The U.S. has had a long and complicated history with marijuana–from its early history in smoky jazz cafes in New Orleans to the 60s counterculture. Today, we’re witnessing the sweep of state-level moves toward legalization from coast to coast. There are few people without an opinion on the issue.
This Cottonwood Tucson article takes a look at the real and potential impact of marijuana legalization in America in the face of our addiction crisis. As addiction specialists, we must ask the question, is marijuana legalization good or bad for America?
Where is Marijuana Legal in the United States as of October 2023?
- Recreational use of marijuana by adults is currently legal in 23 states, plus D.C. & territories.
- Medical use of marijuana by adults is currently legal in 38 states and Washington, D.C.
- Marijuana is still illegal at the state level in 12 states and American Samoa.
- Most states where it is illegal have some form of decriminalization in effect.
Why Was Marijuana Made Illegal in America?
Marijuana became illegal in the U.S. with the passage of the Marihuana [sic] Tax Act in 1937. When that law was declared unconstitutional in 1969 it was replaced by the Controlled Substances Act which also made LSD and some other substances illegal. Marijuana was made illegal in America ostensibly in the interest of public health and safety. However, many proponents of legalization point to racism as a major motivation for marijuana prohibition.
There is ample evidence to support this argument, including some disturbing direct quotes from Harry J. Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics who spearheaded the effort to make pot illegal in America. The disproportionate (4-to-1) rate of people of color charged under marijuana laws also supports this argument. With the majority of U.S. states allowing at least medical use of cannabis and nearly half now permitting recreational use, many feel that federal legalization of marijuana is inevitable, and this raises some important questions.
States & territories where marijuana possession is still illegal at the state level in 2023:
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- American Samoa
Considering the Impact of Legalizing Marijuana in All 50 States
The debate around marijuana legalization is complex and multifaceted. While there are undeniable benefits, such as economic growth, potential challenges, especially in terms of addiction and mental health, cannot be ignored. As we move towards potentially broader legalization, it is critical to prioritize comprehensive research and education about marijuana use and its potential risks.
Let’s look at the potential pros and cons of legalizing marijuana at the federal level.
Possible Advantages of Marijuana Legalization
Regulation and Quality Control:
Legalization would allow for the regulation of marijuana at the federal level. The FDA would be able to ensure that cannabis sold legally is safe for consumption. This could help mitigate the problem of marijuana that is grown with toxic pesticides or fertilizers or laced with other drugs, like fentanyl.
Legalizing marijuana could boost the economy by creating millions of legitimate jobs. Federal “sin taxes” on marijuana could be used to fund the war on fentanyl and other ‘hard drugs’ like crystal meth and heroin as well as prevention and education initiatives. According to Forbes Magazine, national cannabis legalization could result in $128.8 billion in federal tax revenue and an estimated 1.6 million new jobs.
Marijuana has some proven medical use cases. From relieving nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite associated with chemotherapy to mild analgesic effects. Federal legalization could lead to further medical research and even the development of marijuana-based therapeutics, like CBD remedies.
Research done at Boise State University and by the CATO Institute suggests that legalizing marijuana reduces violence and trafficking associated with the illegal drug trade. At a minimum, legalization would end arrests and criminal charges for possession that arguably cause more harm than good.
Potential Public Health Benefits:
Marijuana legalization advocates argue that legalization will improve public health by reducing criminal justice expenditures and providing more resources for health and education services. They also claim legalization could reduce the harm caused by so-called ‘hard drugs’ by offering a more accessible alternative, but there is insufficient research supporting this second point.
Possible Negatives of Marijuana Legalization
Marijuana Addiction and Misuse:
While marijuana is potentially less harmful than many drugs, including alcohol, it is far from harmless. Marijuana addiction is a very real phenomenon that leads to difficulty for millions of people every year and often requires treatment to overcome. Legalization at the federal level would almost certainly lead to some increase in use and thereby misuse and marijuana dependence.
Impact on Mental Health:
Medical research suggests that heavy marijuana use, particularly in individuals with predispositions to mental health disorders, can exacerbate symptoms or trigger the onset of disorders like schizophrenia. Marijuana can also worsen the symptoms of depression and anxiety and interfere with psychiatric medications in unpredictable ways.
Legalization will lead to increased accessibility, particularly among young people, potentially leading to higher rates of use and, by extension, marijuana use disorders. While the risks of marijuana use may not be as dire as those posed by opioids, for example, they are not negligible. Any move towards national legalization must be buffered by pre-emptive moves to head off marijuana misuse and addiction.
Impact on Addiction Treatment and Recovery:
The normalization of marijuana could complicate addiction treatment and recovery efforts. People may mistakenly see marijuana as “harmless” if it is legalized. This could encourage experimentation and lead to more marijuana use disorders. It may also serve to derail the progress of people in recovery from addiction to other substances.
Lack of Research:
Despite the growing acceptance of marijuana, there’s still a lot we don’t know about this drug. Much more research is needed to fully understand its long-term effects, particularly with respect to marijuana addiction and the effect of marijuana use on mental health and people with existing mental health disorders. If marijuana is legalized federally, a meaningful portion of the tax revenue raised should be channeled toward this type of research.
So, Is Marijuana Legalization Good or Bad?
Is marijuana legalization good or bad? The answer is both. While marijuana is generally considered less dangerous than most drugs of abuse, including alcohol, it’s important to recognize that it is far from harmless. It is also vital to acknowledge that marijuana has demonstrated some therapeutic value, but that does not make it some sort of panacea or ‘magic cure’ that’s going to ‘put the pharmaceutical industry out of business’. Claims along these lines are not only without merit– they are potentially dangerous.
In our opinion, any move to legalize marijuana at the federal level must put public health first. If marijuana is legalized nationally, it must be done responsibly and to minimize harm and maximize the potential benefits. This means educating the public about marijuana and using any tax revenue raised to directly benefit public health and combat addiction as well as carefully monitoring outcomes.
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