Cannabis in 420 Words or More

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By Michael Hu

President Richard Nixon classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, effectively putting it on the same level of abuse potential and danger as heroin and LSD. Since that harsh listing, lawmakers have slowly been taking legislative steps to soften the legal stance on the drug. They have legalized marijuana in 29 states, eight of which have also legalized it for recreational use. In this spread, Opinions writers share their thoughts on how the U.S. should handle its current drug laws and what future marijuana holds in this country.

Legalization Requires Justice Reforms, by Angela Wong

Marijuana legalization is on its way across the U.S.: polls consistently show that over 60 percent of Americans support it. As of today, 29 states have legalized medical marijuana, and eight of those states—Alaska, California, Colorado, Nevada, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, and Washington D.C.—have already legalized its recreational use as well.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that there were 8.2 million marijuana-related arrests made from 2001 to 2010, with 88 percent of the arrests being for possessing the drug. These arrests cost the U.S. about $3.6 billion every year, with the costs of simply housing prisoners ranging from $30,000 to $71,000 per prisoner each year.

In addition to marijuana arrests being costly, they often target people of color. Despite almost equal recreational marijuana usage rates, blacks are four times as likely, and Hispanics more than three times as likely, as whites to be arrested for marijuana, according to recent ACLU studies.

While eight states have already legalized marijuana, only California and Oregon have pushed for justice reform regarding marijuana. Over 6,000 Californian citizens are in prison for growing and distributing marijuana, many of whom will need to serve at least 20 years in jail. After the legalization of the drug in 2015, California permitted the 6,000 prisoners to apply for early release from jail and to have their crime erased from their records.

For a crime as simple as distributing marijuana, having a stain on one’s record is socially debilitating. For example, having such a conviction can make it difficult or nearly impossible for one to receive a student loan, get a job, maintain a professional license, secure housing, and adopt a child.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker recently proposed a bill to legalize recreational marijuana with a number of goals, one being to reform the current criminal justice system when it comes to marijuana. His bill recognizes an important nuance in the marijuana legalization movement. He believes that the country’s drug laws are “badly broken” and that “they don’t make our communities any safer—they divert critical resources from fighting violent crimes, tear families apart, unfairly impact low-income communities and communities of color, and waste billions in taxpayer dollars each year.”

It is thus the responsibility of the other six states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana to then work toward releasing their prisoners convicted of marijuana-related crimes. If recreational marijuana use has been their only crime, citizens of those states must be allowed to have clean records. And if the legalization of the drug is to be nationwide, the U.S. has a responsibility to repair its drug laws and pardon current offenders. If the U.S. is willing to move forward in the case regarding recreational marijuana use, it must also be willing to help those who were damaged by the broken system of the past with it.

Legalizing Marijuana: A Civil Rights Issue, by Julian Giordano

There are many people who view the legalization of marijuana as a moral issue or one that has to do with the use of marijuana as a principle and not in terms of its practical effects and results. Many of these people argue that marijuana is an immoral “gateway” drug in order to justify its criminalization. Yet from a pragmatic perspective, the societal and economic implications that have resulted from the criminalization of marijuana are in no way justifiable, and they all point toward legalization as the logical solution.

Each year, the government spends $3.6 billion on over a million marijuana arrests, 88 percent of which are simply for possession. This is an enormous amount of money being spent on an issue that has seen little to no improvement in recent years, with marijuana possession rates in 18 to 25 year olds actually increasing between 2001 and 2010. This is troubling considering that most of these arrests are for possession, meaning that millions of people are ensnared in the criminal justice system for crimes that are more civil than criminal. Even worse is that African Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession then their white counterparts, even though usage between the two groups is essentially the same. Once a person is arrested for marijuana possession, it permanently tarnishes their criminal record, which can prevent them from receiving financial aid or getting hired in the future. So regardless of the moral implications of legalizing marijuana, it is obvious that it would save the government time, effort, and money while decreasing racialized and out-of-proportion arrests.

Additionally, the criminalization of marijuana fuels illicit drug cartels and criminal activity. If marijuana was legalized, drug cartels wouldn’t be able to charge insane prices on the black market, and local businesses could grow and sell marijuana in a law-abiding manner. This would help many local economies and small businesses grow while providing tax revenue for the government and decreasing criminal activity on the black market. Perhaps the greatest example of legalizing a substance to decrease addiction, usage, and increasing tax revenues is cigarettes. Usage levels have shrunk enormously since the mid-1900s, and tobacco sales provide millions in tax revenue each year that are spent on government programs to fight addiction. Considering that marijuana is also able to decrease addiction to opiates as a similar but less damaging drug, legalizing it could prove important in fighting the opioid epidemic.

