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An Objective Examination of the Legalization of Marijuana

As someone who has never smoked pot, I like to think of myself as someone who could have a non-biased opinion on the topic of the legalization of marijuana. However, I do understand that I am also physically immune to the obvious benefits that smoking can have. I am going to try to address this topic in the most objective way possible, laying out the facts of the impacts marijuana can have, past trends of the government making substances illegal, and looking at the issue through a conservative/libertarian eyeglass.

As of September 2017, there have been 8 states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. An additional 20 states have legalized it just for medical use. The use and possession of marijuana in any of the other states is illegal. This begs the question: Why are these states legalizing weed? The obvious answer in relation to medical use is that marijuana has clear advantages when used appropriately. It can be used to effectively treat Glaucoma, decrease anxiety, slow the progression of Alzheimer’s, help the brain recover after a stroke, and many other benefits. The use of marijuana when prescribed by a doctor has its obvious benefits – but why for recreation?

Part of me wishes that the states that chose to legalize marijuana did so out of their support for individuals’ personal freedom and right to choose what they purchase and consume, but the reality is that the state profits off of this newly legalized industry. “‘Our focus is on revenue and bringing in cash to the state as legalization becomes more and more widespread,’ said Mary Washington, a state delegate from Maryland who introduced a bill recently that would tax marijuana like alcohol,” reports Kurtis Lee for the LA Times. Washington estimates that the state will generate $165 million a year off of a marijuana tax. Larger states such as California have estimates as high as $1 billion a year in state tax revenue.

With that being said, and the reason this issue is so controversial, is because the use of marijuana does have its downsides. According to a Northwestern University study, “marijuana users have abnormal brain structure and poor memory and that chronic marijuana abuse may lead to brain changes resembling schizophrenia. The study also reported that the younger the person starts using marijuana, the worse the effects become.” Additionally, marijuana has been reported to actually decrease scores on IQ performance tests: “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.”

We now understand that there are benefits and disadvantages to smoking pot, both individual benefits and government benefits in legalization. However, many anti-pot advocates suggest that the legalization for recreational use would increase the number of users… But is that really the case?

According to a recent Gallup poll, one in eight adults in the United States smoke pot, which is about 13% of the adult population. The same study found that only 7% of adults smoked pot in 2013, an increase of 6% over the past 4 years. According to the Daily Wire, “These results coincide with the growth in the number of states where recreational marijuana usage is legal.” This information suggests that as pot is made legal, more people smoke it.

Interesting enough, there was a similar trend with the Prohibition in the 1920s. According to a study conducted by Jeffrey Miron and Jeffrey Zwiebel for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “alcohol consumption fell sharply at the beginning of Prohibition, to approximately 30 percent of its pre-Prohibition level. During the next several years, however, alcohol consumption increased sharply, to about 60-70 percent of its pre-prohibition level. The level of consumption was virtually the same immediately after Prohibition as during the latter part of Prohibition, although consumption increased to approximately its pre-Prohibition level during the subsequent decade.”

Obviously, marijuana is a different substance than alcohol, although we can easily find similarities between the two in relation to government policy. During Prohibition, when alcohol was made illegal, the use of alcohol initially decreased. However, as Prohibition continued, the consumption of alcohol drastically increased. Finally, in 1933 when the ban was lifted, alcohol use interestingly decreased to the same initial level before Prohibition.

This information suggests that making a substance illegal (like marijuana) actually initially increases the use of it, but would later level out to the same amount as before the ban. For whatever reason this may be (such as scarcity or rebellion), this information goes against what anti-legalization advocates suggest. According to the Prohibition data, making weed legalized would in the long run not have any impact on the population’s use.

In conclusion, it may be too early to tell whether it is reliable to compare Prohibition data in the 20s to marijuana data in present day. Especially since the Prohibition was nationwide, while the states are slowly one-by-one jumping on board legalization. From a conservative/libertarian view, however, removing the option and ability for the individual to freely choose what he or she would like to purchase is infringing on that individual’s personal liberties. You can make the same case about cigarettes: cigarettes are obviously harmful and addictive, yet it is the individual’s right to choose. Creating more regulations on what a person can and cannot do not only insults his intelligence on the ability to choose for themselves, but also the founding principles of the country that believe individualism is stronger than government.

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