AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
Friday, a group of Missouri lawmakers announced a renewed push to put statewide marijuana legalization on the 2022 ballot. The measure was led by a Republican lawmaker but represented a growing push in states across the country. The move would have been unprecedented only a decade ago, yet marijuana advocates’ aggressive campaign for its normalization and use has radically shifted the perception of the drug across the country.
For almost a decade, recreational cannabis has been legal under state law in Colorado and Washington. Since then, sixteen other states have legalized marijuana use, with federal action looking more possible by the day. Yet, while mainstream media outlets have aggressively pushed for the drug’s legalization, few have taken the time to examine its effect on communities and American citizens. It’s not too early to offer a preliminary assessment: after nearly a decade of liberalization of state drug laws, the evidence suggests that the experiment has been something of a social disaster. The benefits of marijuana legalization are nowhere near what was promised, and the risks seem to be far worse.
Since 1970, the federal government has classified marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, the highest level a drug can have, rendering it effectively illegal for purposes other than research. Activists argued the data that led to this classification was biased, inaccurate, and outdated and that laws banning its sale are therefore unjust, unscientific, and even racist. They point to studies that claim that the drug is neither habit-forming nor addictive. They suggest it may offer medical benefits in certain cases, and even support marketing cannabis products to pregnant women. Furthermore, advocates assert that marijuana “prohibition” was meant to target minorities and that the laws themselves only exist to imprison black Americans who are disproportionately represented in drug-related offenses.
These arguments were largely successful at destigmatizing marijuana use at a time when there existed very little data on the impact of marijuana use. Now, however, after a decade of legalization, scientists and specialists have a much clearer picture of its personal and social effects.
A growing body of evidence suggests that regular cannabis use is far less safe than the pro-legalization campaign led Americans to believe. Defenders continue to insist that marijuana is non-habit forming and “that most people who use cannabis don’t have a problem with it.” However, increasing numbers of smokers do develop Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD), also known as uncontrollable cannabis use. In other words, many people are becoming addicted to a substance that has been widely represented to be non-addictive.
In addition, a landmark 2019 study found that the potent strands of marijuana, with high levels of THC, are directly correlated with higher rates of psychotic disorders and schizophrenia. One New Zealand study found that adolescents who smoked marijuana daily were at “seven times higher risk for suicide.”
By almost every metric, regular recreational marijuana users end up with greater financial instability, relationship difficulties, and mental health struggles. One study from the Association for Psychological Science found that regular cannabis users experienced “downward social mobility,” “more financial problems,” “more antisocial behaviors at work, such as stealing money or lying to get a job,” and “more relationship problems.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, 48 different studies all found a clear correlation between regular marijuana use and “reduced educational attainment.” One study also found that regular marijuana users are even worse off than alcohol users when it comes to paying for basic financial needs. As individuals struggle to succeed and prosper, their local communities begin to suffer as well. There are direct correlations between the prevalence of marijuana use in an area and rates of unemployment and homelessness.
To be clear, medical use of marijuana prescribed by a doctor is still an emerging field of study that could yield positive results for some patients. There have been some promising anecdotal results from war veterans suffering from PTSD who have been able to alleviate their symptoms through use of medical marijuana. Some individuals suffering from chronic pain have also found relief through prescribed marijuana use to avoid taking highly addictive painkillers that have ravaged American communities in recent years.
Yet the potential for legitimate medical benefits stemming from greater study of cannabis’s properties does not in any way mean the substance must necessarily be made legal for recreational purposes, or that frequent drug use by tens of millions of Americans should be normalized.
One major reason for concern over legalization for recreational use is that today’s marijuana is far more potent and potentially addictive than the marijuana of decades past. In states that have legalized marijuana, stronger and stronger strands of the drugs have been developed. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the average natural marijuana plant has a THC concentration of 15%. Cannabis dispensaries routinely sell plants with at least 50% THC concentration. Some are even as high as 80% THC concentration. Marijuana legalization has directly encouraged the development of stronger and stronger THC concentrations that have a higher chance of negatively affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans.
These negative effects have a direct impact on local communities. With a greater percentage of individuals withdrawn from society, the very social fabric of American communities begins to strain. In some cities, specifically in California and Washington, marijuana use may be pushing them to the breaking point. Yet, marijuana legalization continues to receive positive coverage from the mainstream media, with few of the downsides that have become evident over the past decade being reported or discussed. As one former New York Times reporter stated in a recent appearance on Fox News, “People who drink all day… we call them alcoholics; they don’t usually talk about it. But people will happily tell you that they smoke all day.” As more states look to legalize marijuana, these concerns will only increase, and Americans should fully understand what research has to say about legalization before heading to the ballot box.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.