Last Tuesday, November 3rd, Ohio rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized marijuana for recreational use in the state. Ten other states are in some stage of bringing forward legislation to legalize recreational marijuana, including California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Michigan. Canada's newly elected Liberal Party is also moving to legalize marijuana—which could have a huge effect on U.S. drug policy.
Marijuana has been controversial for a long time (seriously—since 2900 BC.) The drug has been banned in the United States since the Marijuana Tax Act of 1934, which prohibited its sale and distribution. More recently, marijuana regulation played a large role in the "war on drugs," which began in the 1970's—and in turn contributed to the ballooning U.S. prison population. Now, the debates are escalating between federal and state governments, doctors, and individuals.
Medical marijuana is legal in 24 states and enjoys enormous popular support: 73% of Americans say they are in favor of their state allowing it. Recreational marijuana, however, is legal in only four states (chronologically: Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska) and remains immensely controversial.
Despite disparate state laws, the federal government prohibits both recreational and medical marijuana. In fact, marijuana is classified as a schedule 1 drug, defined as those "with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." For reference, heroin is also schedule 1 but cocaine is schedule 2.
The medical community continues to debate and research legitimate medical uses for marijuana. The most widely agreed-upon uses are alleviating chronic pain and muscle stiffness associated with diseases like multiple sclerosis. The effects of recreational use are even more hotly contested (see these two conflicting studies and the debate section below.)
Why is it important?
This is a critical moment in the national conversation about recreational weed. Reasonable people disagree on the economic, social, and health effects of commercializing the drug (see below.) And things are happening fast: ballot initiatives are in the works for 2016 in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada.
Backup for a debate over family dinner or friendly drinks. This new section outlines each side's point of view. What's yours?
Legalizing—and therefore commercializing—recreational marijuana could lead to increased use and abuse, and create an industry with incentives that work against the public interest.
Our best data so far comes from studying the medical marijuana industry. We've seen that policies that allow medical dispensaries correlate with increases in overall use and dependency. This dependency might be necessary for pain management and other medical uses, but commercial recreational marijuana gets unhealthy fast.
A recreational marijuana industry has inherently perverse incentives: dependent "problem users" are their best customers. An industry comparable to "Big Tobacco," with a psychoactive drug with unknown health risks (like lower cognitive function and car accidents) would be extremely dangerous. Giving yet another industry the legal power to market potentially detrimental drugs is not worth an occasional high.
Acknowledging the minor health risks associated with marijuana use doesn't mean it should be illegal. In fact, legalizing recreational marijuana would remove barriers to research, which in turn could lead to informed behavior. Even now, the medical community agrees that marijuana is significantly less dangerous than legal drugs like alcohol, tobacco, and some painkillers.
Keeping marijuana illegal costs several billion dollars per year. Further, consider the social costs of one marijuana-related arrest every 42 seconds, making up nearly half of U.S. drug arrests, and 3.7 times more likely to affect black Americans than white.
We could alleviate enormous social and economic costs to our society simply by legalizing a drug no more dangerous than those we already allow.
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