WalletHub: Should Marijuana Be Legal?

Summary: MAPS Founder Rick Doblin, Ph.D., outlines how the prohibition of marijuana affects medical research, society, and economics. “By ending marijuana prohibition, we will be able to conduct rigorous scientific studies into the risks and benefits of this plant, and begin to heal the trauma caused by its persecution,” explains Doblin.

Originally appearing here.

Call it a sign of society’s moral erosion, an act of economic desperation or folks finally coming to their senses, but a record-high number of Americans – 61% – now support marijuana legalization, according to a March 2016 survey by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Such sentiment is the product of a decades-long shift in perspective, which has taken this hot-button issue from the realm of “I didn’t inhale, and I never tried again” to “When I was a kid I inhaled frequently; that was the point.” And that’s just commanders in chief talking!

But the topic of toking has in recent years come to a head, with four states and the District of Columbia legalizing the drug and another 16 states enacting some form of decriminalization, turning the rest of us into rubberneckers eager to see what would happen. The early returns have been promising for pot proponents, with Washington reaping $83 million in tax revenue the first year of legalization, while also saving millions of dollars on law enforcement resources, thanks to a 98% drop in low-level marijuana offenses. Similarly, Colorado collected roughly $41 million in tax revenue and saw an 84% decline in marijuana-possession arrests.

Not everyone is ready to climb aboard Puff the Magic Dragon just yet, however. From concerned parents to threatened corporations, the reasons for opposition are varied. For example, the pharmaceutical industry is one of the biggest anti-marijuana lobbying groups, and a recent study from researchers at the University of Georgia perhaps explains why, showing that the average doctor in a medical-marijuana state writes 1,589 fewer prescriptions for anti-anxiety, anti-nausea and seizure medication each year.

With that in mind and much of the pot problem still unsolved, we turned to a panel of leading experts in the fields of economics, public policy, law enforcement and healthcare for additional insights. We asked them one simple question: Should marijuana be legal? You can find their bios and responses – including 19 Yes’s and 7 No’s – below. And make sure to share your thoughts on the issue in the Comments section, too!

Yes – Marijuana Should Be Legal

Lester Grinspoon, Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School

Back in 1966, concerned that so many young people were harming themselves through the use of marijuana, I began to review the medical and scientific literature to help clarify the nature of this harmfulness. Much to my surprise, I discovered that it was a substance remarkably free of toxicity. In fact, it is far safer than any pharmaceutical or recreational drug. There is no record of a single overdose death around the world from its recreational or medicinal use. Compare that to aspirin, which is responsible for more than 1000 deaths per year in this country alone.

Many of those who staunchly defend the prohibition against marijuana believe we do not yet know enough about it to be able to make the kinds of decisions that are now necessary. Despite the US government’s three-quarter-century-long prohibition of marijuana and its confinement to Schedule 1 of the Drug Control and Abuse Act of 1970, it is nonetheless one of the most studied therapeutically active substances in history; to date there are more than 23,000 published studies or reviews in the scientific literature referencing the cannabis plant and its cannabinoids, nearly half of which were published within the past five years. By contrast hydrocodone, a pharmaceutical opioid which is responsible for a large and growing number of overdose deaths from illicit use, yields just more than 600 references in the entire compilation of the available scientific research. The entirety of this research supports none of the claims of those who believe that it is a harmful substance, whether used as a medicine or a recreational drug.

Richard N. Gottfried, Chair of the New York State Assembly Health Committee

We need to move beyond our completely broken prohibition model on marijuana to a sensible tax-and-regulate model. It’s widely recognized that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and our law is dishonest in how we treat it.

Continued criminalization of marijuana does nothing to prevent marijuana use. It creates an illegal drug market that costs millions of dollars in law enforcement and other resources while disproportionately punishing African-American and Latino communities.

Public health research consistently shows similar rates of marijuana use across races, with rates actually higher among Whites ages 18-25 than others. However, African-Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites. In 2010, it cost the City of New York $75 million to arrest and jail people for possession – and over a decade, marijuana possession arrests ate up over 1 million hours of New York City police officers’ time.

Supporters of continued marijuana criminalization argue that relaxing marijuana laws leads to increased use, particularly among young people, and may also lead to use of other illicit drugs. However, evidence shows drug use among high school students declining, at levels near the lowest on record, even as many states have reduced criminal penalties (such as changing misdemeanor possession charges to violations) or even legalized recreational use (such as in Colorado and Washington.)

While I would not advocate moving to a tax-and-regulate approach for the purpose of revenue generation, it is clear that state governments can also benefit from this approach. Colorado in 2015 collected nearly double from marijuana taxes what that state generated from alcohol taxes. It is far better that the demand for marijuana be met by licensed, regulated and taxed business owners rather than an underground illegal market.

It’s going to take a lot of advocacy for broader adoption of the tax-and-regulate model. There is strong public support, but many elected officials tend to be jittery about any issue relating to drugs. Fortunately, the experiences of states like Colorado and Washington have shown the effectiveness of this approach and can serve as models for other states considering similar laws – including New York, where I co-sponsor tax-and-regulate legislation as Chair of the Assembly Health Committee.

