To toke or not to toke? That is the question for voters in Florida, Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., this fall as a national debate about legalized marijuana continues to smolder.
Public attitudes toward pot are evolving quickly, with a recent Gallup poll finding that the majority of Americans now favor legalization.
While federal law prohibits marijuana use, state laws across the country run the gamut: Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012. Medical use of marijuana is legal in 23 states plus the District of Columbia. And, 16 states have “decriminalized” the substance, meaning no prison time or criminal record for first-time possession of a small amount intended for personal consumption.
This patchwork legal environment is as complex and potentially confusing as the wide-ranging arguments in favor of and against legalization. With elections close at hand, pundits are weighing in with their perspectives on the political, economic and criminal issues, as well as the personal and public health concerns surrounding the topic.
Here are some of the anti- and pro-legalization arguments that are making the news:
Harmful to physical health
Despite pro-legalization campaigns that position marijuana use as “harmless” — or at least no more harmful than alcohol consumption — some health experts worry about the personal and public health impacts that may come with more widespread use of the drug.
At a recent event at The Forum at the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Eden Evins, a Harvard psychiatry professor and director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, described the biochemical effects of cannabis on the central nervous system. She warned that smoking marijuana overstimulates naturally occurring cannabinoid receptors in the brain, which are found in high-density areas that influence memory, thinking, concentration, movement, coordination and sensory and time perception.
“Over time, this overstimulation can alter the function of cannabinoid receptors, along with other changes in the brain,” Evins said. “This can lead to addiction, to withdrawal symptoms when the drug stops, and to effects on cognition.”
“The legal status of a drug has dramatic impact on its use,” argued Peter Bensinger, former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Robert DuPont, president of the Institute for Behavior and Health and former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in the New York Times. “In the last 30 days, 52 percent of Americans 12 and older used alcohol, 27 percent used tobacco and only 7 percent used marijuana. The dramatically lower level of marijuana use reflects its illegal status, not its appeal.”
Increases health risks in youth
Preliminary results from the 2013 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey (where recreational use of marijuana has been legal since 2012) show the percentage of students who perceived a moderate or great risk from marijuana use declined from 58 percent in 2011 to 54 percent in 2013, according to a press release from the Colorado Department of Public Health.
While studies show using marijuana has an effect on brain development, the extent of that effect will take years to determine conclusively, according to the announcement. But some researchers aren’t comfortable waiting to see what the impact on still-developing brains will be. Evins of the Center for Addiction Medicine voiced concern that marijuana use, which affects attention and abstract reasoning, will affect young people’s ability to learn, as well as have a long-term impact on cognition.
“It seems that adolescents are at particular risk,” she said referencing studies that compared people who started using marijuana as adults with those who started earlier. “Those with early, or teenage, onset of marijuana use had significantly poorer sustained attention, cognitive inhibition (or) executive control, and abstract reasoning compared with adults who started using.”
Helps minorities who have been disproportionately affected by criminalization
“Outrageously long (prison) sentences are only part of the story,” argued a recent editorial in the New York Times. “The hundreds of thousands of people who are arrested each year but do not go to jail also suffer; their arrests stay on records for years, crippling their prospects for jobs, loans, housing and benefits. These are disproportionately people of color, with marijuana criminalization hitting black communities hardest.”
Diverts taxpayer dollars from enforcement and punishment to prevention and care
“The solution is clear,” wrote American Civil Liberties attorney Vanita Gupta in a recent CNN column. “Instead of taxpayers spending millions of dollars on this unnecessary enforcement … states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care.”
Increases tax revenue for states
A new study by personal finance website NerdWallet suggests that “cash-strapped states stand to collect millions if they legalize the drug,” arguing that states could gain just over $3 billion in tax revenue from legal marijuana sales. Colorado, the first state to allow the sale of recreational marijuana, collected $4,775,679 from marijuana-related sales tax in June 2014, up from $4,511,668 collected in May 2014, according to the Denver Business Journal.
Helps people with chronic conditions
Medical use of marijuana has been demonstrated to ease symptoms from several medical conditions, including muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, nausea from cancer chemotherapy, poor appetite and weight loss caused by chronic illness such as HIV, as well as nerve pain and seizure disorders.
Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent for CNN, recently produced two documentaries looking at the benefits and risks of medical marijuana. In a discussion at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, he described his evolved position on medical marijuana.
“There are lot of very, very legitimate patients … for whom not only, did I realize, medical marijuana was working for them, it was working for them when nothing else had,” Gupta said. “And it took on a different sense of urgency for me because this became not just a medical, but a social and political story in so many ways."
Less harmful than recreational alcohol use
Representing one of the more contentious claims of the debate, advocates argue that recreational marijuana use presents less of a health concern than recreational alcohol use and should therefore be allowed.
“The message is simple: if we can regulate alcohol we can regulate a far less harmful substance,” said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project in an interview with the International Business Times. “Marijuana has been illegal because too many people think it is too dangerous to allow adults to use, when in fact it is less harmful than alcohol.”