The Cannabis Debate: to Legalize or to Not Legalize

Despite the fact that most Americans believe cannabis should be legal, there’s still a fierce debate over whether the federal government should legalize it. Some believe cannabis prohibition increases criminalization, mass incarceration, and unnecessary law enforcement expenditures. On the contrary, others aren’t ready for legalization.

Public opinion about the debate has dramatically changed throughout the years. Now as a majority of Americans live in states with legal recreational or medical cannabis, more people support a shift to more sensible drug policy.

The MORE Act

Cannabis is stepping its ground in the U.S., state by state. Although 15 states legalized recreational cannabis and 36 states allow medical use, respectively, it is still illegal under federal law. As of 2021, cannabis still remains listed as a Schedule I substance alongside heroin and LSD. Officials recognize these substances as having no medicinal value.

However, in 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. The act could effectively res-schedule cannabis at the federal level.

NBC News mentioned this was the first time ever that Congress visited the idea of federally decriminalizing cannabis. A total of 228 democrats favored the act, however, 164 republicans were against it.

The Senate has yet to vote on the bill as of March 2021. If it passes, the bill states, the MORE act effectively: “removes [cannabis] from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substance Act and eliminates criminal penalties for an individual who manufactures, distributes, or possesses [cannabis].”

It is not clear when senators will vote on the bill, or it’s likelihood of passing. Half of Senate is controlled by democrats, the other by republicans with Vice President Kamala Harris, a proponent of drug reform, as a tie-breaker.

Cannabis Remains a Priority as Drug Policy Reform

President Joe Biden’s stance on legalization has wavered over time. Biden previously said he believed cannabis was a gateway drug. But on the campaign trail in 2020, he embraced decriminalization, stating:

“No one should go to jail for drug offense, no one should go to jail for the use of a drug, they should go to drug rehabilitation. We should be in the position where we change the sentencing system to one that has a really sore notion of making sure you focus on making sure there is rehabilitation.”

Cannabis decriminalization means the plant remains illegal, but officials eliminate any criminal penalties related to cannabis. Many people believe that is not enough. On the other hand, legalization fully legalizes cannabis. That allows officials to fully regulate it in addition to removing all of its criminal penalties. That said, there are four reasons why one might support cannabis legalization.

Arguments for Legalization

Cannabis Arrests Target Black Communities and Fill Up Prisons

First, the War on Drugs is disproportionately waged against people of color.

FBI crime statistics report that there is a cannabis arrest every 58 seconds in the U.S. Most of those arrested are from minority communities.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) finds that Black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested than white Americans, despite equal usage rates. Not only are police more likely to arrest Black Americans for cannabis, they receive harsher punishments for things like possession.

For example, the U.S.Sentencing Commission stated that the length of imprisonment for a Black male drug offender is usually higher than a white drug offender. Typically, Black individuals receive an extra seven months of jail time. In other words, a white drug offender receives 10% less of a sentence than a Black offender.

The ACLU found that police arrested more people for cannabis than they did for violent crimes in 2018. In agreement with ACLU, Forbes added that cannabis arrests accounted for 9% more than violent crimes in 2019.

John Boehner, a Republican and former House Speaker, stated that the criminal justice system has filled up most of its cells with people who are “nonviolent and frankly do not belong there,” during his interview with Bloomberg News in 2018.

Furthermore, the ACLU finds that such non-violent offenders, including those jailed for drug possession, crowd American prisons and jails. Specifically, data shows that in 2010 there were 1.6 million arrests for drug use. In the same year, there were 853,838 cannabis arrests — which represents a total of 53% of the total arrests in 2010.

Police Expenditures are Expensive

Secondly, the cost of cannabis police enforcement adds up to billions of dollars annually, as reported by the ACLU. The money is spent on things like vehicles, grand juries, prosecutors, judges, police officers, and many more. Overall, it costs approximately $3.6 billion every year for cannabis arrests.

In 2005, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron predicted and analyzed the amount of government expenditures that can be saved if cannabis is taxed, instead of spending billions of money on cannabis arrests.

According to Miron, cannabis legalization could save $5.3 billion for the local government and $2.4 billion for the federal government, totaling $7.7 billion annually.

Not only would legalizing cannabis save billions in yearly enforcement fees, Miron found that the federal government can incur more than $8 billion in taxes.

Cannabis Can Benefit the Economy

Taxes from the sales of cannabis can generate millions of dollars in revenues. Currently, cannabis  is taxed by nine states under three different forms of taxation, according to the Tax Policy Center. Those are based on: retail and wholesale prices, weight in ounces, and cannabinoid potency such as THC. Some states even combine two different types of taxes which gives them the opportunity to earn more money.

