This research paper examines the evidence that supports a continuance of the existing federal ban on the recreational use of marijuana. While there seems to be a groundswell of public support for legalization of its use – which many claim is the result of strenuous lobbying by pro-marijuana activists – there remains strong scientific evidence in support of a continuing ban on the grounds of public health and safety, especially among the younger generation who would be most affected and most vulnerable to addiction and other problems if it were legalized, thereby making access that much easier.
The independent and highly influential International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) comprises ten representatives nominated by various governments and three nominated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and includes members elected “for their medical, pharmacological or pharmaceutical experience” (“The International Narcotics Control Board” n.d.). That internationally respected United Nations body has come out firmly against the legalization of marijuana, “warning that cannabis legalization poses a grave danger to public health”. The article reports that the INCB has expressed concern over what it calls “the misguided initiatives” regarding the legalization of cannabis by the South American nation of Uruguay and the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington. It describes them as “failing to comply with international drug conventions” (Travis, 4 March 2014).
Travis notes that in the recently-published INCB report, it is claimed that the so-called Colorado “medical” cannabis programme has resulted in more road traffic accidents involving drivers under the influence of cannabis, as well as increases in cannabis-related hospital admissions and positive drug test results for cannabis. Travis quotes the INCB president, Raymond Yans, as stating that “When governments consider their future policies on this, the primary consideration should be the long-term health and welfare of the population.” He stated further that initiatives encouraging the legalization of cannabis (other than its use for medical or scientific purposes) are contrary to the international drug conventions that are designed to protect the public. Arguing against the suggestion that legalizing the drug would collapse the illegal black markets, the INCB statement points to the examples of alcohol and tobacco. Despite being legal, many countries still have a strong black market for cigarettes. In the UK for example, 20 percent of cigarettes are smuggled, while in Canada the figure is 33 percent. Similarly, although legal, alcohol is still the reason for many more arrests than for drugs. In 2012 in the U.S. for example, there were two million alcohol-related arrests, whereas arrests for illegal drugs offences were just 1.6 million.
Equally compelling reasons against the legalization of marijuana are offered by Tomczak, writing in the Christian Post. He reports his recent encounter outside of a Starbucks with a distraught mother whose 27-year old daughter – new to drug-taking – had died suddenly as a result. Relating to her distress, he recounts that his own daughter works many hours in what he describes as a “youth venue” and tells her parents “how many are trying pot, leading them down a path to inevitable consequences that break her heart and bring devastation to them and their families.” He refers to the inevitable sequence of addiction, that in many instances leads on to harder drugs and tragic consequences, when he quotes a line from the lyric of the Eagles’ song “Hotel California”: “You can check out any time you please but you can never leave.” Tomczak then goes on to cite some of the most common pro-legalization arguments, in each case stating why they are not valid:
- “It'll balance the budget, save the economy and create scores of jobs!” – The reality is that the revenue amounts would be tiny and the argument ignores what Tomczak calls “other economic realities.”
- “It eliminates the need for law enforcement plus provides needed tax revenue.” – The truth is that the legalization would mean the need for the establishment and enforcing of a series of new rules and regulations.
- “This won't affect youth. It's only for ages 21 and up and private use only. Since you can grow it at home, it won't go out. It's not sold on the streets.” – Tomczak sees this as naive in the extreme. For example, in Colorado where it has been legalized, there are already many examples of people “bending the rules”, encouraged by authorities ignoring the reality of the situation. He refers to limo operators there offering “free weed” and a two-year old girl admitted to hospital the day following legalization after consuming something called a “marijuana cookie.”
- “It's for cancer patients.” – Whilst there are legitimate medical uses of marijuana, Tomczak cites countless examples of what he calls “trumped-up stress and pain relief excuses.” He claims that many seek legalization simply to be able to “get stoned” or to keep out of jail, or just to make money. He notes that in L.A. the authorities have already closed down 200 so-called “marijuana clinics” and that some European countries are amending their policies on drugs due to escalating social problems.
- “Marijuana is not addictive. It’s like a beer-harmless. It’s not as bad as cocaine or heroin.” – These arguments are dismissed by Tomczak as familiar old “chestnuts” that continue to be promulgated by pro-marijuana activists although the accumulated evidence is to the contrary (Tomczak, 8 Jan. 2014).
