Marijuana: The Big Picture

Green blocks spelling out the word "marijuana".

The issue of marijuana ― particularly the legalization of medical and recreational uses ― is a topic of significant discussion in many circles. As Christians, we need to think carefully about this issue and how the legalization and use of marijuana will affect the safety of our children and communities.

More than 23 states have allowed for the use of medical marijuana in recent years. As more states look at loosening laws on the sale and use of marijuana, we need to take a close look at the effect this drug has on the states where it has become more legally accessible.

In 2013, Colorado and Washington State took the unprecedented step of legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia quickly followed suit. Not even two years later, we’re beginning to see a disturbing preview of what may be in store for other states that follow their lead.

But before we take a closer look at the Rocky Mountain state as a case study, we need to understand the basic facts of marijuana use, the push and pitfalls associated with its legalization, and how marijuana use is affecting our population and criminal justice system.

Would Making Marijuana Legal Make It Less Used By Kids?

  • Not surprisingly, legal drugs are used far more often than illegal ones because of their accessibility and availability. Take for instance alcohol versus tobacco. According to some surveys, alcohol is used by 52 percent of Americans, while tobacco is only used by 27 percent. Marijuana, on the other hand, is used by only 8 percent of Americans.http://learnaboutsam.org/the-issues/legalization/, National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (2012). SAMHSA. The reason for the percentage disparities? Legal restrictions. These numbers may shift significantly, if we continue to see the legalization of marijuana across the states, or at the federal level.
  • The availability of alcohol and cigarettes has a similar impact on teenagers. According to data from a 2012 survey on substance abuse, alcohol and cigarettes were the most readily accessible substances for youth, ages 12 to 17, to obtain (50 percent and 44 percent, respectively reporting that they could obtain them within a day).
  • To date, marijuana has been a different story and its illegal status likely impacts its availability:  Youth were least likely to report that they could get marijuana within a day (31 percent); 45 percent report they would be unable to get marijuana at all.http://learnaboutsam.org/the-issues/legalization/, Adapted by CESAR from The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens, 2012. Available online at http://www.casacolumbia.org/upload/2012/20120822teensurvey.pdf
  • In all likelihood, we are seeing the creation of a new “big tobacco-type” industry, as large amounts of money continue to be spent to make marijuana legal. . And, as tobacco wanes in social acceptability, marijuana is poised to replace it ― especially where kids are concerned.
  • To learn more about the social costs of marijuana legalization, as seen in Colorado, read our in-depth article, “The Marijuana Industry: Growing Like a Weed,” originally featured in the September 2014 issue of Citizen magazine.

Will an Increase in Tax Revenue From Regulated Marijuana be Beneficial?

One of the oft-heard arguments in support of legalizing marijuana is that a more regulated industry would also allow for tax revenue to be gleaned from sales. The reality is that any gains in tax revenue from selling legal marijuana would be quickly offset by the social costs. A look at legal drugs provides a glimpse into what we would be facing:

In reality, this is not about legalization, but commercialization.

Would Legalization Reduce Imprisonment?

Rather than reducing the amount of drug sellers and users going to prison, legalization would actually have the opposite effect:

  • Normally, people are not incarcerated for small-time marijuana use. Statistics on state-level incarcerations reveal that 0.7percent of all state inmates were behind bars for marijuana possession only ― and many of those had pled down from more serious crimes.http://learnaboutsam.org/the-issues/legalization/, Federal Bureau of Investigation (2011). Crime in the United States: 2011. Available from: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011
  • Legalizing marijuana would increase the number of people in the criminal justice system. Many people don’t realize that alcohol (a legal drug) ― not cocaine, heroin or marijuana, is responsible for 2.6 million arrests every year. That is one million more arrests than for all illegal drugs combined.
  • Drug cartels will not cease to exist by legalizing marijuana. A recent report shows Mexican drug-trafficking groups only received a small minority of their revenue from marijuana. For them, the big money is found in illegal trade, such as human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, piracy and other illicit drugshttp://learnaboutsam.org/the-issues/legalization/, Kilmer, Beau, Jonathan P. Caulkins, Brittany M. Bond and Peter H. Reuter. Reducing Drug Trafficking Revenues and Violence in Mexico: Would Legalizing Marijuana in California Help?. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010. http://www.rand.org/pubs/occasional_papers/OP325. So they are likely to continue criminal activities, regardless of whether marijuana is legalized.http://learnaboutsam.org/the-issues/legalization/, Kilmer, Beau, Jonathan P. Caulkins, Brittany M. Bond and Peter H. Reuter. Reducing Drug Trafficking Revenues and Violence in Mexico: Would Legalizing Marijuana in California Help?. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010. http://www.rand.org/pubs/occasional_papers/OP325.

Following The European Road: How Does Marijuana Use Look in The Netherlands?

  • In the Netherlands, where marijuana was decriminalized, commercialized and sold openly at “coffee shops,” marijuana use among young adults increased almost 300 percent. MacCoun, R., calculations using 21 data from EMCDDA 2009 (Tables TDI-1 [new clients], TDI-3 [% with cannabis as primary drug], and GPS-3 [last-year users aged 15-64] and Eurostat-Statistics in Focus (2008; Table 2 [2007 population data]). Found in http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/working_papers/2010/RAND_WR768.pdf
  • After this experience, tolerance for marijuana in the Netherlands has receded. While marijuana coffee shops continue to close, Dutch citizens still have a higher likelihood of being admitted to treatment centers for substance addictions ― more than almost any other European country.MacCoun, R., calculations using 21 data from EMCDDA 2009 (Tables TDI-1 [new clients], TDI-3 [% with cannabis as primary drug], and GPS-3 [last-year users aged 15-64] and Eurostat-Statistics in Focus (2008; Table 2 [2007 population data]). Found in http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/working_papers/2010/RAND_WR768.pdf

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