In recent years, the United States public has seen a strong debate about the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. As some states began implementing various levels of decriminalization for the substance, marijuana remains a highly illegal Schedule I drug at the federal level prompting discussions at the policy level as well as the general ethics and social perspectives on the situation. By many indications, marijuana use remains a low risk but should be controlled as it remains a psychoactive drug potentially dangerous for certain populations or situations. It is in the interest of the U.S. federal government to fully legalize marijuana as it presents opportunities to regulate a commonly used substance, implement it for widespread healthcare use, and the large and profitable industry numerous economic benefits.
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Marijuana, also known as Cannabis, is a psychoactive drug used in the United States for recreational and medical purposes. The drug is plant-based, comes from the hemp plant, and contains various chemicals, the most potent of which is THC which causes the feeling of ‘high’ and has psychoactive properties. Marijuana is currently illegal in the United States, classified as a Schedule I, highly addictive drug by the DEA. However, cannabis remains popular for recreational use, having been associated with certain periods or groups in the U.S. culture, and currently is actively partaken by young adults. Marijuana is most commonly smoked as a dry and shredded mix of the plant is rolled into a cigarette (joint) or lit in a pipe or bong (The Facts About Recreational Marijuana). There are more than 33-35 million regular users in the United States (identified by multiple federal and private polling), with more than half of the adult population trying the drug at least once in their lifetime (Ingraham).
Various experts indicate that marijuana is stronger in the modern-day than in the past, having stronger psychoactive properties but also an increased chance for addiction. There have also been synthetic forms of marijuana developed, including for use in the medical field where the compounds have been helpful in treating certain symptoms of challenging conditions. Due to the negative and largely unsuccessful consequences of the War on Drugs that has been going on in the United States since the 1980s, and scientific knowledge emerging social behaviors and dangers regarding marijuana use, in recent years, states have gradually adopted laws that allow for medical marijuana use, and 11 states have decriminalized the drug completely allowing for recreational use. It is a highly controversial debate that is multifaceted and considers a large number of intertwining factors that will be discussed in this paper.
Regulation of a Commonly Used Drug
Without federal legalization, the recreational marijuana industry remains illegal and underground in most places around the United States. This leaves it highly unregulated, and most often in the hands of organized crime and cartels which grow, import, distribute and sell the drug on the black markets in the United States. This becomes highly concerning since there are no controls regarding the quality of the crop, safety of the final product, or the secondary consequences of violence stemming from street gangs selling drugs. Considering the tens of millions of individuals consuming the drug, having a black market for a product with no regulation is inherently more dangerous than any potential public safety concerns from legal sales. Yearly, the U.S. Border Patrol and the D.E.A seize millions of pounds of marijuana entering the United States, but as states legalize marijuana, the levels have dropped to record lows, an indicator that legal and regulated domestic production is having an impact on the black market (Burnett).
This leads to regulation in other areas of the marijuana industry. As mentioned, consumer safety is vital, ensuring the quality of the product and accountability whereas the drug on the street can be spiked, improperly stored, or covered with pesticides. With federal legalization, the government will be able to regulate testing and substances in the marijuana drug. Furthermore, the government will be able to implement regulations regarding public safety, such as having legislation and enforcement regarding the legal age of purchase, limits, and other aspects to recreational marijuana use, automatically including a range of government agencies and programs into the process that will help guide consumers and protect public safety. Patrolling and enforcement of marijuana laws will shift in a positive direction, redistributing unnecessary law enforcement resources from petty crimes that disproportionately affected communities of color, towards preventing underage marijuana use and fighting organized crime that will be left without large sources of income (Marotti). Realistically, legalizing weed will not eliminate the black market, but it will make a significant dent in it alongside allowing for much-needed regulation.
