Many countries of the world are actively working to decriminalize or legalize ‘less harmful’ drugs such as cannabis (marijuana). Numerous sources have suggested and in some cases proven that legalizing or at least decriminalizing marijuana can reduce violent crime and significantly reduce the amount of people who are imprisoned for drug use. This would allow more individuals to continue to be the contributing members of society that they often were prior to being caught with a relatively harmless substance. Legalizing marijuana would also release much-needed funding and already-stretched law-enforcement manpower to fight against more urgent social issues. Although marijuana is not legal in the Netherlands as is widely believed, it is openly tolerated as evidenced by the fact that it can be both purchased and consumed in one of several Amsterdam ‘coffee houses.’ The city is thus an example of the kind of ‘anarchy’ opponents of legalization measures have warned would occur if the United States took a more lenient approach. What the evidence suggests is that legalizing marijuana can introduce a great benefit to society. This evidence is well-known throughout the scientific, political and public arena including economics and social issues but it has yet to be acted upon.
According to a report in The Economist (Case for Legalization, 2001), concerns that a growing drug-using and dependent population would emerge if marijuana was made more available are false. Although the magazine acknowledges that the price of the drug is artificially high, it attributes this to the difficulties involved in circumventing the law. The authors of this report indicate that it is only because of the high cost and the difficulty to obtain it that more individuals have not experimented with it. Instead, they become addicted, either physically or psychologically, to other, often more harmful yet legal substances such as prescription medications or alcohol. To support their argument in favor of legalization even should the numbers of suspected users rise, the Economist article (Case for Legalization, 2001) draws on the theories of John Stuart Mill. Mill’s ideas were founded on the concept that adult citizens should have the right to make their own choices regarding whether or not to participate in activity as long as it does no harm to others. This is a founding theory that has been mostly ignored in decisions made regarding alcohol and tobacco, both of which have proven to directly cause significant harm to innocent others, but has not been ignored regarding Class C substances such as marijuana. However, the argument that more people would become regular users of the substance are unfounded. A study by O’Keefe and Earleywine (2005) conducted in California and Washington D.C. used a survey to determine the number of high school students who were using marijuana in these areas in 1996 (before legalization) and in 2004 (after medical marijuana use was approved). In all grade levels surveyed (7th grade, 9th grade and 11th grade), marijuana use actually dropped after it became legal on a limited basis.
In addition to the fallacies of the anti-legalization side regarding increased use, the damage perpetrated on those involved with marijuana far outweighs the benefits achieved by current legislation and yet continues to exist. Poor countries where the drug is produced are quickly being overrun by criminals and thugs, people who make breaking the law on numerous levels. Because production and exportation is considered a criminal activity, the actual criminals are finding success rather than defeat. Individuals within the rich countries who buy the drugs are often otherwise productive members of society. Smoking marijuana, for medical or other reasons, is often their only ‘crime’ yet they face a no tolerance policy that places them in prison, destroys their chances to continue being the productive people they were before and irreparably harms them in many other ways. Under legalization, governments would be able to standardize the quality, regulate the ages permitted to purchase the product and openly provide safety warnings directly to the population. No one is suggesting that legalization should simply make marijuana-smoking a blanket concession. Even the Economist points out any steps taken to legalize should be made slowly in order to avoid some of the pitfalls that have occurred when other historic prohibitions were lifted. One of these steps needs to be introducing a change in the United Nations policy that prevents many countries from moving in this direction (“Case for Legalisation,” 2001).
Studies prove that the majority of people who use marijuana do not become habitual, daily users. Most of these users are not involved in criminal behaviors related to the use of marijuana. After conducting an assessment of numerous studies that have been conducted since the 1970s, Chaiken and Chaiken (1989: 216) concluded that “among youths who engage in both predatory crime and substance use, the onset of crime most often comes first.” This conclusion directly refutes the claim that drug use leads teenagers to criminal activity because crime is found to occur first followed by the onset of drug use (Dembo et al, 1991). However, the study did find that alcohol use by young teenagers was an indicator of violent behavior later in life. Marijuana use, perhaps unsurprisingly given its effects, was unrelated to violent activities. It is a fallacy to suggest that teenagers commit crimes at a higher rate simply to support a cannabis habit.
