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Marijuana Laws: a Debate About Its Legalization

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The legalization of marijuana is considered a controversial issue, something that can benefit people for medical purposes, but what about recreationally? Marijuana has been illegal since 1937, but there’s never been a bigger push for legalization. There are several reasons why it is illegal, because of government propaganda and big industry not wanting to lose money, but this will be discussed later. The purpose of this paper is to educate, theorize, and discuss various aspects of marijuana, such as its history, development, and the advantages and disadvantages of marijuana legalization. Finally, my personal reflection on legalization and marijuana in general will be discussed.

History of Marijuana Prohibition

Marijuana has been illegal for less than 1% of the time that it’s been in use (Guither, 2014). Going back to 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed legislation requiring every farmer to grow hemp. Hemp was allowed to be exchanged as legal tender in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland (Block, 2014). It was actually a crime in some states to refuse to grow hemp in the 1700’s. In the late 19th century, marijuana was a popular ingredient in many medicinal products and was sold openly in public pharmacies (PBS, 2014). However, in the early 1900’s things changed, a prejudice and fear began to develop around marijuana because it was being used and associated with Mexican immigrants. In the 1930’s, the massive unemployment rates increased public resentment and disgust of Mexican immigrants, which escalated public and governmental concern (PBS, 2014). In 1930 a new federal law enforcement agency, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was created. Harry J. Anslinger was appointed the first commissioner of the FBN in 1930 (Filan, 2011).

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In 1936, as the head of the FBN, Anslinger received several reports about smoking marijuana. These reports continued to increase in number well into 1937. There was a call to arms, and the FBN did two important things. First, the Bureau prepared a legislative plan for Congress, which would place marijuana directly under control of the federal government. Secondly, Anslinger launched a campaign against marijuana on radio stations and at major forums (Harry J. Anslinger, 1961). This campaign also included several racist remarks and comments such as “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men” by Harry J. Anslinger (Szalavitz, 2014). The government also based many of their arguments on false studies, and instead chose to spread propaganda to push their agenda. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed by different reports and hearings, despite the American Medical Association (AMA) being opposed to it (Schaffer Library of Drug Policy, 2014). The AMA opposed the act because the tax was imposed on physicians prescribing cannabis, retail distribution, and medical cannabis cultivation (Woodward, 1937).

Some people have argued that the goal of the act was to reduce the size of the hemp industry. Andrew Mellon, Randolph Hearst, and the Du Pont family have been accused of helping the campaign and supporting the act for their own interests (French, 2004). These parties wager that Randolph Hearst felt that it was a threat to his extensive timber holdings. Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury and the wealthiest man in America at the time, invested heavily in the Du Pont family’s new synthetic fiber, nylon, a fiber that was directly competing with hemp (French, 2004). The only significant figure that was opposed to the act was the mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia (La Guardia Committee, 1944). In 1944, a report released by the La Guardia Committee found that the ban on cannabis was imposed “without any serious and comprehensive research having been conducted on the effects of marijuana” (1944). Harry J. Anslinger took offense and called the report “unscientific” (Harry J. Anslinger, 1961). The La Guardia report was the first in-depth study into the effects of smoking marijuana.

The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse was created in 1970 by the Controlled Substances Act to study marijuana abuse. In 1972 the Commission’s chairman, Raymond P. Shafer, presented a report to Congress and the public called “Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding” which favored ending marijuana prohibition and suggesting other methods to curb usage (NORML, 2002). The commission’s report was ignored by Congress and President Nixon, with him saying:

“You’re enough of a pro to know that for you to come out with something that would run counter to what the Congress feels and what the country feels, and what we’re planning to do, would make your commission just look bad as hell” (NORML, 2002).

Jump forward to 2014, and medical marijuana has been approved for use in 20 states and Washington D.C, and can be used to treat pain, muscle spasms, seizures, Crohn’s disease, and poor appetite (Harding, 2013). Colorado and Washington have also legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. Due to marijuana’s ability to treat multiple ailments, it can be used as a substitute for multiple prescription and over the counter drugs. While marijuana has no recorded deaths in history, every 19 minutes someone dies from a prescription drug overdose (Gupta, 2013).

