being primarily motivated by the pharmacological effects of the drug.

Frequency of use Recent surveys of U.S. marihuana use have found that, while over twenty million have tried the drug, only a small percentage use it on a daily or more frequent basis. The 1972 national survey con-ducted for the Marihuana Commission found that, of those having ever used marihuana, the percentages of junior high school, senior high school and college students using daily were 5%, 11% and 17% respectively (U.S. National Commission 1973). A 1971 Gallup survey reported about 10% of college students having tried marihuana were daily users (25 times or more in the past 30 days) (Gallup 1972; No. 80). These percentages of daily users are somewhat larger than those found in the 1971 Marihuana Commission and other 1970-1971 surveys (U.S. National Commission, v. II, 1972).

Since drug-use surveys are a recent innovation associated with the cur-rent epidemic, there is little actual data on the relative frequencies of use in other cultures. Some observers have noted that occasional users also far outnumbered those using on a regular basis in the U.S. during the 1930-1940 time period (Bromberg 1934; Mayor's Committee 1944). Much of the older literature on use of cannabis in Eastern countries tends to ignore other than daily users, and the Indian Hemp Commission (1969) specifically concludes that, while bhang is often used on an occasional basis, ganja and charas smoking seldom exists except as a daily habit. A recent study of the extensive use in Jamaica estimated 40 to 50 percent of the male population used on a daily basis (U.S. DHEW 1972).

On the other hand, some Eastern studies have reported considerable less-than-daily usage. Soueif (1967) found an average frequency of 8 to 12 times per month for a sample of Egyptian hashish users, and only one-third of a sample of kif smokers in Morocco were daily users (Roland and Teste 1958).

In summary, it appears that for cultures with a long history of cannabis use, the ratio of daily to occasional users is substantially higher than that for the current population of marihuana users in the U.S., however, ad-ditional data would be required to verify this conclusion.

Amount consumed As in the case of alcohol consumption, an adequate description of cannabis-using behavior must include the amount as well as the frequency of use. Here the evidence is quite clear — the typical amount of marihuana consumed per occasion or per day by current U.S. users is quite small in comparison to that for other cultures. The aVailable data on current U.S. use indicates that the average amount consumed by occasional users is around one 1/2-gram marihuana cigarette (McGlothlin 1972). Daily users average around three cigarettes per day with a maxi-mum of about ten. Most marihuana consumed in the U.S. originates in Mexico and averages no more than one percent THC.1 The casual U.S. marihuana users are estimated to consume about 5 mg. THC per occasion. Daily users average around 15 mg. per day with very heavy users taking 50 mg.

Figure 2 provides a perspective of how this usage compares with ex-perimental data and that reported in other cultures.2 The maximum amount of smoked THC administered in single-dose experiments in the U.S. is around 20 mg., and the experimental subjects normally report 5 to 10 mg. is sufficient to produce the typical high attained outside the labora-tory (Isbell et al. 1967; Jones 1971). Thus the experimental data on amount are in agreement with the usage reported in interview studies. In contrast, Miras and Coutselinis (1970 : No. 24) report routinely administering smoked-THC doses of 100 mg. to heavy hashish users in Greece.

A few ad libitum studies have been conducted in which subjects smoked cannabis at will over an extended period. Under these conditions subjects tend to use larger amounts than normal because of the unavailability of other activities. An early U.S. study over a period of 39 days reported an average of 17 cigarettes per day (est. 85 mg. THC) (Williams et al. 1946). A recent 21-day study found subjects who were casual users averaged about 60 mg THC per day, while subjects who used marihuana daily prior to the study averaged 100 mg THC per day during the experiment (U.S. Na-tional Commission, v. I, 1972). These results show that U.S. marihuana users who normally consume 5-15 mg THC per day are capable of taking much larger amounts without apparent ill effects. In a similar ad libitum experiment in Greece, chronic hashish users averaged 3 to 7 grams of hashish (est. 150-350 mg. THC) per day for 30 days (Miras and Coutse-linis 1970: No. 25).

Figure 2 shows the estimated amount of THC consumed by the current daily marihuana user in the U.S. is about one-fourth that of the typical cannabis smoker in Egypt, Morocco or India. It is also considerably less than the average of 6 to 10 cigarettes reportedly consumed by confirmed U.S. users in the 1940's. The amounts of THC consumed by heavy users in Eastern countries is estimated to be around 200 mg. per day, and even larger amounts are reported in a recent Jamaican study (U.S. National Commission, v. I, 1972). It is of interest to note that some current U.S. military users in Germany report comparable consumption in the form of hashish (Tennant et aL 1971).

In summary, the data presented in Figure 2 clearly show that the amount of THC taken by the typical U.S. marihuana user is quite small in comparison to that consumed in cultures where cannabis has been used for many years. Certainly, the estimated 5 mg. of THC per occasion for casual users is almost trivial. This supports the argument that factors other than the pharmacological effects have played an important role in the recent adoption of marihuana use by large numbers of middle-class youth.

