The Functions of Marijuana


For adolescents the heavy use and abuse of all drugs involves the significance of the act of taking the drug as well as the specific functions of a particular drug for the youngster. It is reasonable to assume that any adolescent behavior strongly disapproved of by parents, teachers, and community leaders will reflect certain “antiauthority” overtones; certainly this appeared true of the representative cases of marijuana abusers. At the same time, our research indicated that past emphasis on heavy marijuana use as part of a lifestyle choice involving role modeling and affiliation with proponents of alternative social values, attitudes, and mores is unidimensional and overly simplistic. These adolescents’ involvement with drug-abusing peers waxed and waned in accordance with their changing need to smoke large amounts of marijuana. This need, while expressed in interaction with drug-abusing peers, related essentially to the psychodynamics of the youngsters’ family relationships.

Defiance and provocation

With someone like Dave, who grew marijuana plants in his basement, and who fought constantly with his parents over his right to smoke as much marijuana as he pleased, the provocativeness is apparent. Marijuana for adolescents like Dave represented an assertion of their independence and their desire to be free from parental control. The ambivalent nature of this desire, however, is suggested by the fact that such provocative use of marijuana elicits parental reaction and intervention in ways that more covert use does not.

Some of the heaviest of the marijuana users such as Clara, Tim, and Bobby, managed to keep their usage from their parents’ awareness for years despite coming home stoned nearly every day. Although the parents’ need not to know is involved here as well, these youngsters used this need to their advantage, while others like Dave and Eddie were determined to force their marijuana abuse on their parents’ consciousness. Clara, Tim, and Bobby were provocative or defiant in other ways, however, from refusing to do household chores to staying out at night without informing their parents.

The defiance which almost all of the adolescent marijuana abusers demonstrated in behavior toward their parents was also evident in their relationships with other authorities, in particular their teachers, principals, and school counselors. Since most of the youngsters were cutting class to smoke, and since their marijuana abuse was often related to an attempt to escape from the pressures of school, at times school authorities appeared to be more aware of such abuse and more in conflict with youngsters over it than were their parents. In almost every case, however, the marijuana-abusing adolescent’s school behavior was a reflection of longstanding patterns of provocative interaction with adults that had developed in the family.

The attraction to the criminal aspects of drug abuse – the illicit cops-and-robbers excitement seen among young marijuana abusers in the early 70’s and still typically seen in young heroin abusers – was not present to a significant degree in any of the marijuana-abusing youngsters in the present study. Although several in the group often had large quantities of marijuana in their possession and routinely sold amounts involving hundreds of dollars, they evidenced little concern about being arrested. Even Dave, who had been arrested for growing marijuana, and was careful about whom he sold it to, did not see marijuana as a criminal act for which he anticipated punishment.


It is important to recognize that not all behavior that is self-destructive in its consequences is self-destructively motivated. With drug abuse, the consequences may be the price that one is willing to risk for the effect of the drug. Yet among these adolescent marijuana abusers, as with drug abusers in general, self-destructiveness was often an integral part of the motivation for their drug behavior.

Although most of the adolescents initially talked of their drug use in general and marijuana in particular as a conflict-free source of pleasure, in time almost all expressed greater ambivalence. Dave, who claimed to be joyfully high on marijuana whenever he could, eventually admitted that he felt he was wasting his life by being constantly stoned, and spoke of marijuana as taking away his ambition and drive, and thwarting his ability to express himself. Clara, who initially presented her marijuana use as harmless, later admitted that while others probably took drugs for pleasure she often approached this behavior with a “let something bad happen to me” attitude. Several of the youngsters, like Tim, were stoned to the degree of being nonfunctional for significant periods of time, while others, like Eddie, combined marijuana and alcohol in order to drug themselves into unconsciousness. The suicide attempts, both in our larger preliminary sample and among the cases selected for intensive study, were invariably made with drugs.

The representative cases often provided psychodynamic evidence both of the self-destructive nature of the marijuana abuse and of the sources of that self-destructiveness. Tim, for example, who used marijuana largely in an attempt to obliterate the pain and frustration of his relationship with his mother, dreamed that his mother was offering him a cup of tea (slang for marijuana) which was poisoned. He perceived his mother as having poisoned his life by failing to meet his needs while seeming to be offering to do so, and marijuana appeared to be serving a similar function.


