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Why Marijuana Should Be Legal and the Benefits of Legalization

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As of 2019, “Ten states and Washington, DC, have now legalized marijuana for recreational use for adults over 21. And 33 states have legalized medical marijuana.”

Recreational use entitles 21 or older to purchase, sell, and use the drug . Medicinal marijuana allows for the drug to be used by anyone with a prescription issued by a doctor. Currently medical marijuana is a treatment for conditions such as epilepsy and fibromyalgia, and symptoms like nausea, pain, anxiety, and more. While many states have begun the process of decriminalization and/or legalization, many issues prevail regarding the existing federal laws against marijuana. Removing marijuana from the Scheduled Substances list would supply an effective medication for patients with debilitating symptoms, reduce the overpopulation burden on prisons and the criminal system, and provide a new revenue source for the government.

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The first mention of marijuana, or cannabis, was in a Chinese medical manual around 2700 B.C. They believed marijuana was effective treatment for a variety of different ailments, including rheumatism, malaria, and gout. Its use spread to China, Korea, India, and Eastern Africa, where they also used it medicinally to help treat pain and anxiety. The Arabic world began to use marijuana recreationally between 800 and 1000 A.D., as they could not use alcohol due to the Koran (Id). As early as 800 A.D., people were able to recognize that marijuana could be used medicinally, and recreationally. After the “discovery” of the New World in the 1500s, the Spanish brought cannabis to grow hemp. By 1890, hemp had become a major cash crop in the south, its sale surpassing even cotton. Cannabis later began to be used in medicines in the states.

Until 1910, America had not banned any drugs federally. However, this quickly began to change. In 1912, the Hague International Opium Convention was signed by representatives from countries in Europe, Asia, the United States, and other territories. The legality of opium and morphine were heavily discussed, and they added marijuana and other drugs to their list of problematic substances. The primary purpose of the convention was to implement restrictions on the import of, and criminalize the use of opium, coca, and cannabis. The representatives signed and enforced a treaty in 5 countries that included many elements of comprehensive drug control. The Harrison Act of 1914 applied a special tax on the production, import, sale, and distribution of opium. These laws were the first in United States history to impose regulation on cannabis and other drugs. During this time, marijuana was not seen as a threat or instigator of violent crime, and therefore not as actively policed as drugs like opium.

Between 1850 and the 1930s, marijuana was prescribed often for pain, nausea, and rheumatism. It was also used as an intoxicant, similar to alcohol. However, a divide had clearly formed. While many saw the clear pharmacological benefits that cannabis could provide, a campaign had started to paint it as a powerful, addictive substance that made users more violent. The 50s and 60s saw the use of marijuana by “hippies”. Drugs became a symbol of youthful rebellion and political disagreement. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 declared marijuana, heroin, and LSD as Schedule 1 drugs. In July 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs” and instituted a series of mandates to strengthen drug control agencies and increase criminalization of drugs . While the commission tasked with reviewing this act recommended the decriminalization of possession and personal use of marijuana, Nixon had his mind set and ignored this recommendation . Again, lawmakers during this time understood that marijuana did not pose the same threats to society as LSD or heroin, but Nixon’s “war on drugs” was a blanket position against drugs, disregarding any arguments supporting its use, even medicinally.

Schedule 1 drugs are described as drugs with high abuse potential, and no accepted medical use. The extensive history described above shows that marijuana has had clear medical uses for thousands of years, leading many to question the classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. A major criticism of the use or legalization of medical marijuana is the lack of studies. Detractors fail to mention that without federal grants and money, studies are difficult to fund. Since marijuana is illegal federally, researchers struggle to find the funds to conduct thorough medical studies. Despite this hurdle, the FDA has approved three cannabinoid medications. CBD is the primary extraction from the hemp plant, and is non-psychoactive. THC is the psychoactive component of marijuana that gives the “high sensation” (Id). These drugs, each made with either CBD or THC, have been used to treat chemotherapy-related nausea, loss of appetite resulting from AIDS, and rare forms of epilepsy. Despite difficulties with funding studies, medications have been developed that have proved indisputably to provide medicinal benefit. This is a clear contradiction of the definition of a scheduled substance.

Medical marijuana is most commonly used today to treat pain. Marijuana does better with the treatment of chronic, mild-to-moderate pain, than with severe pain from an injury or surgery. Marijuana is safer than opiates, and is far less addictive. Chronic pain affects as many as 20% of US adults, and is the leading cause of disability . The impact of chronic pain is far-reaching, often leading to opioid dependency, mental illness, and reduced quality of life. Marijuana helps with nerve pain, and can even act as a muscle relaxant to lessen tremors and muscle spasms. It also helps with management of nausea, and can boost appetite in patients with weight loss . Marijuana has been shown to help with pain from conditions like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, fibromyalgia, endometriosis, and many more. Many of these conditions do not have a cure, and many also do not have effective treatments. Eliminating medical marijuana takes away a key treatment from patients who have often run out of viable options.

Today, the opioid crisis is at the forefront of U.S. politics. According to the National Institute of Health, 130 people die every day from an opioid overdose . 21-29% of people who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain abuse them, and 4-6% of those people will go on to use heroin . Currently, the solution to this crisis is to crack down on doctors who over-prescribe opioids. However, this negatively impacts patients who properly use their medication, and have a chronic pain condition that necessitates medication. Often, chronic pain patients have their dosage decreased significantly without an alternative treatment offered. Even with the crackdown on opioid prescriptions, opioid overdoses increased 30% from July 2016 to August of 2017 . This suggests that pain patients are likely not the problem. However, if politicians want to reduce the number of people using opioids, medicinal marijuana is a valid alternative. As stated, marijuana is incredibly effective for chronic pain, and less addictive than opioids.

