Marijuana legalization is a unique issue currently gaining momentum in America. Over 25 million Americans have used marijuana in the past year, 100 million have tried the drug at least once, and 14 million use regularly (“About Marijuana”). The growth, sale, possession, and consumption of marijuana for any reason are against federal law. Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized recreational marijuana use for adults over the age of 21, and sixteen additional states and Washington D. C. have legalized medical marijuana (“Pot Legalization Could Save”).
However, all of these states are acting illegally according to federal law. Marijuana legalization is a complex issue that could upend cultural tradition, affect the economy, potentially affect crime and individual health, and challenge the balance of state and federal powers. The government’s purpose as stated in the Preamble of the Constitution is “to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty…”.
The constitutionality of marijuana criminalization thus depends on its effectiveness in promoting these goals. Three central areas to consider in the debate for or against legalization are the medical risks, the social effects, and the economic effects. The medical effects of marijuana have been fairly well studied. It is important to compare the medical risks of marijuana use versus use of drugs that are commonly and legally used and abused, such as tobacco and alcohol, as well as to distinguish between use and abuse. Smoking marijuana is widely presumed to have adverse effects on lung health.
Smoking marijuana leads to the inhalation of up to three times as much tar as smoking cigarettes, probably because marijuana users inhale differently, breathing more deeply and waiting longer to exhale. Marijuana smoke can also contain up to 70 percent more carcinogens than tobacco smoke (Dohney). However, few marijuana users smoke as frequently as tobacco users. A study that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at marijuana smokers who averaged one joint per day for seven years and found no adverse effects on lung function (Dohney).
In another study, called the CARDIA study (Coronary Artery Risk Developments in Young Adults), occasional and moderate marijuana users actually had increased lung capacity over tobacco smokers and non-smokers. For those who smoked marijuana 20 or more times per month, lung capacity dipped back to normal non-smoking levels, but only the most chronic marijuana smokers experienced lung capacity below an average non-smoker (Szalavitz, “Lung Damage”). Studies have thus far failed to link marijuana smoking and lung cancer.
Although marijuana smoke is carcinogenic, THC (the active drug in the marijuana plant) also has anti-inflammatory and tumor-inhibiting properties, decreasing the risk of lung disease (Szalavitz, “Lung Damage”). Based on these conclusions, marijuana use is much less dangerous than tobacco use from a pulmonary standpoint. Additionally, many marijuana users ingest THC by inhaling vapor, eating it in baked goods, drinking it after simmering, or by swallowing concentrated capsules. These methods are increasing in popularity and don’t cause the same exposure to carcinogenic smoke (Dohney).
Reduction in brain function is another commonly cited negative health effect of marijuana use. Judgment, coordination, attentiveness, reaction time, perception, and other mental functions can be altered while under the influence of marijuana. The assumption of such a statement is often that performing activities such as driving while high on marijuana is dangerous, but that assumption has not been emphatically confirmed in the consistent and extensive array of studies on drugged driving.
Marijuana users are typically aware of slowed reaction time and impaired coordination, and they compensate by driving more cautiously (“Marijuana and Driving”). In one study, researchers compared driving under the influence of marijuana with driving under the influence of alcohol. They concluded, “Subjects who have received alcohol tend to drive in a more risky manner. Both substances impair performance; however, the more cautious behavior of subjects who have received marijuana decreases the impact of the drug on performance, whereas the opposite holds true for alcohol” (A. Smiley).
Of course, no one is advocating for impaired driving of any kind, be it under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, over the counter or prescription medication, or even fatigue. It is important to note, however, that driving high is less dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol or some other drugs (Marijuana and Driving). Long-term concerns about impaired brain function from marijuana use are unfounded. Impairment of memory and learning ability don’t appear to extend beyond the time of the high itself.
The popular image of young people ‘smoking themselves stupid’ has perpetuated an assumption that marijuana use is to blame for decreased intelligence. In a comprehensive study by the Centre for Mental Health Research at Australian National University, however, researchers concluded that apparent differences in intelligence among non-users, former users, light users, and heavy users were actually linked to participants sex, socio-economic backgrounds, and levels of education rather than to marijuana use itself.
When these factors were considered, the effect disappeared and even heavy marijuana users did not show cognitive decline (Szalavitz, “Cognitive Impairment”). It is harder to determine the effect of marijuana on adolescents with developing brains. Legalization laws apply to adults over the age of 21, however, rendering that concern irrelevant. It is also notable that marijuana overdose can not cause death, while alcohol poisoning is responsible for numerous deaths every year (“About Marijuana”).
Overall, the negative health effects (if any) of responsible, adult marijuana use are consistently found to be far less significant than the negative effects of the legal drugs alcohol and tobacco. In no proven way does marijuana pose a significant public health hazard. Different countries and states have and enforce very different drug laws, but in many places possession or cultivation of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized.
