In 2014, Colorado became the first U.S. state to legalize the commercial sale of cannabis. Despite the strong protest of many Denver officials, including Mayor Michael Hancock, the legalization went ahead on January 1 of this year. There have been no apparent substantial drawbacks to the legalization so far, but it will likely take years, not months, before we can accurately study the effects of this legislation.
Despite the outward stability of the legalization, those opposing it are still vocal and plentiful. The mayor fought to recriminalize marijuana last year, insisting that it is a 'gateway drug'. He didn't want Colorado to become known as the "marijuana state," with tourists visiting for the sole purpose of getting high without the risk of handcuffs.
Those who back legalization point out the hypocrisy of making cigarettes and alcohol legal but banning marijuana, which most experts conclude is less harmful. Some say that objectivity surely suggests that either everything that is bad for us should be banned, including high sugar or high fat content foods and drinks, or people should be allowed to make adult decisions about what they want to put into their bodies.
So what are the strongest arguments from each side? Let's consider the pros and cons...
Legalizing marijuana will bring in money, and a lot of it. In March of this year -- just three months after legalization -- Colorado collected $7.3 million in marijuana taxes, and an additional $5.3 million from medical marijuana. The projected $134 million in marijuana tax revenues will be set aside for substance abuse treatment, public health and youth prevention services which could achieve significant social benefits.
Fears that legalizing marijuana would lead to an increase in crime have not been realized, and the crime rate has actually dropped. The first quarter of 2014 saw a 6.9 percent drop in violent crime and an 11.1 percent drop in property crime when compared to the first quarter of 2013.
Attitudes towards people who smoke pot are shifting and many do not want people incarcerated for minor offenses such as possession. Even Mayor Hancock conceded that too many people have "had their lives ruined, their futures impacted because they've been arrested with small amounts of marijuana."
Now that a black market has been eradicated and a legal one born, new jobs have been created -- lawful jobs which will generate further taxes. A recent "marijuana job fair" in Denver is a testament to the upsurge of new jobs available within the marijuana industry and range from budtender to bookkeeper.
It's clear that public opinion on marijuana and those who smoke it has shifted; in a time when most Americans believe sugar is more harmful for you than weed, a reassessment of laws may seem the appropriate thing to do. However, while it's generally accepted that the average stoner is more of a threat to a bag of Doritos than to society, it would be irresponsible to gloss over the potential pitfalls of marijuana legalization.
Laws Gone to Pot?
While it may be less harmful than tobacco and alcohol, marijuana is not totally harmless. Even those who backed the legalization admitted they "fully acknowledge the harm it can cause to young people and adults." While no one is ranking marijuana alongside heroin, many link the recent change in laws in Colorado, California and Washington with the revelation of 60 percent of American high school students who now believe pot is harmless. Usage has increased among high school senior, and many say that the legalization sends out a clear message that not only is marijuana risk-free, but that drug use is okay.
"Marijuana is very prevalent -- it's readily available in high schools and has taken over college campuses, and the recent decriminalization in California has the made the problem even worse," says student Jordan, who has struggled with marijuana abuse. "Adolescent use is widespread and acceptable in schools, but at what point does that just become another justification for an untreated addiction?"
Marijuana impacts the developing brain much differently than it impacts the adult brain. New studies suggest that teens who use marijuana expose themselves to abnormal changes in their brain structures, particularly with regard to working memory.
"It affects memory processing, your ability to control your emotions," said Kathy Meyers, a senior research scientist at the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia, and "for adolescents, these are issues that they struggle with anyway because of their developmental period."
While adults may be able to use marijuana without serious problems the same is not always true for teens; it is this which seems to be the crux of the anti-legalization argument. From recent statistics, it is apparent many adolescents have no idea how smoking pot can impact memory processing and brain function, and legalizing marijuana nationwide would surely exacerbate that notion among impressionable teens.
"It's the absolute worst time [to smoke pot]," said Krista Lisdahl, Director of the Brain Imaging and Neuropsychology Lab at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. The teen years are the "last golden opportunity to make the brain as healthy and smart as possible." Smoking marijuana can affect cognition and academic performance and teens must be aware that there are short-term and long-term effects that come with usage."
Student Jordan agrees with this: "For me weed had no short term consequences so it was really easy to justify how much I used. Nothing wrong ever happens! Except for the amount of potential I threw away. All of my consequences were long term. Long term grades plummeted. Long term athletic performance down the tube. Long term family relations gone. Long-term friendships shallow at best. I was bored, I was lonely, I was sick, I was tired, I was demotivated and I never saw it coming."
There seems to be a paradox between the risks that come with marijuana use and the perception that many adolescents have of it. If teens are describing pot as "healthy, organic and locally grown", is it suggestive of the belief that there is a problem with how legalization can influence young people? It looks like only time will tell.