It’s been over two years since marijuana was legalized for recreational use in the states of Washington and Colorado, and the world still hasn’t burned down. Adults over the age of 21 have been free to possess and use up to one ounce of the drug since December 2012, and the states have yet to degenerate into smoker lounges and rehab clinics. Just last week, marijuana regulation in Colorado was decreased as licensed stores are now allowed to openly buy and sell marijuana to all who can present a valid government ID. Uruguay followed suit, with the president signing into law a bill which allowed Uruguay to become the first country to completely legalize the drug for recreational use. With all of these recent developments, I thought it would be helpful for us to revisit some of the best arguments for marijuana legalization.
One of the best arguments towards the legalization of marijuana is that the government should have no say in what an individual does to his or her own body, so long as it does not harm anyone else. This logic is the reason why cigarettes are legal, so long as the individual smokes in an area that will not force harmful smoke upon others. It is the reason why we allow alcohol, so long as individuals do not drive drunk. Why then would we draw the line at marijuana? If we are to illegalize marijuana simply because ‘it’s not good for you’ or because ‘people shouldn’t be doing it’ then we should also illegalize fast food and carbonated beverages. Arguing for marijuana illegalization on the grounds of health effects is simply an illegitimate argument.
But not only is the argument illegitimate- it doesn’t even make sense. Marijuana is not as harmful as other substances which are currently legal in all fifty states. Marijuana has been proven to be only psychologically addicting, making its addictive powers less severe than that of alcohol. The negative effects of smoking the drug are less than that of smoking tobacco products, and the connection between marijuana and brain damage has yet to be proven as conclusively as the connection between marijuana and alcohol.
Others try to argue that legalizing marijuana would create more smokers. Essentially, some don’t like to have to deal with those who have been smoking so it should not be used. I will again refer to alcohol and point out that angry drunks can be far more annoying than any peaceful ‘stoner’. Another interesting fact is that the legalization of marijuana actually decreases both the desirability and the potency of marijuana. When parts of Portugal legalized use of marijuana, the demand for marijuana actually decreased. Sociologists deemed this the “forbidden fruit effect” arguing that the illegal status of marijuana made it desirable or ‘cool’. The ‘bad boy’ feeling was completely crushed once you could purchase the drug and a bottle of pepto bismal in the same stop, figuratively speaking.
Furthermore, when marijuana is legalized the drug’s potency tends to decrease. When one is attempting to sell an illegal drug, logic dictates that it is best to have only small amounts of the drug on your person. It’s easier to be seen dealing drugs if you’re carrying around a gallon bag than if you’re carrying a small tin. Drug cartels have thus started increasing the potency of marijuana, so that dealers can carry less and sell what they carry for more. Sometimes, this can even involve lacing the marijuana with more dangerous and unsafe drugs, so that the purchaser really feels they get a ‘kick’ out of the drug. Legalizing marijuana allows the drug to be sold in lower potencies in a professional atmosphere, without as many hidden side effects.
Another argument that has gained much popularity in conservative circles is the idea that marijuana is a gateway drug. If an individual purchases marijuana, they are more likely to go on to try harder drugs. However, a recent study by the United States Federal Government showed that 75% of regular marijuana users never go on to try anything harder. Of the 25% that do go on to try another drug, there is a portion that will only try one drug and will never become addicted to this other drug. So the idea of marijuana as a gateway drug is disproven.
Some individuals make a fair point that children may gain access to marijuana once it is legalized. Even though laws restrict distribution based on age, children would have increased access to drugs. These children would become dependent upon the drug before their brains were fully developed, and would not be able to function normally in society afterwards. In the state of Colorado, we already have medical marijuana growing farms. These farms have the legal authority to grow marijuana for medical purposes. These farms can’t be busted for the possession of marijuana, just for illegal distribution. Although we have seen some cases where criminals have stolen from marijuana farms, we have yet to see a state-wide black market outbreak of illegal marijuana supplied by these farms. Additionally, the same is seen with alcohol. Adults can’t be prosecuted for possessing alcohol. However, they can be prosecuted for giving alcohol to minors. The same is said for cigarettes, adult-content magazines and videos, and many other things. It’s not new for the government to allow certain age groups to possess certain things.
What about the argument that is United States specific, that states should not legalize marijuana out of respect for the states that have not yet legalized it? States like Colorado could become smuggling grounds where marijuana is purchased and then sold illegally in other states. I strongly dislike this argument. The state of Colorado isn’t responsible for upholding the law in other states. If states can’t uphold their own laws, they are responsible for figuring out how to fix that problem. I also see this as a faulty point. It’s essentially saying, “We should uphold this bad law, so that the same bad law can be better upheld in other states.” Imagine if the same logic had been used during the civil war? Should the Northern states have upheld slavery in order to keep former slaves from being ‘smuggled in illegally’ and harming the laws of these other states? In addition, states which currently do not allow possession of marijuana would be able to arrest an individual for mere possession of the drug. Thus, it really doesn’t make a difference whether your possession of the drug involves it being grown in your basement or hidden in your car. (Actually, from a legal standpoint, it’s easier to arrest someone for smuggling since some search warrants required to search a basement do not apply to a vehicle, and police are more likely to see marijuana in a vehicle than in a house since a vehicle can be lightly searched after a traffic violation. So legally speaking, individuals who attempt to smuggle marijuana from other states are more likely to be caught and arrested… which means that these states’ legalization of marijuana is helping other state’s police forces catch criminals. You’re welcome.)
In the end, we have to consider what the legalization of marijuana is costing the United States. Each year, 800,000 new people are arrested for drug use and it is estimated that approximately 50% of our prison population is comprised of individuals arrested for drug offenses. The problem of prison overcrowding has become severe as we run out of room for new prisoners. While some of these prisoners are arrested for harder, more dangerous drugs, there is a significant portion that never tried anything more harmful than marijuana. Ironically, we cannot even stop illegal drugs from being spread into prison, so the majority of individuals who are sent to prison for marijuana possession leave prison addicted to much more deadly and potent drugs. To summarize: 1) we’re not actually solving the problem or drug use since prisoners have access to illegalized drugs 2) People who enter prison for drug offenses become addicted to high-potency drugs while in prison, effectively making the problem worse and 3) it’s overcrowding prisons with harmless people, and adding an unnecessary burden to taxpayers. Not to mention the court fees and legal fees which surround the process of sending an individual to prison.
As you look at the costs and benefits of the war on drugs as it pertains to marijuana use, you will begin to see more costs and less benefits. The minor message we are trying to send that ‘drugs are bad’ is not worth the threat posed to the effectiveness of our laws, legitimacy of government, efficiency of our court system or fairness of our taxation system.