More states and localities are legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Is this a win for consumer freedom or a blow to public health?
February 2, 2020
Marijuana may be illegal under federal law, but a growing number of lawmakers across the country are bucking the system. Eleven states plus the District of Columbia now allow recreational marijuana, making it accessible to 80 million Americans – nearly a quarter of the U.S. population. That number could grow as states like New York and Florida consider joining in. Public acceptance of legalization has increased dramatically over the past fifty years; 67 percent of Americans said they supported it in 2019, up from only 12 percent in 1969.
Many proponents of legalization say that taking cannabis out of the black market and into the legal realm will make it safer for those who use it while keeping it out of the hands of children. Others say it will simply make the drug more accessible and expand the harms that can come from it. While everyone agrees we need more research, here’s where the debate stands now.
Legalize and Regulate
Proponents of legalizing marijuana commonly argue that it is a relatively harmless drug that lands otherwise innocent people in jail and fuels organized crime. They say that while cannabis use disorder – the misuse of and addiction to marijuana – is a risk for frequent users, the drug does not cause overdose and can generally be used safely by adults.
Some experts argue that since a significant number of adults and children are already obtaining and using marijuana from illegal sources, we should regulate who can produce, sell, and buy marijuana, as we do for alcohol and tobacco. Criminal justice expert Mark Kleiman has written that we have no choice but to legalize marijuana at the federal level because the drug’s illicit market is too large to suppress, and states with legal marijuana will simply flood states without it. The real question, he says, is not whether to legalize it, but how.
Many proponents of legalizing marijuana point to a failed drug war that they believe is motivated by racism and has had devastating effects on communities of color. Marijuana has driven mass criminalization in the U.S., primarily of black and Latino people, writes a policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union. “People in the United States use marijuana at roughly the same rate regardless of their race, yet a Black person is almost four times more likely than a white person to be arrested for marijuana possession nationwide.”
A 2012 study by Human Rights Watch tracked 30,000 people in New York City who were arrested for marijuana possession and had no prior convictions. Of them, 90 percent had no subsequent felony convictions and only about three percent committed a violent offense. Legalization advocates cite this as evidence that the criminal justice system is ruining lives by punishing people for low-level, non-violent drug offenses.
Investigate the Risks
Opponents of legalization say the research is increasingly clear that marijuana is not a harmless drug. For teenagers, it hinders brain development. For drivers, it impairs reaction time and distance perception. And for heavy users, it can be addictive, especially because the marijuana produced today is much stronger than it was a few decades ago.
Alex Berenson, a journalist, says the health risks of marijuana are much greater than pro-legalization advocates admit. He cites a growing body of evidence that links marijuana use to mental illness, and even violence. Making marijuana legal simply makes it easier to use, Berenson argues, writing “States that allow recreational marijuana have found that legalization doesn’t end the black market in unregulated cannabis. But it does lower prices, increase availability and acceptability, and drive up use.”
For observers concerned about an increased risk of addiction where marijuana is legalized, the behavior of alcohol and tobacco companies have set a disturbing precedent. Alcohol and tobacco companies make much of their profit by marketing to people who are addicted to their products – and research shows some similarities between heavy alcohol and marijuana users. A study of Colorado’s legal marijuana market found that just 30 percent of marijuana users consume 87 percent of the drug. That mirrors the pattern researchers see among alcohol users across the country: the top ten percent of drinkers consume an average of more than ten drinks a day.
While the assertion that marijuana is safe, natural, and harmless has been slowly debunked by scientific research, many policymakers believe that the benefits of legalization justify the costs. State budgets also stand to benefit significantly from new tax revenues. And even though the federal government shows no interest in legalization, on this and other issue many states continue to see themselves as laboratories of democracy.
Criminal Injustice: An opinion writer says the U.S. effectively ruins the lives of hundreds of thousands of people each year by arresting them for low-level drug offenses. Even those who don’t go to prison having trouble finding jobs and housing for life, and they tend to be black and Latino – via New York Times
What They Don’t Tell You: When journalist Alex Berenson’s wife, a forensic psychiatrist, made an offhand comment about marijuana use causing psychosis, he decided to dive into the medical research – via Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence
Reefer Madness 2.0: A health journalist says that Berenson’s splashy book is more scaremongering than science. He finds it to be full of cherrypicked data and correlations presented as causations – via Vox
Legalization Ponzi Scheme: A senior fellow at a conservative think tank writes that in pushing for marijuana legalization, advocates must start proselytizing in new states to outrun the damage they’ve done elsewhere – via The Hudson Institute
Legitimate Source: How does the media cover marijuana when it’s a legal and booming industry? This online culture magazine from the San Francisco Chronicle offers a glimpse at the future – via GreenState
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This article originally appeared in the February 2, 2020 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.
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