Marijuana Policy

Brendan Angelotti

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Prior to the 20th century, people struggled with physical pain. Herbal remedies were used since ancient times, but they were just a short-term solution as they were not powerful enough to deal with the chronic pain that plagued so many people. To replace these weak remedies, people turned to opium and marijuana to treat pain. Today, people consider these as dangerous drugs, but in ancient times, they were seen as miracle medicines and were often used recreationally by the elite. Marijuana has been sold and used illegally as a recreational drug in the United States for years, but in 2012, Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana for both medical and recreational use (Barcott 9). These referendums have altered the way people in the United States think about marijuana and have brought up the question of national legalization. However, before this issue should appear on a national referendum, Americans should look deeper at the history, science, and effects of marijuana on our society.

The issue of marijuana, also referred to as pot, often appears in current political conversation, however marijuana has been as an issue for decades. At the turn of the 20th century, Oxycodone and Morphine replaced marijuana as a common painkiller. The anti-marijuana crusade did not begin until 1930 when Harry J. Anslinger became the first commissioner of the U.S Bureau of Narcotics (Barcott 21). Anslinger realized that with World War One and the Great Depression taking place, the only way to stop the federal government from defunding the U.S Bureau of Narcotics was to heighten public opposition to drugs. Marijuana was a prime target because it was used by gangs, therefore making it easy to link the drug to crime. Though correlation doesn’t equal causation, a perceived threat to society was all that Anslinger needed to keep the U.S Bureau of Narcotics alive. Anslinger’s crusade against marijuana was so effective that “marijuana insanity” became a plea used by defense attorneys to reduce their clients’ sentences. Anslinger’s anti-marijuana policies even endured the 1972 Shafer report, which found that moderate use of marijuana wasn’t a threat to society (Barcott 40). Thus, marijuana has remained a Schedule I controlled substance, usually reserved  for substances with no medical benefits and a high potential for abuse (Barcott 30).

Anti-pot policy took a sharp turn following the Shaer report, when congress blocked legislation that would have decriminalized marijuana possession. Building on this success, President Richard Nixon proposed setting life sentences for drug dealers, but this never got through Congress. Nixon’s “war on drugs” would have likely ended during the Carter administration had it not been for international issues that took the focus off of drugs (Barcott 45).

After laying dormant for four years, the battle over pot policy reappeared during the Reagan administration, which passed new laws that gave police the power to confiscate the assets of anyone suspected of a drug crime. Under this law, more than $500 million worth of property was seized during the first nine years of the law (Barcott 53). The Reagan Administration had set the stage for strict anti-drug laws under the Clinton Administration, which would put whole communities behind bars.

Following this trend of stricter drug enforcement, the 90s saw a new round of radical policies take shape. For instance, the New York Police Department began rewarding officers for low-level drug busts (possession of a few ounces) and the number of arrests for drug possession in New York City increased by 2,461 percent between 1990 and 2002. Furthermore, nationally arrests for all crimes were falling by three percent, while arrests for marijuana possession went up by 113 percent (Barcott 53). As the number of drug-related arrests was rising, so were the punishments for those crimes. On November 2, 1993, the state of Washington passed Initiative 593, which became known as the “Three Strikes Law.” Under this law, a person convicted of three felonies would be sentenced to life without parole (Ballotpedia). Even though the constitution states: “Excessive bail shall not be required…nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted,” laws similar to Washington’s were passed in other states (U.S Constitution). Drug possession in the 90s could be considered a felony, so possessing a drug three times carried a punishment as serious as second-degree murder. Despite this, ten percent of Americans used marijuana in 1990, with that number rising to eleven percent in 2002 (Barcott 53). Drug policy in the 1990s clearly failed as drug use rose despite increased arrests for drug offenses and harsher punishments for them.

The turn of the 21st century did not see a change in the drug policies of the 90s. In 2015, over 570,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession, which made up roughly 38 percent of total drug arrests. That same year, the United States spent roughly $53 billion on drug enforcement (Drug Policy Alliance). Even though drug policy has gotten tougher over time, today the prohibition of marijuana may be coming to an end despite the ongoing arrests for pot possession. Medical marijuana is now leading the change with 30 states having legalized it to date. In addition, eight states and Washington D.C have legalized recreational marijuana, even though marijuana remains a Schedule I substance (Cadwell and Drug Policy Alliance).

