Legalize It?

With the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington, several important questions have arisen. First of all, should marijuana be legal. Deeper than that, though, are questions of appropriate medical uses for marijuana, under whose authority should marijuana be regulated or banned, and what are the societal and financial costs of both legalization and prohibition?

For better or worse, Americans smoke pot. Roughly 100 million Americans admit to trying marijuana at least once and 11.5% of Americans have smoked marijuana in the last year. Usage seems especially high when considered in light of the controlled substance schedule marijuana is classified under.

Marijuana is a Schedule 1 substance, the most restrictive classification. Substances in this schedule have no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse. Others included in this schedule are heroin and LSD. Comparatively, oxycodone, cocaine, methamphetamine and methadone are all under Schedule 2.

This classification of marijuana has also been adopted by the U.N. under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Under the U.S. signed treaty, cannabis is treated with the same restrictions as opium poppy production. It is important to note that failure of the Federal Government to enforce laws branding marijuana as illegal would violate this and other international treaties.

The passage of the laws in Washington and Colorado has set the stage for a Federal vs. State showdown. The states will try and argue that the 10th amendment and their explicit right to general police power gives them the right to decide the legality of substances. The Federal Government, however, will argue that its authority derived in the commerce clause gives it the ability to regulate whichever substance it sees fit, save alcohol by virtue of the 21st amendment. The Supreme Court has traditionally sided with the Federal Government on this issue, most recently in Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. ___ (2012), where it found that state immigration laws infringed upon federal jurisdiction.

Prohibition of any good comes at a high price. Taxpayers must fund law enforcement, judicial proceedings, and incarceration. One report from Harvard University estimates that legalizing marijuana would save $7.7 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition.  They also forgo any potential tax revenue. Legalization would yield tax revenue of $2.4 billion annually if taxed at normal rates and $6.2 billion annually if taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco, according to the report. On the other hand, legalization may come with hidden costs, such as increased healthcare costs if usage increases and leads to ill health effects.

There is substantial scientific evidence that marijuana has effective medical uses for treating pain, nausea and vomiting, AIDS-related loss of appetite, cancer treatment side effects, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, and more. Smoke inhalation, however, is not an ideal delivery system. It makes it difficult to standardize doses. It also has some negative health side effects, such as damage to lung tissue. Some of these risks can be ameliorated by the process of vaporization opposed to traditional smoking.

Whatever actions that the government takes in regard to the new laws, the question remains: should marijuana be legal? Only through an open and honest discussion can the people of the U.S. come to the correct conclusion.

Additional Resources, Medical Marijuana:

The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research:

Accuracy in Media, Obama Finds a Treaty His Base Doesn’t Like:

Think Progress, UN Drug Official ‘Voices Concern’ To Feds Over State Marijuana Laws:

Psychology Today, Is Marijuana Addictive?

1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs:

The U.S. Constitution, Amendment 10:

Cornell University Law School, Commerce Clause:

Back Slash, Marijuana Facts and Statistics:

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Medical Marijuana Statistics:

The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition:


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