Medical and Therapeutic Use
The discussion around public health is central to the debate on legalizing marijuana. In the majority of states, medical marijuana has been legalized but requires permissions and regulations. However, over the years, marijuana has been prescribed and utilized for a wide variety of reasons in medicine. Many Americans favor the legalization of weed for medical purposes. One of the most common uses of marijuana is pain relief, providing a significantly safer and arguably more natural treatment for chronic or acute pain without forcing individuals to take opioids that are tremendously more addictive and dangerous, even in medical forms. Marijuana is generally safer for public health and the body, with some professionals arguing it is better than alcohol, and the substance has been used as a medicinal agent in many cultures for hundreds of years. The major counterarguments suggesting that marijuana is negative for health is diluted by the fact that alcohol and tobacco, which have been proven once and again to be just as or more harmful, with alcohol being considered a drug as well, but continue to be available for purchase with appropriate regulation (Voices From Both Sides of the Medical Marijuana Debate).
Marijuana has been found by multiple studies to be used for therapeutic purposes. The substance inside medical marijuana cannabidiol (CBD) is more fitting for healthcare purposes but differs slightly from recreational marijuana which has traces of CBD and largely tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). There is evidence of cannabis reducing symptoms of pain and muscle spasms as a result of multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and arthritis. Medical marijuana can potentially replace the long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that have numerous side effects. Patients undergoing chemotherapy note significant improvements in nausea and vomiting after using the drug. CBD has been seen to reduce inflammation in the body, aiding with serious inflammatory conditions such as IBS and Crohn’s disease. Finally, the neurological effects of marijuana on the limbic system, the substance can be prescribed to treat mental health and neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s epilepsy, anxiety, PTSD, and even aid in sleep management (Cherney). Medical marijuana differs from recreational use but is the first step towards legalization in many jurisdictions. The legalization of medical marijuana is just as important as it provides an opportunity for states to view benefits and develop policies for the sale of the drug in a highly regulatory environment.
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One of the major economic appeals of legalizing marijuana at the recreational level is a tremendous increase in tax revenue along with the economic activity. Similar to alcohol and cigarettes, marijuana sales are placed under excise tax which provides a significantly larger tax revenue on a product that goes to the federal government. In states such as Colorado and Washington where marijuana has been legalized for a number of years, the drug brings in three times more tax revenue in comparison to alcohol, being $129 million and $220 million respectively in their second fiscal years of tax collection on sales, revenue then redirected to local community projects and state general reserve under. Colorado just reached the $1 billion mark in revenue for the state government, in approximately 5 years (Rosenbaum). If marijuana was to become legal federally, analytics suggest that more than $105 billion in aggregate tax revenue will be generated by 2025.
Economic benefits will extend beyond tax revenue, as with any new and large industry, it will stimulate economic growth. The marijuana industry in the United States, both medical and recreational, will likely exceed $24 billion in economic activity by 2025. A number of industries benefit directly from marijuana sales including tourism, food, agriculture, real estate, transportation, financial, and others. Marijuana can be considered a valuable cash crop, exports of which will match other established exports in value. Legalization offers the potential for new jobs, as 150,000 people are currently employed by the industry, with the number expected to triple as more states shift towards legalization and have the potential of reaching 1 million new jobs if legalized at the federal level. With nationwide legalization, the industry will also be open to an investment portfolio and companies can trade on the public exchanges, further contributing to monetary flow in the national economy (Antonuci). Furthermore, in the context of legalization and regulation of marijuana discussed above, there will be significant savings for the government, estimated at $13.7 billion annually for law enforcement and $1 billion for prisons, in removing law enforcement from maintaining the prohibition of the substance (Evans 2).
Approximately one-third of Americans oppose the legalization of marijuana. While these individuals may agree with some of the benefits, a large portion state socially oriented concerns for their reasoning. At least 79% of the opposition cited concerns that legal marijuana would increase driving under the influence cases and the number of car accidents as a result. That is a valid argument considering that, unlike alcohol, marijuana is not publicly viewed as a substance that decreases concentration and has not been ingrained into the public consciousness as a prohibitive reason to not get behind the wheel.
Statistically, the data is mixed, as a study examining 28 states where medical marijuana is legalized in one form or another suggests that deaths dropped by 11% in a period of 30 years and another similar finding in the period of 1 year for 19 states, leading some experts to suggest that public safety increases with access to marijuana (Cohen). However, another government report found increased car accident fatalities increase by as much as 31% in Colorado, and driver positive testing increased by 109% (The Rocky Mountain HIDTA Strategic Intelligence Unit). Meanwhile, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has noted that 43.6% of drivers tested positive for drugs after fatal crashes, with both American and European large studies demonstrating that drivers are twice as likely to get into an accident when having THC in their blood (Drugged Driving DrugFacts). The evidence is suggestive that driving under the influence of drugs, the primary of which being marijuana, is just as dangerous and almost as common as driving under the influence of alcohol. Legalizing marijuana is potentially going to exponentially exacerbate the serious issue of driving under the influence that has not been yet resolved with alcohol and illegal drugs.
