There are many strong feelings surrounding the topic of legalizing marijuana. As with any controversial topic, people in both camps make valid points, but they also repeat debunked nonsense because they feel it is true. Since feelings aren’t the best basis for making policy decisions, as our government debates decriminalization of the plant, it’s worthwhile to examine the facts, good and bad.
First, some definitions. Cannabis is a plant. It is hearty, fast-growing, and thrives in a wide range of environments. It produces two broad classes of material, both of which have many uses: Hemp, which is the fibrous stalk that is extremely useful for textiles, and marijuana, which is the flower that contains the drugs that are useful for medicine and recreation. Hemp and marijuana are products of the same cannabis plant.
A good place to start would be to understand why marijuana was made illegal in the first place. It has little to do with the plant’s psychoactive properties. There is a vast body of research on this topic, but it essentially boils down to xenophobia in the 1930s and knee-jerk reaction to the social unrest of the late 1960s.
The xenophobia came into play after an influx of Mexican immigrants due to the Mexican Revolution. The immigrants, of course, brought their culture and customs with them, including the use of ‘marihuana’. The media played on the fears of the public, and ‘marihuana’ became the scapegoat for the public’s fear. Never mind that the same drug was commonplace in the American medicine cabinet at the time–it was just known as cannabis. Regulation was a means of keeping tabs on these new, scary foreigners.
The 1960’s were a time of social unrest. President Nixon initiated the ‘War on Drugs’ but it was really a war on anti-war protesters. In 1994, John Ehrlichman, who was Nixon’s Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, was quoted in an interview stating: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” Again, cannabis was made the scapegoat and criminalizing it provided a means to disrupt problematic communities.
Enough history. Misconceptions about the use of the plant as a drug persist.
Some people still hold fast to the idea that using marijuana will result in behaviour like the famous propaganda film ‘Reefer Madness’ portrayed. Give it a watch. It’s hilarious, and shows behaviour completely unlike any marijuana smoker I’ve ever seen or heard about.
Some people still hold fast to the idea that marijuana is a gateway drug, that using it will make it more likely that the user will move on to harder drugs. The US Federal government and others have studied this, and it is not a simple black and white issue. Causality is a hard thing to prove. For example, while it’s likely that most heroin addicts consumed coffee before trying heroin, I don’t think most people would point to coffee as being a gateway drug. Regarding marijuana, The National Institute on Drug Abuse has noted that “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, “harder” substances”.
Some people still hold fast to the idea that legalized marijuana will bring about social decay. I was in Colorado recently and I assure you that while I saw many legal marijuana dispensaries, I did not see bedlam or needles filling the gutters. I did see thriving, happy communities, and it looked pretty much the same as it did the time I visited prior to legalization.
Some people still hold fast to the idea that marijuana is addictive. It is not. Some people do develop a dependency, but dependency and addiction are not the same thing, and the drug in the plant is not addictive like nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, and prescription opiates are.
Our federal government still holds fast to the idea that marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug. The definition of Schedule 1 includes “no currently accepted medical use”. This is clearly not the case for marijuana.
Enough about misconceptions. Let’s look at the benefits of legalization.
Perhaps the most important factor for our society is the financial impact. If cannabis were legal to produce and consume in Illinois, the money being spent on it now (on the black market) could be taxed. In 2017, the state of Colorado collected nearly 250 million dollars in marijuana taxes. Imagine how that money could help the Illinois budget. Imagine if all of that money went toward our underfunded school system.
Also financially related, there is vast potential for industry’s use of hemp, which is the same plant as cannabis. The only difference is in how it’s grown, with the focus being on the fibers and oils that the plant makes rather than the chemical compounds. Imagine the financial impact of bringing new, profitable industries to Illinois.
The black market would be reduced. This is also closely tied to the financial benefits, but deserves distinct attention. With no black market for marijuana, the revenue from the industry (which already exists) would stay local, not be exported to wherever the crop is produced. Criminal organizations that rely on black market profits would be weakened. The burden on law enforcement would be reduced. The burden on the courts would be reduced.
Medical research could progress. There is vast potential for medicinal use of marijuana. The plant is not a new pharmaceutical invention; some experts estimate that it has been in use as medicine for 5000 years or more. Its medicinal uses are well known in cultural knowledge, but not so much in the western scientific arena because science has been hindered from studying it.
Freedom would be expanded. This seems so obvious to me, but maybe I have a simplistic view of the world. Freedom only exists if a person can do as he pleases, so long as he does not interfere with other people’s ability to do as they please. How is it that a person who chooses to use marijuana interferes with another person’s choice to not use it? (This does not encompass other acts such as driving under the influence, which is a different thing and certainly poses a risk to others.)
Enough about the benefits. There are some bad things about cannabis too, and these also need to be considered.
It is absolutely true that, while under the influence, marijuana users have an impaired ability to function at the same level as a sober person. But then, the same can be said of beer and prescription painkillers. But in all cases, the reduced capacity wears off in a matter of hours. The state of mind on Friday night has no bearing on mental capacity come Monday morning.
Pharmaceutical companies could be hurt by the introduction of alternatives to their expensive and addictive opioid based pills. This industry lobbies against legalization.
Alcohol companies could be hurt by the introduction of social lubricants that don’t produce hangovers and damage livers. This industry lobbies against legalization.
The cotton industry could be hurt by the introduction of a superior fiber for use in textiles. This industry lobbies against legalization.
The petroleum industry could be hurt by the introduction of another source of plastics and fuel. This industry lobbies against legalization.
The for-profit prison system could be hurt by a reduction of inmate population. This industry lobbies against legalization.
Let’s look at ethics.
If somebody’s ethic is concerned with what they themselves do, then they should have no problem with what other people do. If somebody’s ethic is concerned with what others do, then I question how they can justify controlling others’ actions and supporting the idea of freedom at the same time. If somebody’s objection to using the plant is based in Christian ethics, I would suggest that they crack open their Holy Bible and refer to Genesis 1:29. Yes, it’s good as a food too.
ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/search/list Search on “hemp seed”.
I encourage those of you who are still reading to follow up on the sources I referenced, and to do your own research too. The topic of marijuana legalization is mired in stigma and misconception. Learn as much as you can, with an objective and unbiased point of view, then let your government representatives know what you want them to do.