The debate on the legalization of marijuana is one of those topics on which everyone has an opinion. What is clear from recent studies and research is that, for the first time in history, the majority of Americans are in support of marijuana use.[i] The ball started rolling with a vote for full legalization (i.e. for recreational use rather than just medical use or decriminalisation) in Colorado in 2012 and soon Washington, Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia followed suit.[ii]
Although there may be nuances in the stances held when it comes to the question of legalization, it seems clear that more US states are considering dipping their toes into the full legalization pool.[iii] Is this a good idea? Are we going to end up with a country full of junkies? We discuss the pros and cons gleaned from recent studies and research under the headings health, political manipulation, drug abuse, social and economy below.
The tricky thing about marijuana research, and this applies especially to research in the area of health is that because marijuana is a schedule 1 drug there is very little research or reliable information relating to its use available. This means that many of the links to diseases are tenuous at best.[iv]
There have, however, been a sparse few studies conducted, although it is argued that these may not be empirically sound, and these suggest that marijuana use and exposure to second-hand smoke is linked to various diseases such as stroke, respiratory impairment (like chronic bronchitis), brain function impairment and addiction[v]
In a test published by the American Heart Association, it was found that one minute of second-hand marijuana smoke exposure (even in the absence of rolling paper, cannabinoids or nicotine) impairs endothelial function in rats for at least 90 minutes, which is longer than when exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke. This is of interest because of the common misconception that marijuana smoke is benign. [vi]
Smoking marijuana could also possibly cause heart palpitations or heart attack, however, little is known about the details of this association. Tentative links have been found between smoking marijuana and cancer, tuberculosis, cardiovascular disease, immune dysfunction, fibrosis of the liver, respiratory dysfunction and mental health disorders like psychosis, schizophrenia and anxiety. In some instances, for example, in patients suffering from PTSD, some studies have found that low-dose marijuana usage relieves symptoms while other studies have found that marijuana usage exacerbates symptoms. Researchers do warn that, in each of these cases, there is not enough evidence to establish a causal link and that further study is required to establish same.[vii]
Lack of reliable research does mean that many of the health concerns sometimes associated with marijuana use cannot be definitively linked. However, it is prudent to keep in mind that lack of evidence of negative effects of second-hand marijuana smoke is not tantamount to evidence that it is harmless.[viii]
On the other hand Marijuana has been shown to assist those suffering from Parkinson’s disease enormously in relieving both motor and non-motor symptoms (such as depression, pain, sleeplessness and anxiety).[ix] In addition, components of marijuana have been shown to have a protective effect on neurons because of its anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties.[x] As mentioned above, further research is needed into the drug’s use as an alternative therapy for Parkinson’s and various other diseases but current data suggests that marijuana is a viable alternative.[xi]
It has been argued that, with regulations in place, public health will be protected. However, the danger of marijuana turning into big tobacco or alcohol with a massive political power which will manipulate attempts by public health to properly regulate usage and profits still exists.[xii]
While industry lobbying, product proliferation and marketing to the youth[xiii]are important issues to consider and are clearly cons in the legalization debate, supporters have suggested that instead of succumbing to the same fate as tobacco and alcohol, lessons may be learned from these industries. If a strong public health regulatory system is introduced at the same time as marijuana legalization this could prevent marijuana from taking this undesirable path.[xiv]
Another negative aspect of legalization proffered by opponents is that marijuana is addictive and can be seen as a gateway to increased drug usage and use of more dangerous drugs.[xv]
The Cato Institute study on the topic explains that legalization has had only a very minor effect on marijuana usage in Colorado. Cocaine usage was also considered in this study and it was found that no difference was evident after the legalization of marijuana. Although just a short time has elapsed, the absence of noticeable negative effects of legalization could be taken as an argument for legalization.[xvi]
A common misconception is that legalizing marijuana will increase crime, however, what has been seen in states where recreational marijuana use has been legalized is that the opposite is true. Instead of criminal heavyweights controlling sales through violence and corruption, marijuana is now sold by legitimate businesses and is regulated by authorities[xvii]
Criminalisation leads to large social costs in that conviction for possession and sale of the drug results in the imprisonment of many non-violent offenders and acts as a catalyst for the creation of an illegal black market where the drug is unregulated. The absence of regulation opens the door for corruption.[xviii] When marijuana is legalized (or even decriminalised) the country saves money as it lowers criminal justice expenditures[xix]and otherwise upstanding members of the country are permitted to carry on their lives, taking care of their families and contributing to the economy.
One of the most compelling arguments for legalization is the economic benefits.
Considering the statistics from the very first American state to legalize recreational marijuana, these economic benefits are staggering. Licensed and regulated marijuana stores in Colorado sold $996,184,788 worth of recreational and medical cannabis in 2015.[xx] Colorado also collected more than $135 million in marijuana taxes and fees in 2015, which is three times more than alcohol[xxi]and more than $35 million of this amount is being directed towards projects for the construction of new schools.[xxii] This means that legalization is not only stimulating the economy but also has associated social benefits. In addition, in 2015, the marijuana industry created 18,005 full-time equivalent jobs.[xxiii] Because Colorado is one of a handful of states that has fully legalized the drug, it has seen a growth in marijuana tourism which brings foreign dollars from elsewhere in the country, and the world, into the state.[xxiv]However, it is possible that, as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana usage, Colorado cornered the market on marijuana tourism in the USA and as more states legalize the drug tourism benefits may become diluted.[xxv]
On considering recent research on the legalization of marijuana, it is clear that the strongest arguments against legalization are health and political manipulation. However, because quality information is sparse it is imperative that additional objective, impartial and methodically sound research be conducted to gain an accurate understanding of the health implications associated with marijuana usage.[xxvi] With well-constructed regulations in place the industry should be able to withstand political manipulation and with little evidence that marijuana acts as a gateway drug and overwhelmingly positive economic feedback from the first state to implement full legalization, the current information available on the topic suggests that the pros in favour of legalization outweigh the cons.