There is an ongoing social debate on whether marijuana should be legalized. The debate lasts for many years. As in every debate, there are many points of view. However, one may distinguish two main positions: a view that suggests that marijuana should be legalized and a view that advocates keeping the prohibition of marijuana. This paper is an attempt to examine both positions.
Historical background of policy regarding marijuana
Until the 1930s, sale and use of marijuana was legal and common in the United States. The prohibition of marijuana in the United States is integrally connected to racial discrimination. The point is that the habit of marijuana smoking was strongly associated with Mexican immigrants, who came to the North in the 1920s in search of jobs (Musto). In 1930, America went through the Great Depression, which became one of the toughest periods in its history. All over the country, people were loosing their jobs, property and were struggling to pay their bills. All these developments caused a situation, when immigrants became unwelcome in the country. Thus, Mexican immigrants became an unwelcome minority, which was associated with violence and smoking cannabis (Musto). The legislative action against marijuana was largely driven by “fears about “degenerate Mexicans”” (Dolin). Dolin reveals that such a fact is viewed by some people as a worrying feature of American drug policy. In particular, there are concerns about the fact that the use of a specific drug was criminalized not because of its properties or social harm, but because it was associated with people of a certain race (Dolin). Furthermore, affected by racist considerations, rather than by concerns about health and social harm marijuana can cause, western states pushed the federal government to maintain control over marijuana use. At the same time, states also took actions to outlaw marijuana use. Thus, by 1931, 29 states had prohibited marijuana (Dolin). The federal response took place in 1937, when Congress enacted the Marihuana Tax Act, which established the federal control over marijuana trade and use. The act provided that “marijuana was legally controlled through a transfer tax for which no stamps or licenses were available to private citizens” (Musto). Furthermore, some scientific studies published during 1930s described the danger of marijuana (Musto). However, during 1960s marijuana image changed dramatically. Such a change was influenced by the Woodstock movement, where it is said the marijuana use did not cause any violence, as, for instance, alcohol could (Musto). Furthermore, in 1972, the Presidential Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse suggested to decriminalize marijuana (Musto). Also the Carter administration supported legalization of marijuana. In 1978, favorable attitude towards marijuana reached its peak and began declining (Musto). Thus, in 1980 more than half of the US population supported the legalization of small amounts of marijuana (Musto). However, in 1986 only 27 percent of Americans supported such a position (Musto). Moreover, the number of people favoring penalties for marijuana use had grown considerably: from 43 to 67 percent (Musto).
Overview of legal prohibition of marijuana
Marijuana is outlawed in all states. Thus, in every state it is illegal to possess, sell and transport marijuana, drive under its influence and cultivate cannabis (Boire, 17). In federal and state laws marijuana is defined as “all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L. growing or not; the seeds thereof; the resin extracted from any part of such a plant; and every compound manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture or preparation of such a plant, its seeds, or resin” (Boir 17). Very often the severity of punishment for possessing and selling marijuana depends on the amount of the substance involved. For instance, according to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, possession and distribution of 1000 kilograms or more of marijuana or 1,000 or more marihuana plants regardless of weight is punishable by the imprisonment not less than 10 years; fine not greater than $4,000,000 if the defendant is an individual or $10,000,000 if the defendant is other than an individual, or both. However, it does not mean that if the lesser quantity of marijuana involved, there is no punishment. The point is that when 1000 kilograms or more or 1,000 plants or more are involved, possession and distribution becomes a federal offence because the prohibition is covered by the federal law. At the same time, possession and distribution of lesser amounts of marijuana are addressed in the state laws. For instance, in California, possession of 28.5 grams or less of marijuana is punishable by maximum fine of $ 100 ("NORML Foundation Website"). Possession of more than 28.5 grams can be punishable by incarceration for up to 6 months or by a fine up to $ 500 ("NORML Foundation Website"). The intention to distribute leads to a more severe punishment – incarceration for up to 3 years ("NORML Foundation Website"). In a word, one may observe that the severity of punishment depends on the amount involved and on the intention.