Finally, one of the clearest reasons to legalize marijuana is that more dangerous and fatality-causing substances such as alcohol and tobacco are already legal, and the criminalization of marijuana weakens the authority of the rule of law. If something that isn’t very dangerous is illegal while something much more dangerous is legal, it makes people doubt that the criminal justice system is a good force in their lives.

To be fair, legalizing marijuana doesn’t endorse it as being healthy and safe. In fact, there are many negative health effects that can result from frequent marijuana usage, especially from a young age. When adolescents smoke marijuana, it can lead to a lifelong addiction that can cognitively impair them and alter the course of their brain development. It increases the likelihood that students will drop out of school and there is some evidence—though not enough—to suggest that marijuana acts as a gateway drug in encouraging the use of more dangerous drugs such as cocaine. While these health effects are discouraging, there is a lack of research and studies backing them, and more work needs to be done to understand the consequences of usage in their entirety.

From a cost-benefit analysis, the criminalization of marijuana is bad for our economy, our society, and our legal system as a whole, making legalization of it the most logical solution. There are many ways in which marijuana's legalization can be regulated. One such way would be to legalize marijuana to users 21 years and older with a system of taxation, licensing, and heavy regulation similar to that of cigarettes and alcohol. This would decrease the strain on the criminal justice system, take away revenues from many drug cartels, prevent disproportionate arrests of African Americans, and provide states with money to reinvest in programs that help with addiction and education.

Not legalizing marijuana for practical purposes is simply nonsensical; as a country that has legalized alcohol and tobacco, the criminalization of marijuana is an unnecessary burden upon society.

Undermining Marijuana, by Jenny Huang

Marijuana, the most popular but still—for the most part—illicit drug in the U.S. today, has been gradually gaining more and more acceptance for recreational and medical uses. In fact, more research is being done about the drug’s effects on both mental and physical health, with the results often being compared to the effects of marijuana’s legalized counterparts: cigarettes and tobacco. While these research results are responsible for perpetuating a more positive outlook on the usage of marijuana, they also downplay the risks and side effects associated with consumption of the drug, making it appear much more benign than it is.

Proponents of the legalization of recreational marijuana often compare the substance to tobacco, which is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the U.S. and leads to lung cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cannabis, on the other hand, has little to no association with cancer or deaths. But note that since marijuana is still largely illegal, data accuracy may vary due to the lack of research subjects, and these statistics can hardly be taken into account against cigarettes, whose effects are well-researched and widely known. Moreover, nicotine, the highly addictive compound found in cigarettes, is also linked to higher rates of heart diseases. Conversely, medical research on marijuana has proven that cannabinoids, compounds found in cannabis, may possess anticancer properties, and marijuana does not contain compounds that are as physically addictive as the nicotine in cigarettes.

In addition, the CDC has reported that excessive alcohol consumption has been associated with around 88,000 deaths per year (from 2006 to 2010). Overdose may lead to brain damage, organ failure, and eventually death, whereas excess marijuana consumption during a limited period of time cannot do such damage. Consuming alcohol while taking medication could also influence the effects of the medication on the body. It is also no surprise that chronic drinking is associated with long-term health risks such as liver disease.

After comparing the effects of marijuana with alcohol and cigarettes, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that marijuana is much more benign and perhaps even beneficial in contrast. However, with limited research on the subject, it is still difficult to conclude that recreational marijuana is safer than alcohol or cigarettes, but there are proven adverse effects of marijuana on the consumers. For one, marijuana, like cigarettes, requires consumers to smoke the substance in order to deliver the active compounds directly into the brain. Smoking delivers harmful toxins and carcinogens that irritate the lungs, leading to higher risks of lung infection, especially when marijuana users tend to inhale and hold in more smoke when consuming cannabis for the active chemical, THC, to reach the brain. Therefore, it is safe to say that no matter what is being smoked, smoking nonetheless has adverse effects on the lungs and user’s long-term health. Marijuana consumption also leads to temporary euphoria, loss of a sense of time and reality lasting up to an hour, along with higher heart rate. This lack of time, perception, and related impaired physical coordination could lead to accidents when the user does sports or drives. A higher heart rate also leads to increased chances of a heart attack in elderly consumers or those showing signs of heart failure.

