The legality of marijuana has been a topic of ongoing debate in the U.S. since the Great Depression, but public sentiments regarding the substance have been tentative and shifting since it was first introduced to Americans as a recreational drug. During the rampant unemployment and economic desperation of the 1930’s, public opinion regarding the drug became increasingly negative, which resulted in states taking concerted regulatory action.
For the most part, enforcement of marijuana regulations has fallen to the states, with the exception of the legislation resulting from the federal government’s “War on Drugs”, among some others. With the recent medical legalization in New York and the discussions surrounding decriminalization in the Capitol, states are beginning to explore their options once more. Public opinion, too, has seen a dramatic shift in recent years, with 58% of respondents in a 2013 Gallup poll saying they believe that the drug should be legalized – a massive 46% increase since the question was first polled by the organization in 1969.
The question, then, is whether or not this renewed interest in legalization is representative of the correct course for the country. There are certainly dedicated proponents on both sides of the debate, each with widely varying viewpoints and concerns. Here are some of the central arguments both for and against marijuana legalization.
Legalization of Marijuana – Pros and Cons
The medical benefits of marijuana are somewhat underexplored due to its status as an illegal substance, but in a recent WebMD survey, 69% of responding doctors said that, in their observation, the drug can be helpful in the treatment of certain conditions. 67% went on to say that marijuana should be a medically available option, and 56% supported making it entirely legal nationwide.
While research on the subject may still be emerging, anecdotal and observed evidence suggests that cannabis can potentially alleviate symptoms of a number of chronic illnesses, with the epilepsy community being one of the most vocal supporters of medical legalization. The substance can also, evidence suggests, be applied successfully to relieving chronic pain caused by cancer or multiple sclerosis.
However, it’s important to note the difference between medical legalization and complete legalization. Medical marijuana would, ideally, be offered through a well-regulated, controlled distribution network, and not without a prescription. As the survey above notes, not all medical professionals who support medical legalization support the nationwide allowance of marijuana use.
With an estimated value of roughly $1.53 billion dollars as of November 2013, a legal marijuana market (and the taxes that accompany it) could have a significant impact on state budgets. The tax and income implications have already proven noteworthy in Colorado, one of the first states in the country to fully legalize marijuana, as a recent budget proposal from Governor John Hickenlooper projected that the state will bring in $153 million in revenue from cannabis sales alone in the coming fiscal year.
Proponents of this argument claim that, additionally, a significant amount of federal funds could be spared by ending the “War on Drugs” – what they see as the overly aggressive prosecution and imprisonment of narcotics offenders. According to a report released in 2010 by Jeffrey A. Miron, a senior lecturer in economics at Harvard University, the federal government would save $8.7 billion by legalizing marijuana and ceasing the “enforcement of prohibition” against the substance, and yield an annual tax revenue of roughly $46.7 billion, assuming a comparable tax to tobacco and alcohol.
Impact on Criminal Behavior
Unfortunately, the financial implications of legally accessible marijuana haven’t gone unnoticed by the country’s criminal element. In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dr. Kevin Sabet, Director of the University of Florida Drug Policy Institute and faculty member within the Division of Addiction Medicine, cited Department of Justice officials acknowledging that some of the marijuana now legally consumed by Colorado residents (as an example) most certainly comes from criminal organizations. Dr. Sabet highlights, in particular, the findings of DEA Special Agent Jeff Sweetin, who reported that there were some cases of dealers affiliated with Mexican drug cartels moving roughly one ton of marijuana each week into the state for sale in legal dispensaries.
This means that, if marijuana were to become completely legal, a substantial funding channel for organized crime could potentially open in the U.S. Colorado isn’t an isolated example. California has seen its share of gang-affiliated dispensaries, as well.
Effect on Youth, Health, and Addiction
In his testimony, Dr. Sabet reports that, “scientists from the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, American Society of Addiction Medicine, and other groups are universal in stating that marijuana use is harmful for young people.” In Colorado, making marijuana more readily accessible has already resulted in a notable increase in cannabis use by adolescents. According to a report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA), from 2009-2012 (the period of time immediately following medical legalization in CO), the average number of students in schools testing positive for marijuana increased from 5.6 to 17.3 per year.
Adolescents aren’t having difficulty accessing the substance, either. Dr. Sabet cites a survey of Denver-area teens in treatment for addiction by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in which 74 percent of respondents said they had started using the substance through others that gave them legally prescribed, medical marijuana. He also cites a report by the National Institutes of Health whose findings suggest that 1 in every 6 adolescents who use marijuana will become addicted to its use, with many more developing other complications through its use.
Should Marijuana be Legalized?
The positive and negative consequences of marijuana legalization are both valid, with strong cases presented on either side. Due to popular fascination with the substance, there’s no doubt that the debate will continue. Regardless, even with public opinion in favor of legalization, it’s an issue that should be handled carefully, with well-established regulatory measures and infrastructures in place.
The findings regarding the dangers of even medically distributed marijuana should substantiate care in this area. Consideration of the cost of enforcement against any tax revenue, especially should the current proliferation of pro-legalization legislation continue, must be an essential part of the law-making process going forward – not to mention the effects such legislation could have on public health.
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