Stirring the Pot: What Will Really Happen When Marijuana is Legalized

Stirring the Pot: What Will Really Happen When Marijuana is Legalized

Part two of a series exploring cannabis legalization

Cannabis remains a Schedule I Controlled Substance under federal law, yet more states are taking up the issue of legalization of marijuana. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have already legalized medical cannabis, and four states and DC have also legalized recreational use. Where do you stand?

Read the articles, then make your voice heard by taking the poll.


Let’s get two things straight right up front. First, I live in a state where pot is legal (so I’m going to speak from direct experience, not distance). Second, being pro-legalization is not being pro-marijuana (supporting decriminalization and responsible regulation doesn’t mean you have to use the product).

The first time I considered I might be a hypocrite when it comes to marijuana was in the fall of 2011. A young mother with her baby strapped to her back stood by the ballot box collecting signatures to legalize marijuana sales. She was intent on educating voters about the facts, not the hype. At the time, I identified against marijuana legalization, but I might’ve really been simply ambivalent. I was actually rushing to get to the box to support a measure calling for the closing of State-controlled liquor stores. I wanted the convenience of buying my booze at Costco, Target, drug stores, and grocery stores.

I didn’t really listen to the mother’s story. Was it a relative with cancer? A child with seizures? A legal way to unwind at the end of a long week caring for her family? I never found out. The irony of the moment was not lost on me as I reflected on it later.

Both initiatives eventually passed, and while closing State-run alcohol stores has not been as wonderful as campaign ads promised (Washington state now has the nation’s highest liquor taxes), legalizing pot was not and is not all of the doom and gloom that was predicted.

I am not a pot smoker (see above photo for my vice of choice), but I was genuinely surprised at how little of an overall negative impact legalization has made. Based on my own experience, I no longer oppose legalization or decriminalization. And I’m not alone. Polls conducted by Gallup show a majority of Americans are supportive of legalizing marijuana.

So let’s take a look at the real facts about why legalization isn’t the bogeyman the status quo lobby wants you to believe:

5. Crime, traffic, and revenue

Of the states that legalized marijuana, crime has either decreased, or anincrease in crime has not been linked to marijuana use within the state. In Colorado, traffic incidents decreased, and in Washington traffic incidents remained stable, refuting the common trope of legalization opponents that DWI/DUIDs will significantly increase.

There is one guaranteed benefit: major tax revenue increases. Colorado earned $40.9 million from marijuana sales between January 2014 and October 2014; Washington raised $83 million in its first year of legalization. One can only imagine what that could be on the national level. As a comparison, state and Federal tax revenues from alcohol average about $5.6 billion a year. In 2009, the Federal government brought in about $8.6 billion in tobacco sales and states received about $15.7 billion. Although we do note that it seems that the tobacco taxes are doing what they are supposed to do — decrease the use of tobacco.

4. Children’s safety

The main public concerns about marijuana are exactly the same as they are for alcohol and tobacco products. And as Alexa Quinn points out, the solution is obvious: “keep it out of the reach of children, prevent teen use, prevent overuse or addiction, reduce criminal behavior associated with use, and encourage responsible marketing.”

Look, we’ve heard about the dangers associated with edibles that are made to look like common childhood treats (gummi bears, cookies, jellybeans, suckers) and we’ve heard concerns about the lack of regulation or disclosure of the chemicals found in marijuana products (additives, pesticides, GMO components). Stopping at the alarm misses the point of what we can do about that, however. It is precisely by legalization of the product that the state can pass reasonable laws setting regulatory standards. Look at tobacco product labeling and restrictions. Look at our ability to require disclosures and marketing standards on other legal drugs and foodstuffs. You cannot do that with illegal products. You can only prohibit and criminalize. And that doesn’t always work, does it?

Colorado has used some of the significant increases in tax revenue from the sale of marijuana to hire health professionals for each of its schools. It is using another chunk of the revenues to fund community-based youth service programs and school-based outreach. In Washington there has been no increase in youth use of marijuana, according to the Washington State Healthy Youth study (which was actually funded by the revenues from marijuana sales). Additionally, the revenues are being used to fund a marijuana education website and other youth prevention materials. These programs will not just ensure that students use marijuana as it is intended (when they turn 21) but also help stem the tide of illegal alcohol and tobacco use by teens, not to mention much more harmful drugs.

As for the claim poison control calls have increased because kids are getting into legal stashes? A little deeper critical thought might be in order.Correlation is not causation.

3. Medical research

For years the Federal government has refused to permit health and scientific experts to fully research and understand the benefits that marijuana can provide to individuals. From 2008–2014, the National Institutes of Healthspent $1.4 billion on marijuana research. Of that amount, $1.1 billion funded abuse and addiction research, and only $297 million studied the effects marijuana has on people and a small subset addressing potential medical benefits. Being able to more fully understand the medicinal benefits of marijuana could lead to a decrease of the use of other, more addictive, narcotics for pain reduction, such as opioids. At the very least, the Federal government should continue to loosen the prohibitions against researching the benefits (and potentially the harms) of marijuana.

2. Marketing green

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 gave the FDA the authority to regulate the manufacture, distribution, and marketing of tobacco products. Bye-bye, Joe Camel…hello, creepy ads featuring people with tracheotomies and facial deformities.

Legalizing marijuana on a national level would allow the FDA to regulate the packaging of products attractive to children. Cigarette labeling, marketing reform (since 2007 smoking in movies contributes to its film rating), and blunt anti-smoking campaigns have lead to a steady decrease in adolescent smoking rates. Modeling marijuana regulations and policies on successful cigarette and alcohol regulation would improve public safety, not the opposite. The facts are the facts, and they directly contradict the dire warnings issued by anti-legalization proponents.

1. The environment

Many individuals who are against legalizing marijuana argue that marijuana farms will ravage the environment. With due respect, this argument is complete bull. The environmental harm is caused by guerrilla growers (akaillegal marijuana farms) because it is illegal and unregulated. By legalizing the growing of marijuana, the farms no longer need to find places to hide where environmental stability is fragile. Regulation would permit reasonable restrictions on the types and uses of pesticides. It’s the illegality itself that is causing harm — the status quo itself is the most irresponsible position, not legalization.

As for marijuana as a crop, some issue has been made about water use supporting continued illegality. This is a pretty thin argument. Almonds use a lot of water, too, but people are not calling for almonds to be criminalized. Additionally, marijuana’s carbon footprint is not as high as you may be led to believe, either. Many growers opt to grow their marijuana indoors, which accounts for about 1% of the nation’s energy consumption. At first blush that sounds like a lot, but let’s compare. Marijuana indoor growers use about 22 billion kilowatt hours/year which is one-third of U.S. data centers and one-sixth of U.S. refrigerator use. Want to reduce that use? Legalize the farms so they can use the sun just like all the other farmers.

Let’s be adults

We really, really need to take some lessons from history. Once the novelty of legalization has passed, the general indulgence of public consumption of marijuana will decrease. The change in decreased acceptance of public cigarette smoking would not have been possible without the consistency of the majority. Prohibition didn’t solve the country’s perceived problem with alcohol. Why do we continue to think that repeating past mistakes is magically going to work “this time” again and again, and act shocked when it doesn’t? Let’s apply those lessons.

At the end of the day it is highly unlikely we will re-criminalize marijuana, given the weakness of the status quo argument and the growing public support for legalization. And coming back to Quinn, leaving legalization up to each state is allowing, “our fears about cannabis to be realized under prohibition. The only likely solution to our cannabis problem is to responsibly regulate adult/recreational use.”

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