On a different tack, Tomczak points out that we should no more consider “polluting our bodies with toxic elements” than we would think of pouring old, contaminated oil into the engine of our expensive automobile. He asks readers to consider whether “celebrities like Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and multitudes of others who met their tragic end from drugs would encourage you to get started by lighting up a joint?” To reinforce his ant-marijuana stance, He cites over 30 scientific studies confirming that marijuana users incur a higher risk of schizophrenia and paranoia. Noting also that marijuana causes an increased heart rate; he reports that the effect is to produce a major increase in the likelihood of heart and panic attacks (Tomczak, 8 Jan. 2014).
Tomczak also warns that many teenagers have been deceived into believing that marijuana is “harmless” and that as a consequence, many more are using it. He reports that whereas a decade ago there were just two percent of teenagers using marijuana on a daily basis; in 2013 the figure had risen to around 15 percent. Also, he notes that the most recent survey of high school seniors found that only 40 percent of them considered marijuana use as risky, whereas two decades earlier 75 percent shared that view. There is also the problem that because legalization looks more probable, there is an increasing element of the view that there’s no harm in using it because “It’s legal – or soon will be” (Tomczak, 8 Jan. 2014).
Four further arguments against the legalization of marijuana are provided by Tomczak in a subsequent post in the Christian Post. The first of those four arguments is that it has been proven that smoking marijuana not only affects motor skills in an adverse manner, but over the long term can seriously damage the brain. Studies have also shown that those who use marijuana on a regular basis experience lowered IQ levels and impaired cognitive function (Tomczak, 10 Jan. 2014).
His second of four arguments is that keeping marijuana illegal is in the interest of public safety. Supporters of legalizing marijuana make comparisons with alcohol, suggesting that because alcohol is legal, marijuana should be, too. However, Tomczak makes the point that condoning or accepting bad behavior associated with alcohol does not mean that further bad behavior (with marijuana) should be encouraged. In support of that argument he cites some of the tragic statistics of alcohol abuse, including about 11,000 Americans killed every year due to drunk driving, and that drunk driving costs the U.S. taxpayers $132 billion annually (Tomczak, 10 Jan. 2014).
His third argument against legalizing marijuana is that “Life is a series of choices” and that by choosing to use marijuana you may be giving up control over your own life. The reason is that despite claims to the contrary, marijuana is habit-forming, and only too easily can lead to using harder drugs which often – tragically – have fatal consequences (Tomczak, 10 Jan. 2014).
The fourth and final argument in his article concerns the responsibility we have for our children. He states that we should not allow marijuana to be legalized as it sends the wrong message to the children who will soon be the next generation of adults (Tomczak, 10 Jan. 2014).
Ruth Marcus, a Washington Post writer, states that “widespread legalization is a bad idea, if an inevitable development.” She sees the inevitability arising from peer pressure due to some states having already legalized it, heightening the incentives that she sees from “tax dollars and tourist revenue (Marcus, 3 Jan. 2014).
Just this month, Thomas Harrigan, deputy administrator for the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) testified before a Congressional panel, urging Congress not to follow the body of public opinion in favour of legalizing marijuana, at the expense of ignoring known scientific concerns (Associated Press, Washington, 4 March 2014). He was echoing the view expressed in January by the DEA Chief of Operations, James Capra, who stated that: “going down the path to legalization in this country is reckless and irresponsible.”
Ruth Marcus, a Washington Post writer, states that “widespread legalization is a bad idea.” She views marijuana as no greater a risk than alcohol or tobacco, but states that society – especially our children – does not need “another legal mind-altering substance.” She also notes that just last November the American Medical Association (AMA) – in a statement recommending against marijuana legalization – said: “Cannabis is a dangerous drug and as such is a public health concern.” Further, the statement added: “It is the most common illicit drug involved in drugged driving, particularly in drivers under the age of 21. Early cannabis use is related to later substance use disorders.” Also in the statement, and the words that for Marcus had the most impact: “Heavy cannabis use in adolescence causes persistent impairments in neurocognitive performance and IQ, and use is associated with increased rates of anxiety, mood, and psychotic thought disorders.” (Marcus, 3 Jan. 2014).
Marcus also believes that laws banning sales to under 21’s (as in Colorado for example) are of little real value. She has teenage children of her own and states with insight that for teenagers such laws (like the one regarding underage drinking) are seen by teens as challenges to be overcome rather than any real barrier to access (Marcus, 3 Jan. 2014).
With regard to the possible legalizing of marijuana in California, Charles “Cully” Stimson of the Heritage Foundation (an independent ‘Think Tank’) published a legal memorandum on the subject (Stimson, 13 Sep. 2010).