Moreover, higher doses of marijuana or continued marijuana usage can lead to severe anxiety, paranoia, financial and academic issues, problems with socializing, and impaired learning or memories. Long-term marijuana users are often shown to display diminished skills related to memory and learning, and teens who abuse marijuana are shown to have declines in their IQ. According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, frequent marijuana usage is linked with lower satisfaction levels in life, a higher likelihood of dropping out of school, and higher rates of accidents, absences, and injuries during work. Further research also demonstrates that long-term marijuana use can worsen the mental health of its users, promoting depression and anxiety and worsening conditions of those with schizophrenia (NIDA). Although marijuana lacks nicotine, long-term marijuana users still exhibit withdrawal symptoms, suggesting that marijuana can be addictive without a physically addicting compound in the drug. Current evidence is compelling enough to say that none of the substances—marijuana, tobacco, and alcohol—when used excessively, are “safer” than the others.

After witnessing the deadly effects that overconsumption of alcohol and cigarettes have on our society, calling for recreational legalization of another substance that can be just as deadly and harmful when abused, if not more, should not be our next step. While we would like to believe that recreational substances like alcohol may be beneficial if used in moderation, the reality is that nothing can prevent the eventual abuse of the substance and thus, the long-term health and social problems attached. Upon legalization, it would be hard to turn back. We may find ourselves dealing with another widespread epidemic of abuse and its aftermath, much like we had with alcohol and cigarettes.

Legalizing Marijuana: An Unnecessary Evil, by Anna Lu

The debate over the legalization of marijuana is far more convoluted than just a scientific weighing of the drug’s benefits in relation to its risks. Marijuana has been the star of a seriously horrific drama; its prohibition by the federal government has caused criminal trafficking of marijuana to soar in conjunction with the number of people jailed for its possession. Supporters of the legalization of marijuana argue that making marijuana widely accessible would shut down its illegal trade, therefore depleting criminal organizations of a source of income. Additionally, making marijuana legal would mean that less people get thrown in prison for such a small crime, saving the government a lot of money.

While these arguments are all well-intentioned, legalizing marijuana entirely isn’t necessary. Many states have opted to legalize and decriminalize medical marijuana exclusively in hopes of remedying the problem of America’s massive incarcerated population. Taking steps to reform marijuana laws, however, is much better than legalizing it all across the board, as marijuana is still a drug that induces impaired cognitive function and other negative effects.

The main argument used by proponents of marijuana use is that it alleviates chronic pain and symptoms of many disorders, including multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. In states that have legalized medical marijuana dispensaries, people who suffer from these conditions are able to obtain treatment, causing marijuana use to increase. However, since the only substantial evidence of the medical benefits of marijuana refer to treatment of chronic pain and seizures, it is not appropriate to cast a sweeping net and allow medical marijuana to be administered for a myriad of health conditions. Medical marijuana should only be allotted to those with a prescription as treatment for afflictions that have conclusive evidence supporting it.

In addition to access to pain and seizure treatment, the legalization of medical marijuana benefits people in another less immediately apparent way. Decreased rates of opioid abuse have been linked to states that have legalized marijuana for medical use. This makes sense considering that medical marijuana is used, first and foremost, as a way to alleviate pain, which is also why people turn to opioids. A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research noted that states that provided access to marijuana dispensaries had decreases in deaths caused by opioid overdoses and cases of opioid misuse. Other research concluded that certain strains of marijuana were more effective at treating chronic pain than opioids and also provided fewer side effects. Considering that our country is currently facing an opioid epidemic, legalizing medical marijuana may be an effective solution for saving lives as well as improving them.

Decriminalizing marijuana, and drugs in general, has also been shown to have positive effects, despite the common reasoning that minimizing the penalties on drug possession causes an increase in drug use. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 52 percent of all drug related arrests in 2010 were for the possession and use of marijuana. Nearly 90 percent of all 8.2 million cases of marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, involved the possession of just small amounts of marijuana. Unsurprisingly, all of these arrests are expensive; ACLU estimates that states spend more than 3 billion dollars every year processing the large numbers of arrests of those who break marijuana laws. If state law enforcers could disregard the possession of small amounts of marijuana, they would be able to save a considerable amount of money that could be used to better local communities.

Also, the decriminalization of drugs may be better for drug users; not because they can get away with drug use, but because they may feel more inclined to seek treatment for drug abuse and addiction. Many cases of drug overdose could be prevented if people felt safe getting help for their drug problems without having to worry about being busted for possessing drugs. This would apply to the very large population of marijuana users in states that have not yet legalized it.