To fully understand whether current marijuana policies are responsible, one must take a closer look at current scientific research on marijuana. Foremost, the effects of medical marijuana need to be compared to the effects of prescription opioids. Opioids are seen as socially acceptable to use and are commonly prescribed. Though they are frequently used, more than 14,000 people died of prescription opioid overdoses in 2014 and over 25,000 people died of  prescription opioid overdoses in 2015 (CDC). On the other hand, no one died of a marijuana overdose in 2014 or 2015 (Bellware).

Marijuana isn’t just a safe alternative to opioids, but it can also relieve seizures, Glaucoma, Multiple Sclerosis, AIDS, and side effects of Chemotherapy (Sides 44). There is a lot of potential for growth in marijuana-based medicines because the plant contains over 400 different chemical compounds. Oftentimes patients find that marijuana works better than traditional treatment options (Sides 39). With an aging population and the emergence of palliative care–treatment focusing on patient comfort–the United States needs to unlock the vaults that have kept marijuana from researchers who might find even more uses for it. Despite evidence of the benefits of medical marijuana, pot is still classified as a Schedule I substance with no medical benefits (Cadwell).

When it comes to recreational pot use, the research gets more complicated. Generally, marijuana makes the user more relaxed and the majority of the harms associated with using marijuana come from smoking it. Unfiltered marijuana contains more tar and carbon monoxide than cigarettes, which are very harmful to the lungs. Aside from the smoke, marijuana can increase the risk of a heart attack or cause panic attacks in some users (Sides 44). Predominantly, recreational marijuana affects the brain by getting the user high, and in extreme circumstances, it can cause slight brain damage to youth (NBC News). As far as risk of death goes, marijuana combines the some of the risks associated with tobacco and alcohol. Smoking marijuana carries a strong possibility of developing lung cancer, and it impairs the user’s ability to drive. Overall, recreational pot causes minimal harm to adult users.

When Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, the state experienced demographic changes as people flocked to Colorado in search of jobs in the emerging marijuana industry. This migration was known as the “green rush,” and it was fueled by young people from around the world who were looking to partake in the multimillion dollar marijuana industry (Sides 47). The population of Colorado grew by over one hundred thousand people in 2015, the largest population increase the state had seen since the tech boom. Marijuana legalization changed the demographic landscape of Colorado by making it the state with the fastest growing population in the country (Svalid).

In addition to demographic changes, Colorado’s new law also increased tax revenue and made it safer to use marijuana. The drug generated 70 million dollars in tax revenue, which is more than the state made from taxes on alcohol (Basu). This windfall came at a good time for the state because the 2007 financial crisis had caused tax revenue to fall amidsts rising expenditures. In addition, marijuana legalization saves states the cost of arresting and incarcerating people for marijuana offenses. Furthermore, marijuana consumption is safer when regulated because consumers will know how high they will get when using the drug. Though controversial, recreational marijuana legalization has the potential to increase revenue and make the drug safer for users through regulation.

Current marijuana policy has had far-reaching effects on communities because of both overenfoucment and underenforcement. Overenfoucment during the “war on drugs” caused cominiteies to be torn apart with 1 out of every 111 adults incarcerated in 2014, the highest incarceration rate in the world. Over-enforcement of drug laws has had disparaging effects on minority communities as 57% of people incarcerated for drug-related offences are black or Latino, even though they sell drugs as the same rate as whites do (Drug Policy Alliance). Drug laws have devastated minority communities because they were counterproductive.

However, an ongoing illegal drug trade can have a big effect on communities when laws aren’t enforced. Some years ago, a member of my neighborhood found drug deals taking place in front of her house. She was so mad that she threw open the drug dealer’s car door and said to him, “What do you think you are doing?” These deals went on for several years and eventually moved elsewhere. Although the police were receptive to my neighbor’s complaints, the deals took place so fast that there wasn’t anything the police could do if they weren’t close by. With this ongoing drug trade, the mood of the neighborhood became more tense and my neighbor started waking up at three in the morning to look for cars and take pictures of license plates. She was also nervous about what the drug dealers might do to her. She said, “I could have sworn my house was going to get vandalized or I was going to get a brick through my window.” When the trade finally ended, it was a gradual sigh of relief for her; though things turned out fine in the end, those years were stressful for her. Drug rings are hard for police to crack and even when they succeed it takes time. The illegal drug trade has huge effects on communities even when it gets taken care of.