Numerous states including Rhode Island, California, Alaska, Hawaii, Colorado, Oregon, Nevada, Montana, Washington, Vermont, Michigan, New Mexico and Maine and numerous physicians have recognized the real benefits of marijuana as a natural medication to treat several forms of serious health conditions. However, Federal law supersedes state law. As a result, physicians within U.S. borders cannot legally dispense marijuana nor can a patient legally possess it regardless of how much it might help them. “The U.S. Supreme Court said federal law preempts any efforts by the state to authorize the use of marijuana for any purpose, including medicinal” (Schweitzer, 2005). Most Americans are not against the medicinal use of marijuana, but any use of marijuana remains against federal law which means people face stiffer sentences if caught. Although the U.S. government has declared a total ban on marijuana, this method has not succeeded as intended. All it has done is alter the arrangement of supply and demand by forcing the illegality of this market.
Most European nations separate cannabis from the harder drugs in their laws and language, but the United States approaches it as equally harmful. The country remains dedicated to the concept of its ‘war on drugs’ dating back into the 1970’s and accelerated by President Reagan in the 1980’s. A good example of a moderate approach to the idea of marijuana can be found in the U.K. In that country, people who are caught using or possessing the substance do not face immediate mandatory arrest. Mandatory arrest only occurs when accelerating circumstances are present such as when the drug is being used in the presence of minors or other, harder drugs are discovered as well. By contrast, individuals over the age of 18 in The Netherlands who smoke marijuana discretely are not arrested. Possession of five grams or less or the personal cultivation of less than five plants is also not prosecuted. Within the country, there are several coffee shops that are licensed to sell marijuana within their shops. Under their license, they are permitted to hold up to 100 grams of marijuana behind their counter at any given time and another 500 grams in storage. Another law passed in 2003 permits doctors to prescribe marijuana for medicinal use through local pharmacies (Coughlin, 2003). The U.K. system rests at a comfortable medium point between the no tolerance policies of the U.S. and the nearly neglectful policies of the Netherlands. However, they are still the harshest laws on the topic found in Europe.
The concept of legalization implies different meanings to different people. To some it means simple, blanket legalization. This approach would take the profit and the crime out of the trade. Another approach suggests legalizing the drug on a step by step basis. The first step would be to make marijuana legal under restricted circumstances, but not subject to such rigid laws as it exists under now. The next step would be to abolish the no tolerance policy in favor of more appropriate, sound reasoning. Varying degrees of decriminalization such as these are often confused with total legalization. Alcohol is legal, for example, but it is not legal to operate a car under its influence or to sell it to those less than 21 years of age (Nadelmann, 1990). These same approaches can be adopted concerning marijuana use. The total prohibition approach taken by the United States has led to an astronomical increase in the rates of crime and numbers of incarcerated individuals while demonstrating little to no impact on the actual availability and usage rates within the country’s borders. However, the choice is not simply a black and white issue of whether or not to legalize. Although drug laws against marijuana are relaxed in England and the Netherlands, there remain laws against it. The continued ban against marijuana makes little sense given its drain on economics, social issues and other law-fighting efforts. Legalization presents few risks not already faced by the nation, removes multiple risks introduced simply because of its illegality and provides a means for patients of serious diseases such as cancer, HIV, AIDS and other conditions to find less harmful relief.
“Case for Legalization, The.” The Economist. (July 26, 2001).
Chaiken, J. & Chaiken, M. “Drug Use and Predatory Crime.” Drugs and Crime – Crime and Justice: An Annual Review of Research. J.Q. Wilson & M. Tonry (Eds.). Vol. 13. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. (1989).
Coughlin, Geraldine. “Dutch to Prescribe Cannibis.” BBC News. (September 1, 2003).
Dembo, R.; Williams, L.; Getreu, A.; Genung, L.; Schmeidler, J.; Berry, E.; Wish, E.D.; & La Voie, L. “A Longitudinal Study of the Relationships Among Marijuana/hashish Use, Cocaine Use, and Delinquency in a Cohort of High Risk Youths.” Journal of Drug Issues. Vol. 21, (1991). pp. 271-312.
Nadelmann, Ethan. “Should Some Illegal Drugs be Legalized?” Science and Technology. Vol. 6, (1990). pp. 43-46.
O’Keefe & Earleywine. “Marijuana Use by Young People: The Impact of State Medical Marijuana Laws,” Marijuana Policy Project. 2005.
Schweitzer, Sarah. “R.I. may allow medical marijuana” The Boston Globe. (June 28, 2005)