The key points from Stimson’s memorandum can be summarized as follows:
- As a public policy, legalizing marijuana is bad because it is known to be addictive and to have a major effect on both physical and and mental functions.” Also, users may suffer problems including loss of memory, cancer, and (for pregnant women) birth defects.
- The proposed law does not address implementation problems; or the federal prohibition of the production, distribution, and possession of marijuana.
- Unlike alcohol which carries few health risks, marijuana damages the immune system and impairs short-term memory. It also increases heart attack risk, and causes damage to the brain and respiratory functions.
- Policies to legalize marijuana will bring numerous unintended though predictable consequences. These will include increased drugs use by minors, more drugs trafficking by drug cartels, and more crime in general.
- Despite claims by those supporting legalization, the associated social costs will massively exceed the tax incomes from it.
Stimson concludes his memorandum by stating: “While long on rhetoric, the legalization movement, by contrast, is short on facts.” (Stimson, 13 Sep. 2010).
Also concerning the situation in California, the California Governor, Jerry Brown, expressed concern that if marijuana is legalized, too many people may “get stoned”, thereby affecting the competitiveness of the U.S. as a nation. As he put it: “The world's pretty dangerous, very competitive. I think we need to stay alert, if not 24 hours a day, more than some of the potheads might be able to put together.” (Associated Press, 2 March 2014).
Goldstein (Jan. 2012) provides a refreshingly different approach to the marijuana legalization debate. Although he is against legalization, he begins by announcing that because people generally write about marijuana without describing what it’s like to smoke it, he will do so, detailing all its positive effects. He says they can be any or all of these:
It will make you more relaxed, more thoughtful (though not necessarily insightful), and more creative. It will make all the good things in life a little bit better, and the bad things a little less bad. If you suffer from disease or chronic pain, it will ease your distress. If you are sociable, it will make you more so. If you're a loner, it will increase the pleasure of silence. If you have trouble falling asleep, pot can help with that, too (Goldstein 2012).
Despite all those “good” things that can happen, Goldstein reiterates that he is firmly against legalization; not on an individual basis – because he believes in the personal freedom to use it if so inclined – but because legalizing marijuana would result in so many negative consequences. Bearing in mind that even as an illegal substance it is fairly easy to get hold of, Goldstein believes that nonetheless the primary reason against legalization is to protect children. And by “children” he emphasizes that he’s not referring to those wayward youngsters already (and foolishly) smoking pot, but those he refers to as the “more timid teenagers” who would not normally dare to participate in the habit for fear of rejection or of falling foul of the law. If it were legalized claims Goldstein, those children would find it much easier to get hold of some, even (for example) by asking unscrupulous adults to purchase some from a legal outlet on their behalf (Goldstein 2012).
Goldstein does not see marijuana as the gateway to harder drugs per se, but believes that if marijuana were to be legalized, the drug dealers will be forced to turn to selling the harder drugs on the streets. As a consequence, when those youngsters seek something illegal to try (which is human nature), they’ll be trying the harder, more addictive drugs instead. He also envisages our streets becoming something like Amsterdam’s so-called red-light district, where marijuana consumption in public is commonplace, and there are “seedy drug dealers standing on every corner offering a cornucopia of hard drugs” (Goldstein 2012).
In Goldstein’s opinion, there needs to be some things in our society that technically are in contravention of the laws but in practice are mostly overlooked. In his view these are relatively small things that facilitate the feelings of being free and somewhat rebellious, yet cognizant that they are breaches of the law. He has in mind the (illegal) use of marijuana, but compares it with not quite coming to a complete stop at a Stop sign. You make a token gesture at obeying the law by slowing down but don’t actually halt completely. He sees such acts as taking a bit of a chance but feeling that it’s fairly safe you won’t get in trouble for it. Knowing that pot is illegal and could incur punishment if caught, not only “keeps us on our toes” but also deters us from really bad acts. In a strange way, using marijuana illegally can be empowering, yet can give us greater respect for the law (Goldstein 2012).
