The Controversy Over Marijuana Legalization

In past decades, Americans often associated marijuana with unmotivated, snack-grubbing teenagers with addiction issues. But public opinion has been shifting. In fact, 23 states and Guam have decriminalized pot as of early 2015 and five have approved it for personal use.

The U.S. reached a tipping point in 2013, when for the first time a majority — 58% of citizens — supported legalization, according to a Gallup poll. When the research company initially asked that question, back in 1969, only 12% of Americans felt this way.

While proponents say there are legitimate reasons for legalization, concerns remain about the drug’s effect on users and their communities. The controversy over marijuana legalization continues.

Why legalize marijuana?

Cannabis’ active ingredients can offer relief from some medical conditions. People have been using marijuana for medicinal purposes long before some states legalized it for this purpose. It contains properties that can help those with certain medical conditions find relief. For example, its ability to alleviate nausea and increase appetite has been helpful for cancer and AIDS patients.

Twenty-three states had legalized medicinal marijuana use by early 2015, along with Guam and the District of Columbia. Others, including Pennsylvania, are currently considering legislation to do so. However, some states only allow marijuana to be used to treat specific disorders. That leaves patients who want the drug to relieve an unapproved condition without a legal avenue for acquiring it.

It’s important to note that medical marijuana use isn’t limited to smoking the drug. Some pharmaceutical companies are taking THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and putting it into a pill form. One study suggests this pill provides longer-lasting decreases in pain sensitivity than smoking the drug. In addition, cannabis oil, a liquid containing THC, has been used to treat epilepsy patients. These unconventional forms of marijuana have very low levels of the psychoactive ingredient, which makes them unlikely to provide the high that most recreational users seek. Research continues, showing promise for the creation of marijuana-based medications for neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis and other conditions.

Legal marijuana sales generate revenue. After several years of declining revenue, some state governments are looking to recreational marijuana as a way to raise funds. Colorado and Washington, the two states that first legalized marijuana for recreational use, are taxing the drug’s production and sale. For example, Colorado levies a 15% wholesale tax and 10% retail tax on legal pot sales. Those taxes are in addition to the 2.9% sales tax the state places on all retail sales. Likewise, the state of Washington plans to impose a 25% tax on every phase of the market, from production to final sale.

Concerns with marijuana legalization

Legal recreational and medical marijuana use is becoming a reality in some states. However, serious concerns remain for users and their communities.

  • The Drug is addictive — There’s a common misperception that marijuana is not addictive like other substances, such as alcohol, methamphetamine or heroin. Yet research and experience have shown that some users will develop dependence on the drug and even experience withdrawal when they stop using it. Those who become addicted are unable to control their use of the substance, which often leads to making unhealthy decisions regardless of the consequences. In 2009, an estimated 18 percent of those who entered drug rehab reported that pot was their drug of choice.
  • Marijuana use impacts public safety — Pot smokers have been a cultural laugh line for decades, with users being viewed as lazy and unmotivated. This is a sharp contrast to the common perception of the manic cocaine addict or hallucinating LSD user. However, the fact remains that marijuana is a drug that alters both perception and judgment. This has serious implications for communities. For example, marijuana is the most common illegal drug found in the systems of drivers who were impaired or fatally injured.
  • Using marijuana may lead to use of more dangerous drugs — Despite the move toward recreational legalization of marijuana in several states, health care and drug addiction professionals still have concerns about the drug’s use. For instance, marijuana is considered a gateway drug that potentially leads to the abuse of more dangerous or “harder” substances, such as heroin, cocaine or Ecstasy. One study of teen boys revealed that those who abused alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes were two to three times more likely to abuse prescription drugs during young adulthood. Additionally, in adolescent girls, marijuana use alone was connected to higher rates of prescription drug abuse. Another study of twins found that those who smoked pot before age 17 were more likely to develop substance abuse problems later in life than their twins who didn’t smoke marijuana during adolescence.
  • Marijuana smoking impacts health — While certain ingredients in marijuana have been shown to have medical promise, smoking as a means of drug delivery has been clearly rejected by the FDA, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the American Cancer Society, and many others. In addition, smoked marijuana has not been approved for any condition or disease by the FDA. Like illegal drugs and cigarettes, smoking marijuana raises the risk for certain health problems. Smoking marijuana increases the heart rate 20 to 100 percent for as long as three hours after it’s been smoked, raising the risk for irregular heartbeat, heart palpitations and heart attack. Lung health suffers, too, with one joint containing 50 to 70 percent more carcinogens than a tobacco cigarette. Furthermore, marijuana use has been linked to mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. For a small percentage of individuals, it can even induce a temporary psychotic episode.
  • Marijuana impacts brain development in young users — Heavy pot smoking in teenagers has been associated with brain changes, particularly in areas connected to memory and learning. One study, published in the Proceedings Of the National Academy of Sciences, found that those who smoked it heavily in their teen years lost as many as eight IQ points between ages 13 and 38. Even more worrisome, those changes didn’t reverse in people who stopped smoking marijuana in adulthood.

Synthetics used to skirt the law

There’s been a recent rise in the use of man-made marijuana, called K2 or spice. The drug, which is marketed as herbal incense, is actually not pot at all. Instead, it’s a mixture of herbs sprayed with synthetic chemicals. K2 acts on the same brain cells as marijuana, and it produces a similar high. However, this substance has been linked to serious side effects, including agitation, anxiety, increased heart rate, hallucinations, seizures, vomiting and suicidal thoughts or actions. Experts believe some marijuana users are turning to the synthetic form because it delivers a similar high but can’t be detected with conventional drug tests used by schools or employers.

Marijuana is continuing to gain acceptance as a legal recreational and medicinal drug. In addition to Alaska, several other states, including California, Montana, Massachusetts, Nevada, Maine and Arizona are looking into legalizing it for recreational use at some point in the not-too-distant future. However, concerns remain about its use — particularly for recreational purposes — including its effect on health and its potential to open the door to additional drug use.

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