The Cases For and Against the Legalization of Marijuana

The Cases For and Against the Legalization of Marijuana

Anna Dabrowski, Head Editor

A cop body slams a man to the ground and rips a colorful red box labeled “Boomer Fireworks” out of his hands. “The sale and use of fireworks is illegal in Massachusetts,” the cop recites while pinning the man’s hands behind his back. The man knows this, but wrongfully believed he would be able to purchase fireworks in one of the sixteen states that legalized their recreational use, and bring them back home for his 4th of July barbeque. Now, he faces anywhere from three years to life in prison.

This slightly humorous story is a made-up metaphor that lends itself to a far more complicated debate: should we, the United States, legalize the recreational use of marijuana or continue to criminalize it? The use of cannabis is legal in nineteen states, and the other thirty-one states vary in the legalities all enforcing very different and specific “marijuana codes” detailing their own laws regarding the substance. Mark Kleiman, author of “The Public Health Case for Legalizing Marijuana,” believes that this tangling web of laws enables the mass smuggling of marijuana. If the government were to federally legalize cannabis, its regulation of the marijuana market would provide stability and a standard of safety that would protect our youth. However, marijuana-use disorder has become an epidemic in our youth, one that Alex Berenson, author of “What Advocates of Legalizing Pot Don’t Want You to Know”, believes can only be squelched by halting the mass movement for legalizing the drug. This polarizing question of if the federal government should legalize the recreational use of marijuana has been prevalent in the media within the last few years, as the drug’s legalization is a multi-layered issue. 

In Berenson’s New York Times opinion piece, he debunks a few common misconceptions regarding marijuana. He mainly argues that the mass media as at whole has downplayed and twisted the consequences of the drug to fit a therapeutic narrative. The general information about the drug has massively wavered back and forth depending on the decade resulting in marijuana being portrayed as inherently medicinal with some having “claimed that marijuana can help slow the opioid epidemic, though studies show that people who use cannabis are more likely to start using opioids later” (5). Berenson then claims that the scientific community’s opinion of cannabis has actually become increasingly negative over the years, even with the growing social acceptance movement, with studies in prevalent medical journals concluding that the chances of having psychosis and schizophrenia is far greater in marijuana users (5). Kleiman actually agrees with Berenson, as the very first point in his  National Affairs article acknowledges the harmfulness of marijuana. He believes the potential consequences of the drug are exactly why it must be legalized because a unified federal regulation strategy will guard public health more efficiently than multiple disjointed state plans (5). The reasoning behind this idea relates to the massive size of the marijuana market.

Kleiman cites a statistic stating the illicit marijuana market is worth “$50 billion dollars a year” while also accounting for “half a million annual arrests” (6). He argues that a market this large and ingrained in our society will never be put to rest, and if the United States does not act proactively, society is put at risk. The varying marijuana laws and taxes by state have resulted in massive price differences, with the most expensive cannabis being sold in states where it is illegal, and the cheapest being sold in Oregon which has comparatively little regulation. When price differences like these exist, massive amounts of smuggling occurs from areas of low price to high price. The profit margin for doing this with marijuana can hit almost 300%, far too high for any desperate crook to refuse. The only way to combat this is a federal legalization, specification or conformity of price and regulations, and a federal tax (40). This strategy is seemingly logical, but unfortunately there are some downfalls. As Berenson points out, an increase in the legality of marijuana especially nationwide will result in an increased use of the drug itself. This is especially problematic because statistics already show cannabis use on an upswing as “one cannabis user in five uses it daily” in contrast to the “one in fifteen drinkers that consume(s) alcohol every day” (13). A greater intake of cannabis becomes more damaging as the THC content increases, which it has been steeply over the past five years. A few decades ago the average THC levels were a seemingly harmless 5%, maybe less, but levels now have shot to over 25%, which Berenson describes as “the difference between a beer and a martini” (12). 

With the influx of THC intake in the human body, people diagnosed with marijuana-use disorders have tripled from 30,000 to 90,000 in the last decade. Berenson cites federal surveys that he believes point to most of these cases occurring in youth ages 18-25 (14). Kleiman actually agrees with this claim regarding cannabis-use disorder stating that among daily users “Between a third and a half of them report the symptoms of Cannabis Use Disorder: They’re using more, or more frequently, than they intend to; they’ve tried to cut back or quit and failed” (30). However, Kleiman believes the only way to lower these people’s intake of THC is to federally regulate the amount of THC in cannabis, not restrict the drug altogether. Cannabis will always be available for the addicted, so for the sake of public health these people need to be protected by the government from dangerous THC levels (51). 

Kleiman believes that protecting the general population from cannabis does not mean increasing the arrests for maijuana sale or possession. He cites numerous reasons for why an increase of incarceration would not be possible, regardless of the cannabis-use epidemic.

Combine that fact with the competing resource demands of enforcement against the harder drugs (especially opioids) and against violent crime, plus the decreasing political tolerance for the intrusiveness of mass arrests and the fiscal and human costs of mass incarceration, and especially for racial disproportion in criminal-justice contacts, and a serious crackdown on cannabis dealing seems beyond the realm of the possible. (34)  

With emotions running especially high among the whole U.S. population this year regarding racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and criminal justice, it is unlikely that the government could successfully implement increased law enforcement. This would be extremely costly and resources may be better used in other areas of more directly threatening crime, especially when the U.S. already spends the most money on incarceration out of any nation in the world (34). Berenson refutes the idea that many people are arrested for the possession of marijuana claiming “California reported in 2013, the most recent year for which this data is available, that only 441 of its 134,000 prisoners were incarcerated for all marijuana related crimes” (16). He then concedes that racial profiling when policing cannabis does occure, but the solution for this would be decrimimilizing possession by lowering it to a minor violation, such as not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign. Berenson does not believe that legalizing the substance solely because many people are illegally using it is an appropriate solution (17). 

The legalization of marijuana is an ongoing issue as more states such as New York have joined the ranks of allowing recreational use this year. Kleiman and Berenson both heavily acknowledge the negative consequences of marijuana such as psychosis, schizophrenia, and cannabis-use disorder. They only differ in their opinions on how to combat these negative effects. While Berenson believes that keeping the root of the cause illegal will protect our youth, Kleiman uses a broader argument. The idea that effectively policing illegal marijuana use may not be possible is not explored by Berenson at all. If Berenson were to assess Keliman’s argument and cited data, he may too alter his position to encompass a more proactive approach to cannabis. Both authors air on the side of public health and safety, indicating that there is a high likelihood the two could find a mutually acceptable compromise if Berenson were to observe how deeply embedded the illegal sale of marijuana is in the United States.

Works Cited

Berenson, Alex. “What Advocates of Legalizing Pot Don’t Want You to Know.” New York

Times,4 January 2019, 

risks-legalization.html. Accessed 25 November 2021

Kleiman, Mark. “The Public Health Case for Legalizing Marijuana.” National Affairs, Spring

2019, for- legalizing-marijuan. Accessed 25 November 2021