Certain Australian states, Canada, some European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, and Belgium, and several Latin American countries, including Peru, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, and Paraguay, are key examples of countries where personal use is legally acceptable (“World Marijuana Laws”). Many critics of marijuana legalization cite increased crime rates, increased use of marijuana and other drugs, and increased underage usage as potential issues. Exploration of the effects of legalization in other countries, as well as recently in Colorado and Washington, can show that these concerns are largely unfounded.
Studies consistently find that decriminalization does not lead to increased usage of marijuana or other drugs (“Marijuana Decriminalization”). A study in the Journal for Public Health Policy, for example, stated: “The available data indicate that decriminalization measures substantially reduced enforcement costs, yet had little or no impact on rates of use in the United States. In the South Australian community, none of the studies have found an impact in cannabis use which is attributable to the introduction of the Cannabis Expiation Scheme [decriminalization]” (E.
Single). As far as underage usage is concerned, drug dealers will of course never be bothered by the age of their clients. Legalization would be the only way for underage usage to be controlled, as licensed dealers would not be able to sell to those under 21 (“Legalization Will Reduce Crime”). No one has successfully linked marijuana use to increased violence, reckless behavior, or injury (E. Single). Alcohol abuse, however, is widely linked to violent crime, with an estimated 32 to 50 percent of homicides preceded by alcohol consumption (Gywenne).
One of the only dangers associated with marijuana is a direct result of its illegality: innocents that stumble upon illicit farms or stashes are sometimes killed by farmers or traffickers to protect themselves from exposure (Quinones). These deaths, as well as deaths and injury due to fighting between traffickers, dealers, and clients, could be avoided by government regulated growth and sale of marijuana. Illicit drug producers and cartels seek one thing: profit. Because of marijuana’s illegality, secrecy is a key component of their success.
They are not afraid to use extreme, ruthless measures to accomplish that end, and the legalization of marijuana would result in the loss of their most widespread market (“About Marijuana). The potential economic effects of decriminalization of marijuana are huge. It would cut criminal justice spending enormously by decreasing costs associated with catching and processing users (Bradford). Again, there is no established link between marijuana legalization and increased use, as well as no connection between use and crime (“Marijuana Decriminalization”).
Nearly 850,000 people were arrested on marijuana-related charges last year, and ninety percent were for possession only (“Legalization Will Reduce Crime”). Prosecution for marijuana possession and time spent incarcerated can have devastating effects on an individual, shattering opportunities and creating massive obstacles in nearly every area of life (Gywenne). Beyond saving monetary resources and protecting the future of individuals who use marijuana responsibly, legalization would save time and human resources for more significant crimes in an overwhelmed legal system.
More than 300 economists have signed a petition showing their agreement with a report stating that, between savings in the law enforcement department and potential tax revenues, the U. S. could save $13. 7 billion dollars per year. Other economists cite much larger savings, up to $100 billion (“Pot Legalization Could Save”). Marijuana is the largest cash crop in twelve American states, and in the top five in thirty-nine states (“Legalization Will Reduce Crime”). Nationwide, the industry is valued at around thirty-six billion dollars annually (Bradford).
A market that large has huge economic implications and power, could create a considerable number of jobs, and legalization could reduce the cost of marijuana and thus inject a significant amount of money previously used for marijuana into other areas of the economy. Marijuana use does have the potential to be harmful, just as alcohol has the potential to be harmful. However, most marijuana use is not harmful. Legalization should allow for responsible use by adults only. Underage usage, impaired driving, smoking marijuana in public non-smoking areas, and the abuse of marijuana should be defined and prosecuted accordingly.
The distinction between marijuana use and abuse is critical. Legalization would allow for more effective control of marijuana abuse, while decreasing violence, conserving resources, avoiding the dangers of questionable quality and purity due to unreliable dealers and farmers, and allowing for responsible use. Use of marijuana and other drugs would not increase significantly, crime would not increase, and health is a minimal concern. The marijuana debate comes down to a question of constitutionality. Does criminalizing marijuana promote the goals stated in the preamble, or is it counterproductive?
Criminalizing the drug does not “form a more perfect union”, but rather raises a conflict between state and federal governments and the American population. Does it “establish justice”? It instead takes resources away from more serious issues of social justice to prosecute individuals who wish to responsibly exercise a choice. The criminalization of marijuana certainly works against the effort to “ensure domestic tranquility” by encouraging an underground market whose ruthless perpetrators resort to violence to protect their profit.
On a similar note, it can be said that criminalization does not “provide for the common defense” or “promote the general welfare” because it promotes violence and because marijuana use does not pose a significant threat to public health or safety. Finally, legalization would “ensure the blessings of liberty” by allowing adults to make their own informed decisions about the use of the drug. Looking at each aspect individually, it becomes more and more clear that recreational marijuana legalization would be beneficial and constitutional. Word Count: 1906
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