The New York Times, one of the most prominent and influential newspapers in the United States, recently endorsed repealing marijuana prohibition. As justification for its position, the newspaper began an interactive six part series discussing legal and societal issues resulting from criminalizing marijuana. Those issues include an increased number of states legalizing marijuana, health and safety concerns, and the impact of marijuana possession on social costs.
In the first part of its six-part discussion, The New York Times discussed states taking the lead on legalizing marijuana despite non-movement from Congress. In the 1930s more than thirty states prohibited the use of marijuana for non-medical purposes. Now, almost a century later, thirty-five states and the District of Columbia permit marijuana consumption for health purposes, while an additional eighteen states have decriminalized marijuana all together. Decriminalization means that a charge of drug possession is likened to obtaining a traffic ticket. Moreover, Alaska and Oregon are contemplating legalizing marijuana for recreational use later this year.
Over half of American states have legalized the drug for medical purposes.
The decision of states to move towards the decriminalization of marijuana can be partly attributed to the societal realization that marijuana is similar to alcohol in certain respects. First, in comparing the ban faced by both substances, The New York Times noted that while it took thirteen years for the United States to end alcohol prohibition, “[i]t has been more than [forty] years since Congress passed the current ban on marijuana, inflicting great harm on society just to prohibit a substance far less dangerous than alcohol.”
Three specific concerns have been raised about the trend towards decriminalization: (1) why are states taking the lead on legalizing marijuana, (2) whether marijuana is more or less dangerous than alcohol, and (3) what actual “harm” has befallen society by prohibiting marijuana use? Addressing the first issue, those states that led marijuana legalization initially focused on its medical use. In its endorsement, The New York Times reports that numerous AIDS, cancer, and epileptic patients have relied on marijuana to relieve pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and seizures. Over half of American states have legalized the drug for medical purposes.
Not only have states created an exception to marijuana use for medical purposes, states such as Colorado and Washington have gone far enough to legalize the use for recreational purposes. In contrast, other states are completely unwilling to legalize marijuana so long as it remains federally banned. Nevertheless, the Justice Department issued a memo stating it would not interfere with the marijuana legalization plans of Colorado and Washington.
Unambiguous federal action must be taken in order to completely end the ban on marijuana. The New York Times highlighted two legislative bills, one introduced by Colorado Democrat Representative Jared Polis, known as the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, and another by California Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher, titled Respect the State Marijuana Laws Act. While the former would eliminate marijuana completely from the Controlled Substances Act, requiring a federal permit to grow and distribute the drug, the Representative Rohrbacher’s law sought to regulate marijuana similar to the way alcohol and tobacco are currently being regulated—by the Food and Drug Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. While the Rorhrbacher law would not remove marijuana from being listed as a Schedule I drug, it “would eliminate enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act against anyone acting in compliance with a state marijuana law.”
The Obama Administration has steadfastly opposed marijuana legislation because of its significant health and safety risks.
Despite the aggressive push from the states, it is unlikely that Congress will take any action towards marijuana legalization. When Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana was listed as a Schedule I narcotic ranked alongside heroin, LSD, and other dangerous drug substances. By contrast, methamphetamine and cocaine were among the drugs listed as Schedule II narcotics.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”), one of the main differences in the two Schedules is that Schedule I drugs are defined as drugs without any current accepted medical use, as well as a high abuse potential due to their ability to cause severe psychological or physical dependence. By comparison, although Schedule II drugs also have a high potential for abuse, they are often prescribed for medical use. Given these dangerous effects of the drug, it is unlikely that Congress will follow the states’ legislative activities anytime soon.
Similarly, the Obama Administration has steadfastly opposed marijuana legalization because of its significant health and safety risks. Apart from the potential for abuse and addiction, the Administration noted that marijuana is associated with respiratory illness, cognitive impairment, and other serious health implications, particularly in adolescents.
While The New York Times series concedes the legitimate concerns surrounding the effects marijuana use on adolescent brain development and advocates the prohibition of sales to persons under twenty-one years of age, the newspaper also takes the position that moderate use of marijuana does not pose a risk for otherwise healthy adults. In fact, the newspaper likens the addictive and dependent effects of marijuana to alcohol and tobacco, going so far as to declare the drug “far less dangerous than alcohol.”
However, no scientific consensus has been reached regarding whether marijuana is really less dangerous than alcohol. Recent studies suggest that increased availability of marijuana has led to more fatalities from motor vehicle accidents. Contrary data from the thirty-four states that have legalized marijuana also exists, suggesting a decreased trend in fatalities. Evidence also suggests that substituting marijuana for alcohol, which has a more dramatic effect on driving ability, may reduce traffic fatalities.
As long as marijuana is illegal, police will continue to devote their efforts in quashing possession, while violent crimes go unsolved.
Finally, the criminalization of marijuana has had a serious negative impact on American society, from racial disparity to wasting costly law enforcement resources. According to a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report, African-Americans were three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than Caucasians, leading to increased felony convictions in some states.
In addition to the racial disparity marked by illegal marijuana, The New York Times noted that 8.2 million arrests marijuana possession arrests occurred from 2001-2010, with states spending over $3.6 billion annually to enforce laws on possession of the drug. Despite nationwide strategic efforts to criminalize marijuana, 30 million Americans continue to use the drug. As long as marijuana is illegal, police will continue to devote their efforts in quashing possession, while violent crimes go unsolved. Given the facts, coupled with the action taken by numerous states, it seems that legalization of marijuana in some shape or form will occur in most, if not all of the United States.