Duration of use If participation in a fad or style is a major factor in current marihuana use it would be expected that the period of usage would be relatively short for most individuals. For instance, students primarily responding to peer influence might be expected to terminate usage after leaving school. There is some evidence from recent surveys that the rapid increase in the prevalence of marihuana use has slowed and is perhaps reaching a plateau (Blackford 1972; Gallup, March 1973; U.S. National Commission 1973). Longitudinal studies following individual users are in progress, but the phenomenon is too recent to provide a clear pattern. One 1970 college survey found 77% of those initiated to marihuana 4 to 5 years earlier were still using it to some degree (Lipp 1971). Another 1970 col-lege survey reported 37% of those beginning more than 3 years previously and using more than 10 times had either stopped or were using infrequent-ly (Hochman and Brill 1971). The 1972 Marihuana Commission general population survey found one-half of those 18 years and over having ever used had not stopped (U.S. National Commission 1973).

Studies of cannabis use in other cultures show initiation is also most com-mon in adolescence and may be discontinued in adulthood. However, usage frequently persists for long periods; and, especially in the East, persons using for 20-40 years are not uncommon At least under con-ditions of cultural acceptance, cannabis usage appears to have a longevity comparable to that for alcohol and the opiates.


This paper has depicted the current epidemic of marihuana use as growing out of the hippy or psychedelic movement of the 1960s. The initiation of marihuana use by middle-class youth was interpreted as marginal par-ticipation in the styles and protests of the hippy movement, and not re-lated to the earlier use among lower socioeconomic minority groups. This explanation is supported by the chronology of events, the characteristics of the using population and the pattern of marihuana use.

Of course, the symbolic role of marihuana will not sustain its use in-definitely. Either the prevalence of use will decline as the style goes out of fashion, or else the motivation for continued use will shift more to the pharmacological properties of the drug. As the second most popular nrtoxicant in the world, cannabis is clearly a drug which may prove at-itactive to large numbers of people on a continuing basis.

Prior to the outbreak of the middle-class drug epidemic, various Euro-pean observers speculated as to cultural explanations for the choice of alcohol versus cannabis. Bouquet (1950 and 1951) and Porot (1942) both concluded that hashish was suitable for the dreamy, contemplative temperament of the Moslem, where alcohol fitted the aggressive, outward-oriented Westerner. Stringaris (1939) observed that alcohol spreads readily in hashish cultures but not the reverse. The most complete devel-opment of this theme is provided by Carstairs (1954) in his explanation of why, in India, the aggressive, action-oriented Rajputs drank alcohol while the passive introspective Brahmins preferred bhang.

Some have suggested that the adoption of cannabis use by Western youth heralds a shift away from traditional aggressive, materialistic values. Certainly the tenets of the hippy philosophy would support this view. Whether such a basic shift in values exists in the larger population, whether the West is on its way to becoming a two-drug culture, and whether a relationship exists between the two is still very much open to question. The suggested causal relationship between frequent marihuana use and an amotivational syndrome has given rise to vigorous denials by some authors. Nevertheless, underachievement and the lack of long-term goals do often appear to be associated with, if not causally related to the heavier use patterns. Use of marihuana while working would likely prove more dis-ruptive in the West than among lower-class cannabis users of the East. The effects clearly impair cognitive tasks, whereas cannabis use has occasional-ly been encouraged among laborers performing repetitive menial work as a remedy for boredom. Also the traditional American cocktail party would have to undergo some rather drastic revisions if alcohol were re-placed by marihuana.

In terms of predicting future use of marihuana in the U.S., two conclu-sions appear to be on relatively safe grounds. First, the introdudion of marihuana into the younger age groups has been widespread, and the positive reinforcement resulting from the drug effects per se will likely result in substantial continued usage of small amounts on a casual basis for recreational purposes. If marihuana achieves legal status, the number of persons using it in this manner will increase as well as the circumstances of use. The second prediction is that a small proportion of those continu-ing will consume quantities comparable to the heavy usage observed in other cultures, i.e., 200 mg. or more THC per day. This is substantially above the maximum quantities currently consumed in the U.S. The in-creasing availability of hashish as well as cannabis extracts will facilitate the intake of such large doses where desired. This pattern of use is com-parable to that of the chronic alcoholic and will probably involve con-siderable overlap with this group.

1 Analyses of 40 large seizures (100-2000 pounds each) made by U.S. Customs at the Mexican boundary in 1971 showed only 25 per cent excee.ded 1 per cent in THC content (range 0.07 to 2.87 per cent) (U.S. Bureau of Narcotics 1972).

2 Except where the actual THC content were cited, the THC estimates in Figure 2 are based on the following assumed THC contents: marihuana or equivalent prepara-tions 1%; Indian ganja3%; hashish 5%.


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Our valuable member William H McGlothlin has been with us since Thursday, 13 January 2011.

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