Keith McCarty, CEO and Founder of Eaze

Cannabis should be legalized.

Legalization of adult use of cannabis would change the landscape of cannabis use, and deliveries would be a key component in continuing to allow legal users safe access to quality tested cannabis while keeping cannabis out of the hands of minors. The use of medical marijuana has been legal in California for the past twenty years. Today we have 25 states plus the District of Columbia with some form of legalized use. In 2012, we saw the first year where the majority of Americans favored legalization. In an industry which has historically had little to no oversight, legalization would provide a regulatory framework to ensure safety and furthermore, allow for more research to be done around the medicinal benefits.

Eaze is a technology company changing the game. From day one, Eaze has been incredibly data driven. In an industry starved for concrete data, Eaze uses data insights to better understand patient behavior and preferences, as well as to create a technology that facilitates safe delivery. Since safe access is of paramount impor
tance, Eaze has worked, and continues to work with regulators to help them understand the market better so they can craft a regulatory framework that makes sense. Legalization will help increase the market understanding of this industry and ultimately create a safer and more educated cannabis industry.

Andrew Horwitz, Professor and Assistant Dean for Experiential Education at Roger Williams University School of Law

If marijuana were legalized and regulated, thus treating it the same way we treat alcohol in this country, a number of positive developments should be expected to follow. First, we would put an end to the extraordinarily discriminatory fashion in which we have enforced our marijuana laws, which has done extensive damage to communities of color. Second, we could begin to treat addiction as a health problem, which is what it is. Third, we could begin to educate our children more honestly and, therefore, more effectively, as we do about alcohol and cigarettes.

I believe that legalization will come to pass but, like any movement that requires a change in thinking (such as same-sex marriage), it will take some time.

Rick Doblin, Founder and Executive Director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS)

The time has come to end prohibition on marijuana. Currently 50% of US States have medical or recreational marijuana legally available, and 75% of states have reduced federal penalties. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, since 2013 the majority of American voters are in favor of legalizing marijuana. The upswing in support of legalization started in earnest after medical marijuana was approved in California and Arizona in 1996.

The prohibition of marijuana accrues enormous social costs. The sheer amount of time and resources dedicated by law enforcement agencies to arrest otherwise law abiding citizens for marijuana possession is egregious, as it allocates time away from other critical issues and has not been successful in the goal of reducing drug use. The ricocheting effects and repercussions of these unnecessary arrests are felt acutely by individuals, and systemically through minority and poor communities.

In an April 2016 article in Harper’s Magazine John Erlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, discussed how the ‘war on drugs’ was established to disenfranchise the opponents to Nixon’s campaign. This policy was constructed to allow the administration to disrupt black and hippie communities by having the public to associate marijuana and heroin use to these populations, then heavily criminalize them. These policies were founded on prejudices for political gain, not in the interest of public health and justice.

Marijuana has shown promise as a tool for healing and reducing suffering. The plant has been used to treat diseases and conditions including cancer, PTSD, epilepsy, pain, inflammation, seizures, anxiety, depression, autoimmune disorders, and substance abuse. Recent studies have shown that medical marijuana use for chronic pain can reduce rates of opiate addiction, and that it is a more affordable alternative to pharmaceuticals with the potential to save millions of dollars each year in Medicare costs. Additionally, researchers have supported claims that marijuana is safer and poses fewer health risks than drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco. Although 25 states have now legalized medical marijuana, the plant still remains in the most severe schedule of controlled substances, with significant barriers to conducting drug development research.

By ending marijuana prohibition, we will be able to conduct rigorous scientific studies into the risks and benefits of this plant, and begin to heal the trauma caused by its persecution. We can direct the conversation away from discrimination and prejudice, toward the safe and beneficial uses of marijuana.

No – Marijuana Should Not Be Legal

Kevin A. Sabet, Director of the Drug Policy Institute and Assistant Professor in the College of Medicine at University of Florida

Legalization might sound like a good idea. We can ‘tax and regulate’ something many people do, and hopefully get rid of violent drug dealers and help the economy. That’s the line being sold by a few people who want to get rich, anyway. Buyer beware. Though drug policy certainly needs reforms – people shouldn’t be given a criminal record for low-level pot use, and we need more treatment available, to name some examples – marijuana legalization is a very bad idea, unless, of course, we want to experience the 100-year disaster of Big Tobacco all over again.

First, legalization has already triggered serious consequences in the states of Colorado and Washington. Of most concern for those interested in racial justice, legalization has resulted in huge spikes in arrests of Colorado youth from communities of color—up 29% among Hispanics from 2012 (pre-legalization) to 2014 (post-legalization), and up 58% among Black youth in the same timeframe—while arrests of White children fell.

This massive increase in juvenile arrests tracks national survey data shows youth use rates well above national averages in CO and WA, and rising much faster than the rest of the nation.