The anti-drug rhetoric of the 70’s and 80’s lead to an uptick in fear surrounding drugs, particularly the use of marijuana by teens. Rates of incarceration skyrocketed during the following 30 years. Between 1980 and 1997, the number of incarcerations from nonviolent drug offenses went from 50,000 to over 400,000. The spread of HIV/AIDS also lead to an increase in harsh policies surrounding drug users. Nixon’s war on drugs lead to an increased burden on the prison system, and showed a complete disregard for the history of documented uses of medicinal marijuana.

There are two potential options that would lessen the burden of overpopulation on the prison system with regards to marijuana, one being more drastic than the other. Decriminalization and legalization may sound like the same thing, but they are vastly different in application. Decriminalization would mean that the government would repeal criminal penalties against the possession of marijuana, but the sale of marijuana would still be illegal. Legalization, however, would also eliminate penalties for trafficking. Legalization would save federal money, eliminating the need for “. . . prosecutorial, judicial, and incarceration expenses”. Examining all angles of marijuana legalization, there are three main areas of government spending: police resources that lead to marijuana-related arrests, prosecutorial and judicial resources that secure marijuana prosecutions, and correctional resources for marijuana incarcerations . For instance, in a state where marijuana is not legal, if a man is found in possession of marijuana, there is a whole process that must take place to charge him with this crime, and pursue justice. This means that the police who arrested him, the lawyers that prosecute and/or defend him, and the judge and/or jury who declare him guilty, all must be paid. Then, if convicted and sentenced to prison, the state must pay for him to serve out the duration of his prison sentence. All of this expense adds up quickly, and many people feel that for non-violent drug offenses, the financial burden on the system outweighs the benefits. A report examining the legal system’s dealings with crimes involving marijuana in the state of Massachusetts alone shows an annual savings of about $120.6 million. This is merely the savings from not prosecuting marijuana offenses. This estimate does not even include the potential profits if the government were to take over the cultivation, sale, and distribution of marijuana.

When California considered marijuana decriminalization in 2014 through Assembly Bill 390, the state looked to marijuana to reduce the financial burden on a state with a large deficit. As of 2009 in California, someone is arrested for a marijuana offense every forty-five seconds. In 2007, over 900,000 people were arrested for marijuana-related crimes, over 88% of which were merely charged with possession . Proponents of the bill pointed out that the state of California was likely spending billions on prison for marijuana-related offenses. Redirected elsewhere, this money could help reduce actual violent crime.

The potential revenue that marijuana legalization and distribution could provide the government is incredibly important to consider in a nation that has accumulated massive debt. In Massachusetts alone, a report estimates that legalization could provide at least $16.9 million annually from tax revenue. This money could go towards eliminating the national debt, or it could be used by the government in other ways such as national security, education, funding Medicare, etc. Several public officials claimed that marijuana could be worth as much as $14 billion in California, and it is currently untaxed. This is also a huge part of the economy that is not being properly utilized. There is no doubt that if the government were to take over the cultivation and distribution of marijuana, there is a massive opportunity for alternative revenue.

Another source of revenue that would come from legalizing marijuana are “spinoff industries such as coffeehouses, paraphernalia, and industrial hemp” . When contemplating potential revenue, experts often look to the wine industry. If the marijuana industry were to grow to be even one third as large as the wine industry, legal marijuana could generate up to four times the economic activity of retail sales alone. Already today as marijuana becomes more popular in legalized states, CBD has become a hot ingredient to include in beauty products. Analysts predict that the incorporation of marijuana products in the beauty industry could be worth $50-100 billion. Sephora is a major beauty retailer, and they have already curated a section of hemp/CBD products on their website. The natural, or clean movement is a major category in beauty currently that marijuana industry fits well into. If cannabis were to be legalized, alternative industries involving cannabis ingredients or paraphernalia could be a massive industry with significant economic impact. So why marijuana should be legal?

As more states begin to legalize marijuana, critics have yet to see their worst fears realized. Many detractors believed that if marijuana were to be legalized, usage would increase, especially among teens. This has not been true. Studies have shown that in Colorado, where marijuana is legal recreationally, rates of consumption actually decreased after legalization . While we do not yet understand why that may be, it is clear that marijuana usage has not skyrocketed due to legalization. Critics also believe that marijuana is a gateway drug, and that once a person uses marijuana, they will begin to use other, more dangerous drugs like cocaine or heroin. There is no more evidence to prove that marijuana usage leads to the use of harder drugs any more so than the use of alcohol or nicotine, both of which are legal federally. Yet another fear of those who advocate against marijuana is that it will lead to a drop in IQ, especially among teen users. While marijuana would only become legal for those over 21, it is apparent that teens in this country have found ways around the law. Studies can always be manipulated by selecting a biased group to start with, and then drawing incorrect conclusions. In the past, researchers have also made the mistake of believing that a correlation between two things, such as smoking pot and not going to college, means there is a causative link between the two, such as that smoking pot makes you stupid. Causation cannot be proven simply by finding that two things correlate. However, there is conclusive evidence that shows that if proper protocols are taken when conducting the study, there is no link between the use of marijuana and a lower IQ. There are some valid concerns with regards to the use of marijuana by those with preexisting or predisposition to severe psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia. 

Though, again, no causative link has been proven. If marijuana were legalized even medicinally, federal studies could take place to investigate these concerns and find answers. On the whole, many of the arguments that have been made in the past few decades regarding marijuana as an evil drug that destroys young minds have been proven to be unfounded. The benefits of marijuana legalization clearly outweigh the cost of prosecuting marijuana-related offenses, not to mention the value of the untapped marijuana industry.    

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