If marijuana abuse was often seen as a defiant or self-destructive act, it functioned more importantly in attempts to modify unpleasant, disturbing feelings and emotions, and in particular, to diminish the experience of anger.

For some youngsters, the anger they experienced toward their families was often felt to be uncontrollable and was part of a frequently felt, deeper, and more disturbing feeling that they hated their parents. Some dreamed or daydreamed of killing or otherwise eliminating all their family members. Same became extremely frightened by the extent of the violence they engaged in when angry. Marijuana helped these youngsters subdue their rage and control their violent impulses. Over and over, these adolescents talked about their use of marijuana as an attempt to relax from their tension and anger at home.

Dave, for example, had violent fights with his family in which he had destroyed things in the house, been verbally abusive, and hit his mother on occasion. His entire family, including Dave, was aware that he was never abusive nor destructive when stoned. Dave was particularly conscious that marijuana enabled him to relax enough from the tension of his anger with his family so that he could fall asleep at night.

On two occasions after fights with her family, Clara dreamed that the devil would get inside her and cut her off from her friends. Marijuana served to relieve her anger and tension and made it possible for her to be more comfortable with her friends as well as with her family.

Another young man used marijuana to withdraw into an almost chronic stupor to contain the rage he felt toward his parents over their confining expectations of him. He dreamed of being locked in a coffin from which he escaped with a magic button and then proceeded to beat up a teacher. The teacher he linked with his father and in reality he used the magic of marijuana to keep his feelings contained on the level of dreams or fantasies rather than acting on them.

Psychodynamic evidence of a link between these youngsters’ overwhelming anger toward their families and their self-destructiveness was invariably present. Eddie, for example, was preoccupied with thoughts of suicide. He had recurrent fantasies of escaping from the residential treatment center in which he had been placed, going home and shooting all the members of his family, and then dying in a gun battle with police. In a similar vein, it will be recalled, he dreamed his whole family was killed in a nuclear attack and he decided to fight rather than take shelter since he was going to die anyway. Another young man who feared his potential for violence toward his family when he was not high and felt marijuana gave him control over his anger, talked frequently of blowing himself away with a shotgun which he linked with “getting blown away” by smoking marijuana. His imagery suggests how marijuana can be the link between containment of anger and self-destructiveness.


Many of the marijuana-abusing adolescents seen felt that they amounted to nothing within the context of their own families. In the case of many of the young men, feelings of grandiosity helped alleviate the depression they experienced in this regard and encouraged their sense that magical transformation without effort was possible. Their use of marijuana to transform their mood was consistent with this aspect of their personalities. Several seemed to feel they were intended for some special destiny that would eventually became apparent. Dave’s sense of his unimportance to his mother was in sharp contrast to the sense of self-importance he felt over his telepathic powers, demonstrated for him by such circumstances as meeting a person about whom he had been thinking. The incident he related in which he was trying to buy a pen to change the date on his birth certificate so that he could get into a bar, and was approached by several young men who asked if he had been “reborn” to Christ, confirmed, in Dave’s view, the special meaning that surrounds his life.

Bobby also talked frequently of his special luck, believing that unusual things happened to him: If he needed something he would find it, or, without his asking, someone would give it to him. These rather grandiose feelings were reflected in Bobby’s dream in which he was an outfielder playing professional baseball, was given a special glove that made every ball come into it, and became an immediate star.

He had this dream the night following an interview in which, after raising the question of what he was getting from the interview sessions, he talked about his recurrent thoughts of finding “a bottle with a genie in it.” His attitude that he should get his high school diploma without having to study, his desire to be paid for his job without having to work, and his dream of being a star in a sport that he did not actually play, all reflect the attitude he brought to the interviews that in some magical way, without effort on his part, they should transform him. Marijuana helped sustain such illusions in youngsters like Bobby.