Washington, the state that collected the highest revenue from taxes, made $395 million in 2019. According to Washington’s annual report, the government earned $172 million more on cannabis taxation than alcohol tax revenue.

The Tax Policy Center also reports that Washington uses their cannabis tax revenue on their health care system, and Colorado inputs $2.3 million of its total revenue in its education programs.

Individuals are Still Using the Plant

Cannabis prohibition does not prevent individuals from consuming the plant. Out of 328.2 million U.S. residents, 41 million adults or one in eight U.S. adults admit smoking cannabis, according to Gallup. This doesn’t include other forms of cannabis consumption or hidden users.

In fact, the War on Drugs has led to more drug use, wrote emergency medicine physician, Dr. Dan Morhaim in The Baltimore Sun. In the article, Morhaim explains that “the drug trade is vast in scope and sophistication. People with substance abuse disorders need drugs daily, and there’s a global network to meet that craving.”

As such, he argues for a health-based, rather than a criminal approach to drug policy:

“Supervised consumption facilities are proven to work, reducing deaths, addiction, discarded needles and crime. […]Our greatest weapon is not the criminal justice system, whose resources have been taxed to the limit by acting as the front line in this struggle, but rather our public health and educational institutions.”

Furthermore, Morhaim says more people are using substances like cannabis during the pandemic due to their mental health.  

Some individuals experienced negative effects on their mental health such as anxiety and depression due to COVID-19 pandemic, according to the American Psychological Association.  

A study published in the Frontiers in Psychiatry observed 1,563 cannabis users for four to six weeks. In this short time, researchers found that participants used the plant in its many forms 41% more than they usually did before the pandemic.

Why is the Other Side Against Legalization?

It is Harmful for Kids

Users know cannabis for its potent high. As a result, like many other drugs, it can impair one’s concentration. That is cause for concern when driving, some experts say.

Furthermore, a recent study conducted in 2018 found that smoking cannabis can undermine a teen’s brain development more than alcohol. Researchers said that cannabis’ effects on a teen’s brain were more apparent than those of alcohol. Moreover, it delayed the participants’ memory, reasoning, and behavioral responses.

Another study in the Psychology of Addictive Behaviors Journal found cannabis to be one of the main reasons why young adults forget to wear condoms. That may result in sexually transmitted diseases or unintended pregnancy.

A separate study mentioned that there is an inverse relationship between cannabis and male fertility. In other words, the more cannabis a male consumes, the less seminal fluid he presents. The study also found that drug use causes dysfunction in the sperm’s motility and viability. Researchers suggested this is because sperm contain cannabinoid receptors, and using cannabis may interfere with the sperm’s function.

How Cuomo’s New Proposal can Affect Corporate Cannabis?

While legalization has a chance to benefit communities most affected by prohibition, it can also widen the disparity between the haves and have nots if proper models are not in place.  

For example in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s legalization plan proposes giving licenses — or the opportunity to own legal cannabis facilities — to the highest bidders. Consequently, is it not sitting right with New Yorkers. If a bidding war ensues, New Yorkers fear only corporate cannabis companies will be able to afford the chance to sell cannabis legally.  

Coumo’s proposal bans vertical integration for cannabis businesses which prevents complete control of their ownership, according to The Balance. Moreover, a business is not certified to grow, manufacture, deliver, and sell the plant on its own. They will not have control over their suppliers, production, warehouses, and distributors — which will cost them more money. It will increase transportation costs and supplier costs, and decrease production levels. Businesses will have to depend on suppliers’ resources, timing, and prices.

The proposal also does not allow home cultivation. People can only access the plant through a legal seller. As a result, some individuals think the ban on home cultivation allows the government to receive extra money.

On the other side of the county is Humboldt County, California, which is known for its landscapes and cannabis farms. It is the home to second and third generation cannabis farmers who pioneered the industry. In fact, one in every five residents is a cannabis farmer. One-fourth of its economy is from cannabis production, according to Humboldt’s Finest Farms.

However, the cost to go legal is proving too high for legacy growers. As a result, the industry pioneers can no longer afford to compete with corporate cannabis companies who can afford the cost of compliance.

So What?

As more states legalize cannabis and create policies around it, it is important to understand both sides of the debate.

The cannabis legalization debate seems to be never-ending. Most people seem to have an opinion about it. In fact, Pew Research Center finds that three-fourths of Americans support federal legalization. Less than one-in-10 want to keep it legal in all forms.

The arguments against legalization do not necessarily center around keeping it illegal. But rather, many prefer to introduce legal cannabis models that ease suffering, not create more. In other words, while one side believes that legalization is long overdue, the other seems to advocate for more comprehensive drug reform policies. Either way, Americans overwhelmingly want access to the plant that’s been made legal for decades.

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