A small preface: this argument is coming from someone who has not, does not, and may never smoke marijuana. This is coming from someone who purely feels it is just a matter of time before we see legalization and that that is how it should be.
Recently, we have heard much in the news about the states of Colorado and Washington fully legalizing the sale and recreational use of marijuana and marijuana novelties. While that is true in both states, their approach in legalization varies greatly in terms of specifics, such as but not limited to who may grow the plant, who may sell it, how much a license for distribution costs, and where it can be sold. Both models are being debated and studied, but the discussion throughout the rest of the country is less about “how” and more about “if.”
Opinions have definitely changed on the subject. A Pew Research Center study conducted in February of 2014 found that 54% of Americans say that marijuana should be legal, while 42% of Americans disagreed. While that statistic may appear to be an insignificant majority, it is actually a drastic shift in opinion. It was only around 1999 to 2000 when Pew found 63% felt the drug should be illegal and 31% felt it should be legal.
Such a turnaround speaks volumes about what Americans have been picking up on. No one source can be deemed fully responsible for the change in opinion, but it is hard not to notice a few stand-outs.
One of the reasons people have changed their mind could be the impact marijuana has on our justice system. An FBI report from 2011 found that out of all of the arrests for drug abuse violations, 43.3% came from marijuana. That figure stands a clear 20-30% above any of the other narcotic groupings. To many it has likely become obvious that this single drug’s criminalization is putting many more people into prison than it should, especially people of color. The NAACP has often come out in support of marijuana legalization because of what its spokespeople have suggested are inherently racist laws, with local leader Alice Huffman saying, “We have empirical proof that the application of the marijuana laws has been unfairly applied to our young people of color.” She went on to say, “Justice is the quality of being just and fair and these laws have been neither just nor fair.”
The NAACP also provided data from Colorado that correlated marijuana arrests to race. The 4% of Colorado that is African American accounts for 9% of the marijuana possession arrests for the state and 22% of the arrests for sale and cultivation. In Denver, specifically, the 11% of the population that is African American accounts for 31.5% of arrests for private adult possession. Rates like these are similar to nearly every state in the nation. In that same Pew Research Center study from February 2014, 63% of people said that it was a good thing that many states are moving away from mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, as opposed to the 47% that responded the same in 2001.
So if we realize that marijuana is putting too many people in the prison system unnecessarily, then why do we continue to maintain marijuana’s criminalized status? It’s history. Due to an increase of racist attitudes towards incoming Mexican-Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century, marijuana has become associated with them and demonized. Quickly, the drug became not only a solely Mexican stereotype, but also associated with African-Americans and Latinos involved in the American jazz scene. Then, through sensationalized (and often falsified) news articles, public opinion turned against the drug and its users. Eventually, the Marijuana Tax Act was enacted and made the drug nearly illegal. Penalties surrounding the drug’s use grew stricter, especially following the counterculture of the 1960 and its associations with marijuana. It was only in the past three decades that public opinion and certain local policies regarding marijuana have loosened.
People are also generally realizing the meager health detriments of using marijuana.
While noting that increased policing of marijuana use “will lead to increased criminalization of young people,” a recent study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology also stated that a full-fledged comparison of alcohol and marijuana’s social and health harms to the user and the people around the user found that alcohol was “twice as harmful as cannabis to users, and five times as harmful as cannabis to others.” The Pew Research Center study asked Americans whether they thought alcohol or marijuana was a larger threat to both a person’s health and society as a whole. The study found that 69% said that alcohol, an intoxicant which is commonly used and advertised throughout the nation, was worse for a person’s health than marijuana, with only 15% saying the opposite.
The sticking point in the process of legalization and decriminalization is the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) drug scheduling, which places marijuana in the Schedule I position. This means that the DEA stands by the argument that marijuana is just as harmful to the average citizen as heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and ecstasy, even though modern science and medicine has proven that to be false multiple times over.
Hope remains for change, though. Just this year, the DEA put in a request for the FDA to consider reducing the Schedule I classification. Currently the FDA is conducting its own analysis regarding the subject and will eventually turn their recommendation in to the DEA. No suggestions, however, have been made as to what the FDA’s judgment will be or when we will hear about it. We can only hope that the FDA comes to realize what those incarcerated for marijuana related charges, those who need the drug for medical reasons, and those who simply enjoy the recreational use of the drug have known for years: it’s time to legalize weed.
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