Advantages of Marijuana Legalization

There are several advantages of marijuana legalization, one of those being health benefits. For example, a study found that legalizing marijuana can cause beer sales to drop, and decreases heavy drinking (Sullum, 2013). Another study done by Montana State University economist Mark Anderson and University of Colorado economist Daniel Rees, said that enacting medical marijuana laws leads to a 13% drop in traffic fatalities (2013). UCLA drug policy expert Mark Kleiman gave a worst case scenario if marijuana were legalized completely, featuring an increase in heavy drinking, “carnage on our highways,” and a “massive” increase in marijuana consumption among teenagers. “Kleiman’s worst-case scenario is possible, but not likely,” researchers concluded (2013). “Based on existing empirical evidence, we expect that the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington will lead to increased marijuana consumption coupled with decreased alcohol consumption (2013). It has become clear to many that marijuana is a viable alternative to alcohol, which explains the aforementioned decrease in heavy drinking.

The economic benefits of legalizing marijuana are substantial. For example, a single dispensary in Oakland, CA raised $1.2 million in sales tax for the city in one year (Kane, 2013). According to a 2010 study done by the Cato Institute, legalizing marijuana would generate approximately $9 billion in federal and state taxes annually (Fairchild, 2013). Jeffrey Miron from Harvard University figured out the law enforcement savings that can be extracted from marijuana legalization would be about $9 billion nationwide, reinforcing the same number given by the Cato institute study (Eubanks, 2014). State and local governments will also save billions of dollars that are currently being spent on regulating marijuana (2013). The state of Washington also estimates that marijuana will generate $2 billion within the next five years (2013). On New Year’s Day 2014 in Colorado, 24 dispensaries opened up in the state to sell recreational marijuana, and sales totaled over $1 million. That expanded to over $5 million within the first week (Eubanks, 2014). Colorado’s extended profit projection for marijuana looks very promising as well, according to Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado, taxes from legal marijuana sales would be $134 million for the 2014 fiscal year (Lyman, 2014). Colorado is also going to spend the first $40 million on education and schools. It is no doubt that marijuana is a cash crop.

With marijuana being illegal, smokers have to pour money into drug dealers (Derrick Battle, 2013). These dealers are either growing their marijuana or importing it from somewhere. Nobody knows what is in the marijuana that they buy, and according to the Center for Substance Abuse Research, there have been instances where users have bought marijuana that was laced with chemicals (2013). If marijuana were legalized, the marijuana producers will be obligated to provide their consumers with 100% marijuana (2013). Nobody will fear that their marijuana could be laced with additional chemicals and drugs, thus making it blatantly safer to buy from the legal market (2013).

Disadvantages of Marijuana Legalization

One significant concern of anti-legalization advocates is that an increasing number of people will smoke marijuana, become impaired, and get behind the wheel of a vehicle. But how does marijuana compare to an already existing problem, drunk driving? It is hard to directly compare alcohol to marijuana because driving impairment depends on different factors, and the two drugs affect different skills. Marijuana makes drivers worse at tasks like staying in a lane, while being drunk makes you more likely to not yield to pedestrians or to run a stop sign (Palmer, 2011). Real-world data gathered from automobile accidents indicate that a drunk driver is approximately 10 times more likely to cause a fatal accident than a stoned driver (2011). Other studies have shown that smoking 1/3 of a joint or less, has virtually no impact on a driver’s performance, with some studies even suggesting that pot smokers are less likely to cause accidents than sober drivers (2011).

The other major disadvantage regarding the legalization of marijuana is the concern that legalizing marijuana will only increase the chances of more teenagers and children coming into contact with the drug. If marijuana were legalized, it would send a message to children that drug use is acceptable (Legalization of Marijuana). Marijuana use in teens can disrupt emotional development, permanently alter the brain, and make teens more susceptible to mental illnesses in their adult life (Bergland, 2013).

Personal Reflection

While marijuana is still a sensitive issue, with valid arguments being presented from both sides, I think that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. I think that the economic, social, and health benefits are substantial. Many adults currently choose alcohol as their drug of choice simply because it’s legal, and marijuana could be a viable and possibly safer alternative for them. Every year, about 88,000 adults die from excessive alcohol usage (Center for Disease Control, 2013). The New York Times Editorial Board also said “Of the two substances, alcohol is far more hazardous” (New York Times, 2013). I think that marijuana can prevent people from binge drinking, because if they can use a safer alternative to alcohol, they might. My personal opinion is that marijuana has been heavily misunderstood and continues to be. I for one believe that there is no issue if a law abiding citizen chooses to use such a benign substance in the privacy of their own home. However, with various states allowing medicinal marijuana and with more on the path to full legalization, this might change soon.


Marijuana has its advantages and disadvantages, but only time will tell what the future holds. The next few years will prove to be monumental for marijuana laws. States are already headed on the path of allowing marijuana for medicinal purposes and most likely, eventually, recreational purposes. What if we lived in a world where marijuana was legalized for recreational use?

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