No one was killed in my neighbor’s case, as it was a local drug ring, but this isn’t the case with Mexican Drug cartels. Since 2006 over one hundred thousand people have been killed in Mexico’s war on drugs (Drug Policy Alliance). Legalization seems to be helping to end the violence over marijuana because the amount of money Mexican growers get for marijuana has fallen from $90 per kilogram to $30 per kilogram. Furthermore, the amount of marijuana being seized at the U.S Mexican border has dropped from nearly four million pounds in 2009 to one and a half million pounds in 2015 (Ingraham). Legalization seems to be accomplishing the job that law enforcement could not, driving Mexican drug cartels into the ground.

Marijuana policy in the United States has a complicated history. Drugs have played a significant role in American politics as they made Harry J. Anslinger famous and caused a half million to get arrested. Regardless of personal opinion, the research is clear that moderate consumption of marijuana by adults is not any more harmful than alcohol or tobacco. However, policies contradictory to scientific research continue to gain support in Congress. As the debate over marijuana continues, people are losing their freedom and getting killed, but also receiving relief from chronic pain, all because of marijuana. Marijuana has far too much potential for medical use to remain in the shadows of society. Furthermore, legalizing marijuana can reduce violence by Latin American drug cartels while generating money for state governments. Marijuana legalization is an important issue, so examine the history, science and effects that pot policy has had on society. Then make your voice heard by voting and letting your representative know how you feel about marijuana policy. And maybe then, more people will be set free from the chronic pain that they have dealt with for years.

 

Works Cited

Barcott, Bruce. Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America. New York, Time Books, 2015.

Basu, Tanya. “Colorado Raised More Tax Revenue from Marijuana than from Alcohol.” Time, 18 May 2016, time.com/4037604/colorado-marijuana-tax-revenue/. Accessed 12 Nov. 2016.

Bellware, Kim. “Here’s How Many People Fatally Overdosed on Marijuana Last Year.” Huffington Post, 28 Dec. 2015, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/marijuana-deaths-2014_us_56816417e4b06fa68880a217. Accessed 4 Nov. 2016.

Caldwell, Alicia A. “Marijuana to Remain at Highest Drug Classification.” Associated Press, 12 Aug. 2016. Associated Press, bigstory.ap.org/article/72c81d4b32234510b1e410ac85774264/marijuana-remain-highest-drug-classification. Accessed 28 Oct. 2016.

“Drug War Statistics.” Drug Policy Alliance, www.drugpolicy.org/drug-war-statistics. Accessed 28 Oct. 2016. Chart.

Ingraham, Christopher. “Legal Marijuana Is Finally Doing What the Drug War Couldn’t.” Washington Post [Washington D.C], 3 Mar. 2016, Workblog sec. Washington Post Workblog, www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/03/03/legal-marijuana-is-finally-doing-what-the-drug-war-couldnt/. Accessed 21 Oct. 2016.

NBC News. 28 July 2014. NBC Bay Area, www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Reality-Check-Does-Pot-Cause-Teens-to-Lose-8-IQ-Points-268979611.html. Accessed 4 Nov. 2016. Transcript.

Opioid Overdose. 21 June 2016. CDC, www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/overdose.html. Accessed 4 Nov. 2016.

Sides, Hampton. “High Science.” National Geographic, June 2015, pp. 30-57.

Svaldi, Aldo. “Colorado’s Population Jumped by 101,000 in 12 Months.” Denver Post, 22 Dec. 2015, www.denverpost.com/2015/12/22/colorados-population-jumped-by-101000-in-12-months/. Accessed 12 Nov. 2016.

US Constitution. Amendment VIII. Amended 1791. Constitutionus, constitutionus.com/. Accessed 12 Nov. 2016.

“Washington ‘Three Strikes’, Initiative 593.” Ballotopedia, ballotpedia.org/Washington_%22Three_Strikes%22,_Initiative_593_(1993). Accessed 12 Nov. 2016.

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