The complete legalization of marijuana is unnecessary, but there needs to be a reform of marijuana laws so that it doesn’t deny medical treatment for those in need of it and doesn’t feed into America’s mass incarceration problem. This way, those who really require marijuana for medical treatment receive it, while those who use it recreationally, and illegally, don’t have to suffer to extreme ends for doing so. Legalizing a drug is a big deal, one that doesn’t come without consequences, so if there are ways to avoid said conflicts, they should be employed.

Marijuana Legislation and its Much-Needed Reforms, by Jacqueline Thom

America’s policies surrounding marijuana vary drastically by state. This fact arouses controversy when it comes to dealing with those who carry marijuana, whether for recreational or medical purposes. The policies in place now are outdated, mislead, and useless in modern times when authorities should be cracking down on more consequential issues like opiate abuse or gun control.

The U.S. has long had problems with marijuana, and often not for the best reasons. The reason marijuana was ever illegal in the first place was because of a racial prejudice against Mexican immigrants in the early 1900s. Smoking marijuana, a traditional means of intoxication among some of the immigrants, was more than enough of an excuse for local authorities to attack the newcomers. Eric Schlosser writes in his book “Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market” that “police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a ‘lust for blood,’ and gave its users ‘superhuman strength.’” From here, the accusations extended well into the late 20th century, especially as the stereotype of marijuana users grew to include other minority groups and supposed social deviants.

Although there are currently 29 states that have legalized medical marijuana, and eight that have legalized it for recreational use, policies are still very much rooted in racism and false beliefs of marijuana’s capabilities. What our federal and state governments don’t see is the incredible range of health benefits that smoking marijuana provides for many. Yes, smoking marijuana can cause health problems common in tobacco smokers, like bronchitis, and yes, it leaves users at a higher risk of cancer, but reputable sources like The New England Journal of Medicine and The Journal of the American Medical Association have shown time and again that the medical benefits of marijuana far outweigh excuses for keeping the drug illegal.

When taken as a prescription, smoking marijuana doesn’t harm the lungs, but rather increases lung capacity. Other health benefits include better management of weight, and it eases the symptoms of epilepsy, seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, anxiety, chronic pain, glaucoma, and so much more. Most importantly, no one has ever actually died from overdosing on marijuana. In fact, a 2010 study conducted by “The Lancet” medical journal found that alcohol was the most harmful “drug” to individuals, followed by heroin and cocaine.

Despite all the evidence pointing out that marijuana is more good than bad, governments on both the state and federal level refuse to change their mostly outdated policies. More disturbing is how useless current marijuana prevention laws are. Not only are some ethnicities being targeted more than others, but money is being wasted on the persecution of minor drug offenses, like the possession of miniscule amounts of marijuana. These policies do absolutely nothing when it comes to seriously cracking down on those who abuse marijuana and use it for non-medical purposes.

A particular 1992 case in Indiana shows what happens when there are no clear definitions for what counts as “criminal activity” for offenders associated with marijuana. A man by the name of Mark Young was arrested for being a middleman in an illegal trading of marijuana. He was convicted based on the testimony of former co-conspirators who started cooperating with the government. Despite having not actually distributed the drugs himself or participated in any violent crime, Young was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of a parole. If this doesn’t sound absurd already, in comparison, a person convicted of armed robbery in Indiana usually serves five years in prison. A rapist serves 12 and a murderer can spend anywhere from eight to 20years in incarceration.

Additionally, large-scale prohibition has always resulted in an increase in illegal substances. The most famous example of this is the U.S.’s nationwide ban on the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol from 1920 and 1933, simply known as the Prohibition. In the first six months of 1920 alone, there were over 7,000 violations against the act that enabled the Prohibition, a number that would dramatically increase over the years.

Instead of trying to tackle and immediately put down all those who are found in the possession of marijuana, our federal government should be aiming for a more lenient system that focuses on marijuana education while enforcing as much proper usage of the drug as possible. Policies should also be updated so that all states have the same laws concerning marijuana, with clear lines establishing how much possession of marijuana is legal and what amounts can lead to fines, jail time, and then incarceration.

Serious medical studies have provided clear-cut evidence that marijuana is ultimately more beneficial when used as a prescription drug. The laws in place now only hurt users who have a valid reason to possess marijuana and foster an illegal market that benefits from irresponsible usage of marijuana and other drugs. With current legislation doing nothing to efficiently prosecute sizable offenses related to marijuana, it’s extremely important that the U.S. finds a way to stop wasting time and money on the pursuance of minor marijuana offenses and the incarceration of otherwise innocent citizens.