Long regarded as a social ill, support for recreational marijuana use has been gaining traction across the United States and the globe. Nine states have legalized it entirely, and thirty states allow the drug for medicinal purposes. With Canada having recently announced the upcoming legalization of marijuana and the potential for other countries to follow suit, it is more important than ever to understand the possible economic, social, and health impacts – good and bad – that may accompany increased access to marijuana. While proponents of legalization believe marijuana’s biggest drawback to be increased calorie intake, health professionals and lawmakers have offered less optimistic analyses.
In this article, we’ll explore the question of whether legalized marijuana a pitfall to be avoided, or the inevitable recognition of the non-criminal nature of one of America’s most popular pastimes.
Just say no.
Growing green isn’t green.
Federal law, security concerns, and desire to produce plants with higher levels of THC have driven domestic cannabis producers to grow their crops indoors, at a truly hefty price for the environment. Indoor pot production has a massive carbon footprint. The energy used to produce just one joint is equivalent to leaving a light on for over a day. Denver’s indoor pot farms are estimated to account for almost 4% of the city’s total electricity consumption. In total, cannabis production is estimated to cost $6 billion in energy expenditures each year and predicted to hit $50 billion by 2026. As the globe’s second biggest producer of carbon emissions, the US should not support the rise of another industry with unsustainable energy demands.
Legalized marijuana poses real threats to public health and safety.
Just like smoking cigarettes, smoking marijuana contributes to the development of respiratory diseases and increased risk of lung cancer. With the legalization of marijuana use, the prevalence of marijuana-related illnesses will grow with the number of people who use it. For example, following legalization, Colorado health professionals noted a surge in cases of extreme illness in children who ingested marijuana edibles (it is no help that many marijuana edibles look exactly like gummy bears). Law enforcement, too, has complained of the difficulty of identifying drugged drivers, whose level of intoxication cannot be easily verified as with alcohol.
Legalized marijuana is detrimental to the poor.
Various studies have established a connection between the risk factors of poverty and substance use and abuse. Liquor store owners have either exploited or contributed to this reality; most low-income neighborhoods have a disproportionately high number of liquor stores. California marijuana dispensaries took notes from urban liquor stores and have been setting up shop in Los Angeles’s poorest neighborhoods for over a decade. The same phenomena repeated itself in Denver, where over 200 grow and sell operations flooded low-income areas since marijuana became legal.
Don’t criticize it, legalize it.
Legalization is correlated with lower rates of drug abuse.
Somewhat counterintuitively, one of the more effective ways to discourage drug use is to legalize it. When Portugal decriminalized all drugs, the country’s drug abuse rates were cut in half and there was no increase in use of marijuana or any other substance. Other drug-tolerant nations, like the Netherlands, show significantly lower rates of lifetime and occasional marijuana use. One year after Colorado legalized recreational pot use for adults, a survey of 17,000 high school students showed a decline in teen marijuana use. It seems marijuana legalization may have stripped the drug of its rebellious appeal and returned Colorado teens to other means of weekend thrills.
Prohibition is extremely expensive.
In America, the number of addicts has hovered just above 1% for the last thirty years, while costs associated with drug control surged to $820 billion and growing. On the other hand, municipalities that supported decriminalization (legalization’s half-sister) policies, saved money in spades on drug control. Decriminalization saved San Francisco $14,000 per offender, and similar efforts on a national level stand to save the nation $40 billion in drug control expenditures. To put this number into perspective, these savings would be nearly enough to fund California public schools for an entire year.
The marijuana industry creates jobs and bolsters the economy.
A study conducted by the Marijuana Policy Group concluded that Colorado’s legalized pot industry created 18,000 jobs and generated over $2 billion in economic activity in 2015. The marijuana industry has boosted a number of business sectors, from agriculture to materials to transportation. Even more so, the industry is bringing US veterans back to work, through security positions on farms and in dispensaries. In an economy where workers regularly lose jobs to overseas operations and automation, governments cannot afford to turn their backs on industries that create new opportunities for their citizens to earn a decent living.
Bottom Line: There is plenty of evidence to suggest that marijuana legalization has been a boon for the states that have introduced it, but as South Park creator Trey Parker cautioned, the consequences of marijuana use might be different than we expect: “Pot makes you feel fine with being bored and it’s when you’re bored that you should be learning a new skill… If you smoke pot you may grow up to find out that you’re not good at anything.” Does that ring true for you? How do you think marijuana legalization will affect people?