Voices against legalizing marijuana range from leading politicians to those representing small, local communities. An example of the former was when President Obama – in a speech in Mexico City – stated: “I’ve been asked, and I honestly do not believe that legalizing drugs is the answer.” Holtzman reports that the president felt he needed to address the issue on that occasion because much of the marijuana in the U.S. comes in from Mexico, and is the primary cause of the increasing drugs cartel violence that has over recent years been the cause of thousands of Mexican deaths. Obama claimed in his speech that the problem needs “a comprehensive approach — not just law enforcement, but education and prevention and treatment.” Holtzman notes that this reflects the plans of his administration implemented through the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Treating the recreational use of marijuana and other drugs as an issue of public health, the aims are to reduce the use of prison sentences as a deterrent, but to focus more on increased prevention strategies and associated programs of rehabilitation (Holtzman, 2013).
At the other (local community) end of the scale, Lonas reports in the Prescott Valley Tribune that the town council of Prescott Valley, a small town in Yavapai County Arizona, passed a resolution at the end of February this year, opposing the legalization of marijuana. Bryan Jarrell, the local police chief, commented on the strength of the movement that seeks to persuade the U.S. public that marijuana “is not dangerous and no more harmful than alcohol.” He then pointed out that according to the CDC alcohol is “the number one abused substance in the United States” (Lonas, 3 March 2014). Jarrell’s message is clear: stating that marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol when alcohol is the top abused substance is really no persuasive message! Jarrell went on to state that the main concern should be for the impact of drugs on the younger generation, and quoted a National Institute on Drug Abuse statistic that by the time they graduate, a majority of students have indulged in alcohol consumption, and that drugs use including alcohol, marijuana and other illegal drugs cost the nation $600 billion in terms of crimes and losses of productivity in the workplace (Lonas, 3 March 2014).
At the same town council meeting, Sheila Polk, the Yavapai County Attorney, expressed concern about the rising trend of marijuana use throughout the country, partly – in her view – because although “kids think marijuana is harmless” it is actually more potent now than it was three decades ago. Commenting that treatment for marijuana abuse currently exceeds that for any other drug; she added that people should look closely at Colorado where recreational use of marijuana was legalized in 2012. That state has since seen “a dramatic increase in the number of youth using this drug. And an alarming rate of kids and young adults are seeking treatment for this addiction.” She also noted that legalization and subsequent regulation has been shown to fail. When a substance becomes legally available, more youngsters use it, because it has become socially acceptable (Lonas, 3 March 2014).
The research has indicated that despite the strength of the pro-marijuana support in the U.S., and the fact that some states have already legalized its recreational use, there is still sufficiently serious and scientifically-proven evidence that federal legalization of marijuana for recreational use should not happen. Despite arguments to the contrary, it has been shown (in Colorado for example) that making marijuana freely and legally available and thereby giving it greater social acceptance, causes more addiction problems and puts more people – especially youngsters – into treatment programs. As President Obama suggested in his speech in Mexico City, the preferred solution should be to retain its status as an illegal substance, but to focus federal efforts on prevention and rehabilitation rather than imposing prison sentences on those convicted of marijuana possession, distribution or use.
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Associated Press, Washington. (4 March 2014). “US drug enforcement official: legalising marijuana threatens US institutions.” The Guardian. Web. 10 March 2014.
Goldstein, Yoni. (Jan. 2012). “Why Not Legalize Marijuana? Here’s Why.” The Huffington Post (Canada edition). Web. 10 March 2014.
Holtzman, Geoff. (May 2013). “Obama Says No To Legalizing Marijuana.” Talk Radio News Service. Web. 11 March 2014.
Lonas, Briana. (3 March 2014). “‘No’ to legalizing marijuana, says Town Council.” The Prescott Valley Tribune. Web. 11 March 2014.
Marcus, Ruth. (3 Jan. 2014). “The perils of legalized pot.” Washington Post. Web. 10 March 2014.
Stimson, Charles “Cully”. (13 Sep. 2010). “Legalizing Marijuana: Why Citizens Should Just Say No.” The Heritage Foundation. Web. 10 March 2014.
“The International Narcotics Control Board.” (n.d.). International Narcotics Control Board. Web. 10 March 2014.
Tomczak, Larry. (8 Jan. 2014). “3 Reasons to Reject Legalizing Marijuana.” Christian Post. Web. 10 March 2014.
Tomczak, Larry. (10 Jan. 2014). “4 More Reasons to Reject Legalizing Marijuana.” Christian Post. Web. 10 March 2014.
Travis, Alan. (4 March 2014). “UN: cannabis law changes pose ‘very grave danger to public health’: International Narcotics Control Board calls US and Uruguay moves on cannabis ‘misguided initiatives’.” The Guardian. Web. 10 March 2014.