America's Ongoing Marijuana Debate

As the debate over marijuana legalization heats up, misinformation and inadequate understanding are running rampant. While many proponents of legalization stake the claim that marijuana is a benign drug that charges no substantial toll to society, research and common sense prove otherwise. 

A critical look at marijuana exposes the societal and cultural dangers the drug poses. As cash-strapped states seek out new tax revenues, considering these impediments is essential. Legalizing pot with revenue generation as the primary goal has implications that have been purposefully, or perhaps ignorantly, overlooked.

First and foremost it is necessary to debunk the myths and mistruths that progressives utilize in their quest to see the drug become commercially available. Despite continued denial, there are proven mental and physical health impairments related to marijuana abuse. Of course, these, alone, do not disqualify the drug (consider alcohol and tobacco, two substances that are surely unhealthy in excess). However, marijuana differs greatly as do its effects when compared to alcohol or tobacco. The American Council for Drug Education calls marijuana the “world’s most commonly used illicit drug.” The drug’s commonality has mistakenly led some to dismiss laws against it as excessive or unneeded.

Proponents of marijuana legalization claim that the drug causes little damage, but statistics prove otherwise.  The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that marijuana is detected in victims’ bodies in 6% to 11% of fatal accidents. The New York Times reports that government data shows a significant increase in emergency room visits as a result of marijuana use.

The most pervasive issue attached to marijuana abuse is the cognitive impact the drug has on users. The American Council for Drug Education cites a 1995 study of college students that found that the “inability of heavy marijuana users to focus, sustain attention, and organize data persists for as long as 24 hours after their last use of the drug.” As compared to non-users, adult abusers have been found in past studies to have weaker memory and decreased math and verbal skills. 

According to the NIDA, “Heavy marijuana use impairs a person’s ability to form memories, recall events, and shift attention from one thing to another.” WebMD lists distorted sense of time, paranoia, random thinking, memory loss, anxiety and depression as some of the short-term impacts of marijuana abuse. 

While some proponents deny addiction is possible, medical practitioners and past addicts know otherwise. WebMD reports that one in 300 adults has a “pot addiction” and the rate of addiction has risen significantly since the 1990s. Back in 2005, the National Bureau of Economic Research corroborated this notion, writing the following:

“Although prevalence rates for the general population have been relatively stable over the past decade, the proportion of current users who meet criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association for dependence or abuse of marijuana has increased at a statistically significant rate, from 30.2% to 35.6%.”

With the recession and continued economic strain on state and local governments, states like Colorado and California are considering resolutions that would legalize the sale of marijuana. Support for these measures is corroborated by the notion that the taxes generated will help close budgetary gaps. Rather than reining in spending and exploring innovative ways to fix state finances, some individuals and institutions would rather take short-cuts without considering the impact legalization may have on individual productivity and social progression.

A recent RAND Corporation study found that legalizing the production and distribution of pot in California would substantially lower the cost of the drug (by up to 80%).  RAND offers a notable caution, writing, “While the state Board of Equalization has estimated taxing legal marijuana could raise more than $1 billion in revenue, the RAND study cautions that any potential revenue could be dramatically higher or lower based on a number of factors, including the level of taxation, the amount of tax evasion and the response by the federal government.” 

Legalizing marijuana, especially if costs decrease, is not a silver bullet to bridging the budgetary divide. Furthermore, research and common sense show that when price decreases, usage increases. In fact, RAND claims that the increased rate of consumption could be between 50% and 100%—or greater.

Many sources, including The New York Times, have reported that today’s marijuana is up to five times more potent than the pot that was harvested and smoked in the 1970s.  This, in itself, poses serious concerns. The Times reports that many experts worry that this new, more potent, marijuana is causing higher addiction rates and has a more detrimental impact on adolescents who may abuse it.  In a 2009 piece, Sarah Kershaw and Rebecca Cathcart quote Dr. Richard N. Rosenthal, who says, “We need to be very mindful of what we are unleashing out of a Pandora’s Box here. The people who become chronic users don’t have the same lives and the same achievements as people who don’t use chronically.”

Whether marijuana will provide tax benefits to indebted states is irrelevant, as there are social and moral implications to consider that may trump the potential economic benefits of legalization. Furthermore, there is no golden ticket when it comes to generating tax revenues due to the unpredictability of supply and demand. 

Pot’s potential dangers are understated in liberal circles, yet research continues to show that the drug impedes cognitive abilities, lowers productivity and serves as a gateway to other illicit drugs. Many will argue on prohibition lines, desperately seeking to draw parallels between alcohol and marijuana. Regardless of which drug is more damaging in the long term, proponents must build a case that props marijuana up as a viable drug to decriminalize. Currently, there is little research to corroborate this notion. If states are truly looking to bridge legitimate budgetary gaps, rather than pushing a legalization agenda they should be exploring their tax systems, encouraging business growth and seeking out methods through which revenues can be raised without relying on legalization as an easy way out.