None of the young women marijuana abusers showed the type of grandiose fantasy found to be common among the young men, although they likewise tended to be highly unrealistic in their expectations of themselves and others. Particularly common among these young women was a feeling of invulnerability to any consequences of their behavior. They would talk of going on to college even though they were at the time flunking out of high school. They would describe impossible relationships with boyfriends who consistently abused them as somehow destined to end up well. Chances taken in their sexual relationships, they felt, would not end in pregnancy, and they would escape any harmful consequences of reckless marijuana abuse.

As discussed in an earlier chapter, a comparable attitude of invulnerability was often reflected in the risks and chances the young men took with cars and motorbikes. Among both the young men and young women there was clearly a psychological link between invulnerability and depression, between damaged self-esteem and grandiosity, between the idea that “nothing can happen to me” and the idea that “if it does, what’s the difference.”

Escaping competitive pressure

Marijuana abuse seen among college youngsters was often associated with attempts to resolve conflicts around achievement and performance (). College students have usually accepted the value of competition and achievement, at least long enough to get to college, where many of them come to find competitive pressures intolerable. Feeling alternatively destructive when successful and humiliated when not, these young people frequently use marijuana to ease the intensity of this conflict.

The high-school-aged marijuana abusers had generally rejected competitive success through effort and achievement early in life, long before they were interviewed. Because this group was younger, they were closer to the pain and anger of their early family relationships in which they had lost out in a more basic competition for their parents’ affection. This loss left most of them unable to attain successful achievement through sustained effort or in competition with others. Yet marijuana abuse for these youngsters, as for many college students, clearly served a less achievement-oriented, less competitive adaptation.

Many of the adolescents reflected the pattern so much in evidence in Dave, who was living out the pain of his inability to meet his mother’s rigid expectations through a withdrawal from competitive achievement that had begun at quite an early age. Others like Tim began to give up their aspirations in high school. In Tim’s case, the use of marijuana as part of his desire to avoid competition was focused on his high-achieving, domineering older brother Dennis, whom Tim saw as having taken “the straight road” while he had taken “the high road.”

As will be discussed in the concluding chapter, the connection between these adolescents’ heavy use of marijuana and competitive pressures rooted in the family was further illustrated by several youngsters’ improved adaptation, including a reduction in marijuana use, which accompanied their own and their parents’ acceptance of their need for a less pressured, less competitive academic environment. Although in such environments these youngsters were much better able to cope with their difficulties with achievement and competition, and thus their need for marijuana significantly diminished, it was clear that their early family experiences had created problems with which they would be struggling long into their adult lives.

While marijuana abuse may seem to serve different functions for these youngsters, they are interrelated. Dave’s use of marijuana, for example, alleviated the tension of his rage toward his family, rage that originated in the feeling that he could not please them. His inability to do so led him to withdraw from competition and achievement and to attempt to console himself with grandiose fantasies of wonderful things happening to him. Variations of this interrelationship were present in almost all the youngsters studied.

Overall, marijuana served to strengthen the imperfect defenses these adolescents used to deal with their experience. While it appeared to make more tolerable the anger and frustration the youngsters felt in their relationships with their families, it did so by encouraging passivity and illusion instead of any effective attempts to improve the situation. For many of the young women, marijuana seemed to reinforce a kind of masochistic passivity, helping them to feel detached from their anxiety over whether they could change their situations and permitting them to believe they did not care what happened to them or whether they got hurt. The young men often used marijuana to sustain grandiose fantasies and to alleviate the pain of the awareness that they were wasting their lives. Both the young men and the young women, through their marijuana abuse, substituted an imagined, unrealistic gain for the anxiety-arousing situations in which other young people try to achieve something real. Marijuana in these young people did not produce a lack of ambition. Rather, marijuana abuse expressed in illusory ways the adolescents’ desire for power, achievement, and control.


Selections from the book: “Adolescent Marijuana Abusers and Their Families”. Herbert Hendin, M.D., Ann Pollinger, Ph.D., Richard Ulman, Ph.D., and Arthur Carr, Ph.D. A psychodynamic study of adolescents involved in neavy marijuana use, to determine what interaction between family and adolescent gives rise to drug abuse. National Institute on Drug Abuse Research Monograph 40, 1981.