Legalize It?

Enlightened legislation, perhaps, but it could spark new concerns.

Legalize It

Top ten reasons marijuana should be legalized.

Editor's Note: The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the blogger.

One night when I was in my early teens I was eating dinner at a Pizza Hut with my father and I told him with absolute confidence that I would never do illegal drugs. After all, it was so obviously stupid to do drugs. Our teachers had explained very clearly that doing drugs was associated with many, many problems and had virtually no benefits. Clearly the smart thing to do was to follow Nancy Reagan's advice and "Just Say No".

My position on smoking marijuana has changed rather dramatically since that time. Indeed, my first undergraduate research project was on gathering attitudes about marijuana because I was struck by the remarkable discrepancy between what my teachers had taught and my experience with pot use. My reality was that it enhanced creativity, led to many interesting perceptions and conversations, and had very few downsides, and I conducted the study to learn what others thought.

Now, several decades later, as a licensed clinical psychologist and one who is concerned with educating the public with integrity, I am of the strong opinion that my perceptions were far more accurate than the propaganda I was fed as a teenager. Sad to say, the propaganda machine still is in operation--my daughter just went through D.A.R.E., which continues despite documented evidence that it soaks up resources and accomplishes very little. But thankfully the public is waking up to this reality, and approximately half of the American public now believes marijuana should be legal. And although legalization is not a part of either major party's political platform, there are those in the government who are grappling with the issue. In June 2011, the self-appointed Global Commission on Drug Policy released a critical report on the War on Drugs, declaring: "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and years after President Nixon launched the US government's war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed."

Here are my top ten reasons (in no particular order) why the public is now on the right side of this issue. (Also, see Endnotes 1, 2, and 3.)

10. There is limited evidence of harmful effects of marijuana on mental health. Despite decades of study, it remains unclear whether marijuana systematically produces harmful effects on cognitive or emotional functioning over the long run. This is not a cherry picked conclusion, but one that the National Institute of Drug Abuse—which has a vested interest in documenting marijuana's dangers—has concluded, proclaiming "it is not clear whether marijuana use causes mental problems, exacerbates them, or reflects an attempt to self-medicate symptoms already in existence." There has been some reasonably good research suggesting that heavy early use in one's teens might impact executive functioning or increase the probability of developing a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. Other research is suggestive that it might reduce motivation, but the findings there are inconclusive. And, it can definitely be habit forming. However, what is striking is how many studies have been done and how weak the conclusions are. This is in direct contrast to the clear and present dangers associated with other substances like cocaine, heroin, cigarettes, and alcohol, which are all readily documentable as causing serious health problems. I would submit that marijuana is far less dangerous than the average psychotropic medication.

9. There is limited evidence of harmful effects of marijuana on biological health. Marijuana is nontoxic and overdoses are essentially impossible. Although marijuana does contain many carcinogens and some research has supported the conclusion that chronic use impairs lung function, studies have generally been inconclusive as to whether it actually causes cancer or does serious lung damage. Researchers also note that marijuana generally increases heart rate, but the link to cardiovascular disease is very limited. Also, although research has now developed a much clearer picture as to how and where THC alters brain function, very little conclusive evidence is available on the iatrogenic effects of those changes.

8. Many individuals report psychological benefits. Marijuana is popular because it is reinforcing, and individuals report a variety of benefits. These include heightened creativity, heightened sociability, heightened sensations, pleasant alterations of the perception of time, heightened sexuality, and heightened appetite and enjoyment of food, to name a few. Although data are mixed as to whether marijuana makes people more creative or simply makes them feel that way, it remains the case that people perceive many psychological benefits from the marijuana.

7. Medicinal benefits. Marijuana has received much attention for having medicinal benefits, and currently medical marijuana is available in 16 states and DC. In 2008, the student AMA explicitly endorsed the use of medical marijuana, something the American Medical Association has recently moved toward. Grotenhermen states that medical cannabis has established effects in the treatment of nausea, vomiting, premenstrual syndrome, unintentional weight loss, insomnia, and lack of appetite. Here is a personal story to that effect.

6. The loss of credibility of educators and the government. The more I learned about marijuana relative to what I was taught, the more I wondered and questioned everything about the status quo. While this might have been a good thing for me personally, peddling false propaganda is obviously a bad idea, and that is exactly what many anti-drug education programs do. Reefer madness and other histrionic claims simply undermine the credibility of educators and the government.

5. Governmental cognitive dissonance and systems justification. Any social psychologist will tell you that the more someone invests in something, the more likely they are to believe that it is true. And once a person or group believes something, they tend to justify the status quo. For reasons of social control and other idiographic elements (e.g., Nixon's personality and the context of the counterculture movement), our government became invested in the idea that drugs were bad long before the situation was examined objectively. Thus, first there was the commitment, and then the reasons followed. As a clinical psychologist, I can say that this fact should give us much pause as we weigh what the government tells us about marijuana.