Other negative consequences include:

  • A doubling of the percentage of marijuana-related traffic fatalities in Washington in just one year after legalization (2013 to 2014)
  • Huge spikes in emergency poison control calls related to marijuana from 2013 to 2014 in both Colorado and Washington (72% and 56%, respectively)
  • A 15% average annual increase in drug and narcotics crime in Denver since 2014, when retail sales of marijuana began.

Second, the marijuana industry is developing along the same lines as the tobacco industry of the 20th century, targeting youth and communities of color while lobbying against any regulation. For example, pot businesses in Denver have concentrated in minority areas, with one such neighborhood featuring one marijuana business for every 47 residents.

They also target youth by heavily marketing edible marijuana products like candy lollipops and gummy bears. These products, like the ones below, now comprise about 50% of the Colorado marijuana market.

Third, the pot lobby has successfully fought off Colorado’s attempts to regulate advertising targeting children, rules restricting the use of pesticides, and rules to cap potency. And this same lobby has included provisions in some of the marijuana legalization initiatives being considered in 2016 that would pack state oversight boards with industry representatives. This ‘Big Marijuana’ assault on health and safety regulations is no less than a repeat of Big Tobacco’s tactics from the 1960s and 1970s.

Daily marijuana use has tripled among 12th graders nationwide over the past 20 years. Kids today are getting the idea that marijuana is safe because of mixed messages surrounding marijuana legalization, despite the fact that the American Medical Association and other scientific groups oppose such efforts and are concerned with the drug’s public health impact.

Yes, we should reform marijuana laws. But unless we want to usher in another greedy industry, legalization is not the way to do it.

Janet R. Daling, Professor Emeritus of Epidemiology at University of Washington School of Public Health and Researcher in the Fred Hutchinson Center

One of my studies was related to marijuana use and the incidence of non-seminoma testicular cancer. I found an association. This association has been verified by two other studies. For this reason, among others, I definitely do not support legalization of marijuana.

Chitra D. Mandyam, Associate Adjunct Professor at UC San Diego Health Sciences, and Adjunct Associate Professor in The Scripps Research Institute

NO means no. The topic of legalizing marijuana use has gained attention in the past year. Unfortunately, the publ
ic has mixed knowledge on the drug itself, its use and misuse. Medical marijuana is unprocessed marijuana plant for its medicinal extracts to treat some aspects of pain and side effects associated with chemotherapy. This medical use is mostly associated with older population. However, the legalization of this drug may be misused by the young adult population where the illicit use can lead to abuse and eventually addiction to the drug.

For example, it is interesting to note that commercially available information on marijuana indicate that there is strong ‘relief’ associated with marijuana use, and that there is steady increase in marijuana tax revenue and that the consumption of marijuana is safer than peanuts. Unfortunately, this notion of safety has been misinterpreted and there is a steady rise in initial use and teen use of marijuana. What fits with the rise in teen use of marijuana is the fact that the drug is addictive (cannabis use disorder – presenting symptoms similar to addiction associated with other illicit drugs such as cocaine, and legally available alcohol and tobacco).

To conclude, the use and perhaps the misuse of marijuana will be significantly affected by the legalization of the drug, eventually making it a public health concern. I would like to add a few sentences written by my son Atulya Mandyam, currently a 7th grader at Mesa Verde Middle School in San Diego, California. He states ‘Since marijuana is legalized, the biggest target of this drug will be teen-agers and middle-school students. So, if the legalization of marijuana occurs widespread, then our generation will grow up to be a population of cannabis addicts who will pay little attention to their regular life. The only benefit of legalization of marijuana is to the older society for its medicinal uses, and will be unfortunately used for its pleasure and peer pressure purposes in the youngsters. Since young adults and adolescents have no good reason to use marijuana, it should be banned in the state of California to reduce the chance of adolescents and teens getting access to the drug, and essentially messing up their entire life.

William T. Carpenter, Jr., Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology in the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center at University of Maryland School of Medicine

No. The base for my view is narrow. In saying, ‘no,’ I am not taking into account the violence associated with illegal marijuana or the drain on motivation of users or the probability that legal marijuana would be easier to dose properly and less likely to be toxic. These issues are incredibly important and perhaps should be determinate.

My ‘no’ is from the perspective of psychotic illness. The following may apply to several drugs of abuse and to several psychotic disorders, but most data relate to schizophrenia. Many people are vulnerable to developing schizophrenia based on genetic and environmental risk factors. Most vulnerable individuals do not progress to fully manifest schizophrenia. But among the vulnerable, marijuana consumption increases the likelihood of progressing to schizophrenia by about fourfold. There is good evidence that marijuana is casual in this progression, perhaps in relation to the potency of marijuana consumed.

Keeping marijuana illegal does not prevent exposure and is not an effective public health measure. But making marijuana cheaper, safer, cleaner and easily available may increase prevalence of its use. Prevention of progression to psychosis among vulnerable young people is the basis for my ‘no’ to legalization. I wish I were confident that the current status in most states is actually safer/better than would be the case if marijuana became legally available.