Today, the United States enjoys the dubious distinction of incarcerating more of its citizens than any other industrialized nation on earth. Perhaps even more troubling still, the majority of these citizens have been imprisoned for nonviolent crimes involving drugs, with marijuana being one of the most prominently drugs. Furthermore, these issues have assumed new importance and relevance in recent years. As the country continues to struggle to recover from the Great Recession of 2008, dwindling federal and state budgets have forced lawmakers to scramble to identify ways to save money in order to turn the tide for economic recovery. One initiative that has been advanced time and again is the legalization of marijuana because it would reduce the number of people being incarcerated and help generate new tax revenues. To determine if this is the legalization of marijuana is a truly viable option, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature, followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Although more than 25% of Americans have experimented with marijuana or use it routinely with little or no discernible harmful effects, the U.S. Surgeon General cites the following known or suspected chronic effects of the substance:
1. Short-term memory impairment and slowness of learning.
2. Impaired lung function similar to that found in cigarette smokers. Indications are that more serious effects, such as cancer and other lung disease, follow extended use.
3. Decreased sperm count and sperm motility.
4. Interference with ovulation and pre-natal development.
5. Impaired immune response.
6. Possible adverse effects on heart function.
7. By-products of marijuana remaining in body fat for several weeks, with unknown consequences. The storage of these by-products increases the possibilities for chronic, as well as residual, effects on performance, even after the acute reaction to the drug has worn off. Of special concern are the long-term developmental effects in children and adolescents, who are particularly vulnerable to the drug's behavioral and psychological effects (The Surgeon General's Warning on Marijuana 1-2).
This list of known and suspected chronic effects would appear on its face to provide sufficient grounds for keeping criminal marijuana laws on the books, but other authorities have suggested that the Surgeon General's warnings are trumped up versions of spurious research that was methodologically flawed and that a significant amount of additional research in this area is required before such pronouncements can be made with any degree of certainty (Lewinski 87).
Even if this official warning is insufficient to persuade people that marijuana should remain illegal, the government has some other compelling arguments in reserve to bolster its anti-marijuana position, including marijuana's role as a so-called "gateway drug." In this regard, the James Levee Professor of Law and Criminal Procedure at the University of Minnesota Law School emphasizes that, "Marijuana use, although harmless to the user, causes the user to progress to the use of drugs that are harmful to the user, such as cocaine and heroin. The vast majority of heroin users previously used marijuana" (emphasis added) (Dripps 3). This observation means that marijuana use is harmless per se, but it can lead to more harmful drugs. Many authorities also discount this argument because it is reasonable to suggest that the "majority of heroin users" also previously used milk, soda, and other harmless substances as well, but once such a connection is established in the minds of the public, it is difficult or even impossible to eradicate (Dripps 3).
In his recent text on the pros and cons of the legalization of marijuana, Trapp (2007) points out though that there is absolutely no evidence to support the gateway drug theory. Indeed, more recent research by the British Medical Association confirms that nicotine is far more harmful and addictive than marijuana, and cigarette smoking and alcohol kill hundreds of thousands of people every year while there has never been a single overdose case of marijuana (Trapp 162). Moreover, other researchers have identified a number of beneficial medicinal qualities in marijuana, and it has been used to good effect with cancer, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma patients (Trapp 162). Indeed, researchers from Cornell University determined that "marijuana will ease the pain and suffering of a cancer patient, and marijuana is less harmful than chemotherapy or other drugs that are currently used in cancer treatment" (Cameron, Campo and Brossard 266).
Despite this aggressive campaign of disinformation on the part of the federal government, a number of states have already decriminalized simple possession of marijuana, and some others have approved it use for patients in need as medicinal marijuana. For instance, Trapp reports that Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington have all approved the use of medicinal marijuana (162). In the near future, writing for The Register-Guard newspaper, Williams (2010) reports that the voters of California may once again have the opportunity to completely legalize marijuana for personal use during next year's elections, a measure that failed to pass the last time by a very narrow margin. The benefits that can be realized through the legalization of marijuana include those to individual users as well as state and federal governments. For instance, Trapp also emphasizes that, "Rather than turn away from this problem, the government should face reality. The legalization of marijuana will enable to government to regulate its use, thereby protecting its many users from harmful abuse of the substance" (162). These pragmatic recommendations are reflective of many of the arguments in support of decriminalizing and ultimately legalizing marijuana across the board in the United States.
The legalization of marijuana would also provide a new revenue stream since hefty local, state and federal taxes could be assessed on marijuana as it was sold through existing marketing outlets such as liquor or package stores across the country. This point is made by Meade (2010) in his recent analysis of future trends published in The Futurist in which the author emphasizes, "The state of California faces deep budget cuts in many areas, among them prisons and law enforcement. Budget constraints may affect law enforcement policy, such as by promoting the legalization of marijuana as a means to offset cuts in prison funding (both by reducing the numbers of criminals sent to prison and by opening up a revenue source if sales of marijuana were taxed like tobacco)" (23).
Based on recent public opinion surveys, an increasing percentage of American citizens favor the legalization of marijuana to some degree. According to one economist, during the 1990s, support for the legalization of marijuana began to increase among younger people in the United States and by 2000, more than a third approved its outright legalization while almost half approved its decriminalization; furthermore, almost three-quarters (73%) approve legalizing marijuana for medical applications (Thornton 417). A majority of American citizens also believe that far too many people are incarcerated for marijuana use (Thornton 418). Furthermore, in countries where marijuana has been legalized to some extent such as Canada where medical marijuana is legal and The Netherlands where its use is decriminalized have not experienced any significant adverse effects as a result (Thornton 418).
Although efforts to legalize marijuana have largely been frustrated to date, the research showed that countries where marijuana is legal have experienced no discernible adverse effects. In fact, proponents cite a number of positive outcomes that could be immediately realized through the legalization of marijuana, including the ability of the government to regulate its use and quality, the creation of new desperately needed revenue stream from its taxation, and a reduction in the number of people who are incarcerated simply for using it. The hypocrisy of maintaining draconian laws for marijuana possession do not make sense in an era when taxpayer resources are at a premium and a lingering economic…