Advantages of marijuana legalization
It is estimated that over 30 million Americans regularly smoke marijuana (Boire 15). All these people potentially face fines or even incarceration by virtue of laws prohibiting marijuana. Moreover, more and more people get arrested for violation of the marijuana laws. Thus, the number of arrested people for violation of the marijuana laws constituted 734, 497 (Gerber xvi). In 1991, this number was twice lesser (Gerber xvi). Obviously, enforcement of marijuana laws costs a lot. It is estimated that the annual cost for keeping 60, 000 people for violation of the marijuana laws constitutes $ 1.2 billion annually (Gerber xvi). One should remember that this money is taxpayers’ money. In other words, the financial burden to enforce marijuana laws is imposed on American taxpayers. States’ budgets as well as the federal budget would economically benefit from the abolishment of marijuana laws. Therefore, American taxpayers could also benefit from such an abolishment since it could ease the tax burden. In a word, one of the arguments in favor of legalizing marijuana is economic benefits it potentially brings.
Furthermore, while considering marijuana laws, one should find out whether they are effective in reducing marijuana use. Some early studies conducted in 1970s suggest that marijuana laws did not have a considerable impact on marijuana use (Pacula et al.). Also there are studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s, which suggest that there is no significant effect of marijuana laws (Pacula et al.). In a word, proponents of marijuana legalization cite the failure of marijuana laws to reach the desirable effect as a reason why such laws should be abolished.
Among other arguments for marijuana legalization is medical use. It is known that people often use marijuana to ease disease-induced pain. Another argument is that some religious groups as Buddhists, Hindus, and Rastafarians use marijuana in their rituals. In this context, legalization of marijuana is viewed as a step shaping religious freedom in the country.
Disadvantages of marijuana legalization
The opponents of marijuana legalization emphasize the negative health effects of marijuana use. Thus, Bloomquist (347) points out that marijuana use negatively affects memory and judgment. Furthermore, the author draws attention to the fact that the adverse reactions caused by marijuana are very unpredictable (Bloomquist 350).
Another argument against marijuana legalization is that marijuana abuse is strongly associated with violence. Thus, Bloomquist (351) notes that “enforcement officers so often encounter this manifestation of the use of marijuana that they consider it a matter of course”. Furthermore, there are concerns that the use of marijuana eventually leads to the abuse of more dangerous drugs. Bloomquist (351) agrees that in many cases, it can be a realistic scenario. The author explains that marijuana users are inclined to wish to experience some different drugs.
Finally, while considering the legalization of marijuana, one should look at the experience of the countries, where possession and selling of this substance is legal. One of such countries is the Netherlands. In this country, an easy access to drugs leads to growth of a number of young people using soft drugs. Thus, Van Dijk (1998) reveals that 15% of Dutch students use cannabis from time to time. According to Van Dijk (1998), the number of US students using marijuana is twice lower.
To sum up, there are valid arguments for the position that advocates the marijuana legalization as well as for the position, which is against such legalization. However, while considering the issue of marijuana legalization, one should see a broader picture. This picture should include the history of marijuana laws, current laws and their effect. The history of marijuana laws suggests that initially marijuana was prohibited because it was strongly associated with Mexican immigrants, who were unwelcome in the United States during the Great Depression. In simple terms, it was racist consideration rather than common sense that motivated the enactment of marijuana laws. Also, one should look at the effect of marijuana laws. Studies suggest that they are not effective in terms that they do not actually reduce marijuana use in the country. Finally, it is estimated that the enforcement of marijuana laws is quite expensive. Therefore, the common sense dictates to legalize marijuana. Arguments about health effects and violence do not seem strong since there are other perfectly legal substances, such as tobacco and alcohol, which have negative health and behavioral effects.