Legalizing Marijuana: Pros & Cons

The idea behind marijuana prohibition is quite simple—deter people from using it by imposing punishments in the form of fines or imprisonment. The supporters of marijuana prohibition claim that in its task to oppress the use of marijuana, it is doing relatively well. Only about 3 to 10 percent of the population in the developed world is using marijuana, whereas a licit drug like alcohol is used by 80 to 90 percent of the population over the age of 14 years (Welfare, 2007).

It is believed that legalizing marijuana would only increase the number of users, especially youngsters. Even though marijuana would still be illegal to those under the age of 21, it would nevertheless become easier to obtain. This can be dangerous because adolescence is a critical period for brain development, when brain cells are undergoing structural changes. From the early teenage years to the early 20s, the growing brain is more sensitive to internal and external stimuli. In developing their personal identity, teens need to experience new things and begin forming their own ideas and perceptions, which will later influence professional, romantic and other decisions—and guide their life’s direction. With consistent marijuana use, natural stimuli, like those associated with goals or relationships, are not likely to be desired (Grisel, 2018).

After J. Cobb Scott and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 69 studies involving younger cannabis users, they found out that, compared to non-users, they were more likely to have slightly lower scores on tests of memory, learning new information and higher-level thinking involving problem-solving and processing information. Heavy-smoking teens are 60 percent less likely to graduate from high school, and are at a substantially increased risk for heroin addiction and alcoholism. They show alterations in cortical structures associated with impulsivity and negative moods, and they are seven times more likely to attempt suicide (Grisel, 2018).

The World Health Organization has concluded that cannabis, when smoked, is twice as carcinogenic as tobacco. Also included among the risks are impairment of cognitive function, teratogenic effects, immunosuppression, impaired fertility, and increased promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases in regular users. Cannabis also causes dependence in about 10 percent of light users and in 50 to 90 percent of regular users (Cohen, 2002). Nonetheless, research on this topic is scarce and often shows conflicting results.Prohibition is supposed to cut down on the demand and supply, thereby reducing consumption. This does not always work in praxis, and evidence suggests that use is not increased by less intensive control. In the eleven American states that effectively decriminalized cannabis in the 1970s, use has not risen beyond that experienced by comparable states in which it is prohibited (EW., 1989).

More recently, according to new federal survey data following legalization, the rate of adolescent marijuana use in Colorado has fallen to its lowest level in nearly a decade . Furthermore, prohibition, in the face of strong and consistent demand, inevitably results in the supply being provided by illegal sources, thereby leaving the potential tax revenue as a profit for illegal traffickers. The wealth that dwells in this black market also stipulates the probability of corruption. The unregulated black market brings consumers of cannabis into direct contact with sellers of other illicit drugs (Kovic, 2014).

In identical surveys consisting of random samples of experienced marijuana users, 55 percent of respondents in San Francisco reported that they could buy other illicit drugs where they bought cannabis. In Amsterdam, where cannabis sales are regulated and rarely attract criminal sanctions, only 17 percent could get other illicit drugs from their source of cannabis . Prohibition also imposes great fiscal cost on the government, wasting its resources on prohibition when they could be used to fight other more serious crimes. In their study, Jeffrey Miron and Katharine Waldock estimated that drug legalization and taxation would bring $8.7 billion in income tax, annually, if taxed at rates comparable to alcohol and tobacco, and between $7.7 billion and $13.7 billion in savings to prosecutorial, judicial, correctional and police resource spendings. The lives, education and careers of hundreds of thousands of people are damaged by cannabis arrests.

Families face loss of income and housing, and experience social deprivation (Wodak & Reinarman, 2002).States keen on marijuana legalization are in direct defiance of federal drug law, and it is left up to them to put a system in place capable of regulating a drug that had been illegal for almost a century. The biggest challenge of implementing a new marijuana policy is dealing with federal authorities. The U.S. Department of Justice does not approve of legalization, but it has issued a series of memos to its prosecutors setting out that it will not challenge an individual state’s competency to regulate retail sales of marijuana in accordance with its law, as long as the state and local governments implement strong, effective regulatory and enforcement systems to address public safety, public health and other public interests (Caulkins et al., 2018; Hickenlooper, 2014).

Access to banking also needs to be provided to the marijuana businesses. Businesses operating as “cash only” act as a magnet for criminal activity, e.g. selling to customers under 21 and robberies. It makes it easier to track tax revenues and audit the taxes of businesses, as well. However, banks are reluctant to offer their services to entities that are in violation with federal law (Hill, 2018). Another difficult aspect of introducing new marijuana policy is that of law enforcement, e.g. open and public consumption, driving under the influence, the home-grow grey market, licensing, background checks for owners and employees of marijuana-related businesses, employee rights, addiction in the context of family law, enforcement of marijuana-related contracts, cultivation practices, potency limits, labelling, advertising and online sales. The ambiguity around what constitutes private space for smoking marijuana is causing trouble for establishing clear regulations. This issue is, so far, not fully resolved which hinders the licensing activities and the establishment of marijuana-friendly clubs and bars.

The process of legalization also requires cooperation with local governments (Hickenlooper, 2014). This was, and continues to be, especially difficult in a state like Colorado, where localities, counties and home-rule cities have substantial autonomy (Hickenlooper, 2014).Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit substance in the US—used by about every third American . With that said, it is evident that the infamous war on drugs has not been effective. It was not able to eliminate, or even curb, the drug use. Instead, it left the supply to be provided by the black market, where the marijuana users are exposed to other illicit substances from unknown sources. The consequences are a public health crisis, mass incarceration, human rights violations, corruption, drug cartels and black market fuelled violence. In his message to Congress in 1977, President Jimmy Carter said that "Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself."

His words seem to have left a mark because the public sentiment in the US, as in the rest of the world, is changing. People are perceiving the drug to be less harmful than they did two decades ago, despite it still being classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government. An increasing number of states are experimenting with liberalized drug laws, and since the marijuana industry is one of the fastest growing industries the economic benefits cannot be overlooked. However, the process of bringing the change about is long and complicated, and the real impact is unknown.

So far, it does not seem that legalization or decriminalization is leading to an increase in the substance’s use, but this can change over time. Moreover, the potential risks of marijuana use on the human mind and body are not yet fully explored. While there might be a lack of scepticism in the current debate, it is crucial to examine the effects that the legalization of cannabis could have on both individuals and communities. Wishful thinking and collective enthusiasm are no substitute for careful consideration. Instead of rushing to enact new laws that are as nonsensical as the ones they replace, it’s important to sort out the costs and benefits, using current scientific knowledge, while supporting the research needed to clarify the personal and social impact of the frequent use of THC.

03 December 2019
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