Another argument opposing legalization is two-fold, based on the logical premise that access to marijuana will increase its use. First, opponents worry that increased use will be seen across the population, particularly in young people under the age of 21 that are unable to purchase the drug legally in most states, but due to its wide availability, can easily acquire it second-hand. General increase of use will result in potentially more medical emergencies, as seen in Colorado where marijuana-related emergency room visits increased by 30% and hospitalizations by 200% after legalization (Mohney). In young people, even if no health emergency occurs, there is potential for detrimental long-term effects as brains are not fully developed until 25 years of age, and the effect of THC has been proven to negatively impact development and cognition (What are marijuana’s long-term effects on the brain?)
Finally, there are concerns that with increased availability and use, individuals may form addictions that are a major health issue in itself but also associated with the transition to harder illegal drugs and opioids to fulfill the addiction. Addiction to marijuana is scientifically and medically proven and can have widespread impacts on a nationwide level. All these concerns can be summarized into one overarching argument that the population health consequences of legalized marijuana, particularly when used for recreational use, not medically prescribed, will be highly detrimental and will likely bear economic and social costs in the long term.
The legalization of marijuana is undoubtedly a highly controversial topic with its elements of ethics and law. Weighing the arguments provided in this paper, it can be suggested that there are significant benefits to the process of legalizing weed, supported by practical evidence from some states as being effective. Meanwhile, the counterarguments are based on ideology or general concerns that can be regulated at the same level that alcohol or tobacco currently are. One of the more subjective arguments for marijuana use is that the government has no right to restrict consenting adults in enjoying the harmless pleasure and a ‘victimless crime’ with only the user taking a relatively minimal risk in most cases.
There has been significant public and policy pressure to legalize marijuana, prompting the majority of states to allow the use of medical marijuana while 11 states have decriminalized it completely, with the regulation of sales. This has created an unprecedented clash of state law with the federal prohibition of marijuana, which in a legal sense has a priority regarding substances over state legislatures. However, bills have been introduced to Congress and there have been calls from activists, environmental groups, lawmakers, and scientists for the Drug Enforcement Administration to downgrade marijuana from the Schedule I category which puts the plant alongside other dangerous and addictive drugs. Beginning with small steps such as changing marijuana’s classification at the federal level will allow both federal and state agencies to assess the hazards and safety of the drug, develop regulations regarding its use, and study long-term health influences. Overall, the public opinion on the matter has been shifting strongly in the direction of legalization, creating a “quasi post-Prohibition landscape” for marijuana (Erickson).
The arguments presented in this paper emphasize the need for consideration of legalizing marijuana in the United States. The scope of its use in the population presents the main argument that, despite potential concerns, the benefits of legitimizing marijuana growth, distribution, and sales are overwhelming, and provide the ability to regulate it on a federal level. This immediately addresses the numerous concerns against legalization given that federal regulation can have significant impacts on how the substance is used and distributed in the population, allowing the government to manage some of the potentially dangerous consequences. Meanwhile, there are extensive benefits and positive economic impacts that will be felt, providing funds towards vital projects or policies. One may not agree with marijuana use, but people make their own choices, and looking at the status quo, it is an inevitable occurrence that the legalization of marijuana will arrive sooner than later. However, it is important to make the transition gradual and competent, through guidance and policy from the federal government rather than a continuous clash of legislation that places the industry in turmoil.
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Cherney, Kristeen. “What Are the Benefits of Marijuana?” Healthline, 2020, Web.
Cohen, Ronnie. “After states legalized medical marijuana, traffic deaths fell.” Reuters, 2016, Web.
Erickson, Britt E. “Pressure is on the U.S. to relax marijuana’s legal status.” Chemical & Engineering News, vol. 94, no. 25, 2016, pp. 28-32, Web.
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