4. Judicial and personal costs. Approximately 850,000 individuals are arrested each year for marijuana related offenses. In 2004, approximately 12.7% of state prisoners and 12.4% of Federal prisoners were serving time for marijuana-related offenses. When one considers the general current strain on the justice system (which should be concerned with catching real criminals), and the enormous personal costs associated with being arrested and incarcerated, the price at both levels is difficult to overestimate.

3. Discrimination and institutionalized racism. Institutionalized racism is when societal systems operate in ways that produce far more harmful effects for minority than majority groups. The way marijuana laws are enforced offers a crystal clear example of institutionalized racism. For example, although African Americans use marijuana at about the same rate as the general population, they are twice as likely to be arrested. In addition, minorities are much more likely to be prosecuted and spend a much longer period incarcerated for marijuana related offenses. As social justice author Michael Tonry put it: "The War on Drugs foreseeably and unnecessarily blighted the lives of hundreds and thousands of young disadvantaged black Americans and undermined decades of effort to improve the life chances of members of the urban black underclass."

2. Financial costs and estimated tax revenue. Experts estimate that the financial benefits of legalization would be approximately 10 to 16 billion dollars a year. For example, Egan and Miron (2007) estimated that $8 billion would be saved in prohibition enforcement, and legalization would yield tax revenue of $2 billion dollars if marijuana was taxed at the general merchandise rate and $8 billion if taxed at a rate comparable to alcohol and cigarettes. A related issue is that the flip side of the government's gain is the shift of monies away from career criminals. Marijuana's illegality makes foreign cultivation and smuggling to the United States extremely profitable, sending billions of dollars overseas in a nasty, criminal underground economy.

1. Personal liberties. Although I am not a libertarian, I do believe that government intervention always comes with costs. And when in doubt, we should go with liberty and the freedom of individuals to make their own choices about what is good for them.


End notes.

1. Halfway through writing this post, I discovered that High Times had also produced a Top Ten list for making weed legal. Here it is and it overlaps quite a bit with my own.

2. In making the argument that marijuana should be legal, a few clarifications are in order. First, I do not advocate for making all illicit drugs legal. Heroin and cocaine are quite dangerous (something I have witnessed firsthand as a clinician, in contrast to marijuana use), and I believe legalization of these substances would produce many problematic consequences. Second, there certainly are reasonable people who argue that marijuana should remain illegal, and any advocate for legalization should take seriously the views on the other side. Third, it should be noted that marijuana is actually a term for an incredibly diverse class of substances (e.g., there are two major strains that have different effects psychologically and physically, there many different levels of potency, etc.). Third, making arguments at a population level (e.g., marijuana is not very harmful) does not mean it applies universally to the idiographic level (i.e., marijuana may be harmful to a particular person). Fourth, the issues are enormously complicated and because of the drug's illegal status, the vast majority of studies done have serious design problems—thus, it certainly is possible that the conclusions articulated here would need revision with further analysis. Fifth, given the complexity of society, it is hard to predict the consequences a major change like legalization would have, thus legalization should be phased in over time, starting with medical marijuana and decriminalization, which should be closely monitored for societal consequences. Sixth, like alcohol and cigarettes, marijuana should be illegal for underage youth. Seventh, it should be illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana.

3. Although awareness is increasing, quite a few mental health professionals still make histrionic and grossly unwarranted claims about marijuana use. For example, fellow a Psych Today Blogger writes, "It comes down to this: if you're using marijuana that is your primary problem and your primary diagnosis. If you have any psychiatric, psychological, emotional, social, and many medical complaints they are all secondary and uncertain unless and until you have attained and maintained sobriety for at least six months....I expect this will irritate many people who toke up regularly but then again it is primarily their problem. It is, however a burden that the rest of us bear."

References (not linked)

Egan, D., & Miron, J. A. (2007). The budgetary implications of marijuana prohibition. In M. Earlywine (Ed), Pot politics. London: Oxford University Press.

Tonry, M. (1995). Malign neglect - Race crime and punishment in America. London: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 82.

Recommended Readings

The 2011 Global Commission on Drug Policy

Earlywine, M. (2005). Understanding marijuana: A new look at the scientific evidence. Oxford University Press.

Earlywine, M. (2007). Pot politics: Marijuana and the cost of prohibition. Oxford University Press.

Fox, S., Armentano, P. & Tyvert, M. (2009). Marijuana is safer: So why are we driving people to drink? White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

Grinspoon, L., & Bakalar, J. (1997). Marihuana: The forbidden medicine. Yale University.

Herer, J. (2000). The Emperor Wears No Clothes: The Authoritative Historical Record of Cannabis and the Conspiracy Against Marijuana. AH HA Publishing.