The Conversation on Cannabis

By Caroline Sillars

In the past couple of years, marijuana legalization has been cycling through different levels of legislation. Many states such as Colorado and Washington have legalized its recreational use, while others have laws for medical use and some prohibit its use completely. 

Cannabis was first produced in the United States during the 17th century, and it was used for the production of rope, sails, and clothing. After the civil war, it was primarily used in pharmaceutical products and was sold openly. In 1910, many Mexican immigrants flowed into the United States and brought with them the recreational use of marijuana. During the Great Depression, there was widespread fear of Mexican immigrants who were willing to work for less. This fear increased public awareness and concern about marijuana use, and by 1931, its use was outlawed in 29 states. In 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, basically criminalizing its use. In the 1950s, mandatory sentences for drug use were put in place by federal law. The 1960s brought more lenient thinking about marijuana and studies continued to show it did not induce violence or addiction, and in the 1970s, Congress repealed many of the mandatory sentencing that had been put in place 20 years before. However, during the 1980s, with Nixon’s War on Drugs, mandatory sentences were reinstated and repeat offenders could face life in prison. In the mid 1990s, states pushed for the legalization of medicinal marijuana for treatment of cancer, AIDS, and other chronic diseases.

 In today’s United States, the question of whether or not marijuana should be legalized is highly debated. Most Americans support the legalization, but lawmakers tend to push it aside. Marijuana has time and time again been proven a safe drug. The New York Academy of Medicine reported in 1937 marijuana did not cause violence, insanity, nor is it addictive after extensive research into the drug. The legalization of marijuana would ensure the safety of the drug itself because of required testing procedures that would be put in place. When people are buying marijuana off the street, there is no way of knowing what substances could be mixed in with what they are using. The prohibition of marijuana has been proven to increase young gang violence as people try to corner the illegal cannabis market. If it were to be made legal, gangs would fall apart due to lack of revenue. During prohibition in the early 20th century, gang violence was high due to the black market for alcohol; once prohibition ended, gang profits plummeted. Marijuana has a lower rate of involvement in violent crimes than alcohol. “The amount of crime and violence caused by alcohol use is ten times higher than by marijuana use and alcohol is a factor in around 40% of violent crimes.” (Britannica) Many crimes involving alcohol include domestic abuse and assault.

Not only has it been proven that cannabis can decrease crime rates, it is also a large industry that would support both the government and the citizens of the United States. The cannabis industry currently supports around 250,000 full time jobs; this only includes the 18 states in which recreational marijuana use is legal. Americans need jobs and the government needs more sources of tax revenue. “According to a recent study by New Frontier Data, national [marijuana] legalization in the United States could result in $128.8 billion in tax revenue, and an estimated 1.6 million new jobs.” (Forbes) This added tax revenue can support many public programs that assist in decreasing poverty rates. 

Those against legalization say it would cause an increase in teen use. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that Colorado teen marijuana use actually dropped by 12% in the 2 year period after legalization. If marijuana were legalized, it would require an ID check to purchase. When it is prohibited, teenagers can purchase marijuana from dealers on the street who do not care how old they are. 

The enforcement of marijuana laws emphasize and cause many racial disparities in America. Although the rate of use between white and black people is relatively similar, black individuals are arrested and convicted at twice the rate white individuals are. Once an individual has received a conviction, they are ineligible for affordable housing, certain jobs and loans, and other public programs. This puts more black Americans into the cycle of poverty and the cycle of crime. 

As I watch the debate on marijuana legalization, there are many things that come to mind. I understand the statistics as well as what benefits and drawbacks exist. In my personal opinion, the best way for people to safely use marijuana is to be educated. We must provide information on what is safe and smart and what is dangerous. We also must remember that marijuana was never strongly frowned upon until Reagan’s war on drugs. The war on drugs put emphasis on black usage of drugs and taught Americans that those who use them are a detriment to society. When discussing whether or not to legalize marijuana, it is our responsibility to acknowledge the racist associations our country has with drug usage, and do our best to right those wrongs.