Marijuana and the Movement Toward Legalization

I was fully in favor of the legalization of marijuana for recreational use…until recently. 

This might come as a surprise to some. 

For the past 25 years, I’ve worked in the behavioral healthcare field and witnessed the adverse effects of various substances (both legal and illicit) on vulnerable individuals.  Why would I support any policy shift that would make marijuana (or any other harmful substance) more readily available?

I suppose the libertarian in me always drew a bright conceptual line between the roles of public health and law enforcement authorities.  I believe it’s generally ill-advised to consume a gallon of ice cream in one sitting, but I would never support legislation to prohibit it.  And so the logic goes.

But marijuana isn’t mocha almond fudge ice cream.  We now have a wealth of data that indicates the drug isn’t nearly as “harmless” as many allege, and its legalization is bound to have deleterious and long-lasting repercussions.  For instance, the American Psychological Association (APA) is one of many institutions that has raised concerns about the impact of chronic cannabis use on the developing adolescent brain.  It suggests heavy use in adolescence or early adulthood has been associated with a dismal set of life outcomes including poor school performance, higher dropout rates, increased welfare dependence, greater unemployment and lower life satisfaction (Weir, 2015).  Although this association implies a correlative (but not necessarily causal) relationship between cannabis usage and poor outcomes, ignoring the possibility this drug may limit the life potential of its younger users seems unjust – to say the very least. 

From my perspective, ensuring the welfare of our nation’s youth is sufficient cause to forestall the movement toward legalization but this is scarcely the sole consideration.  Dr. Kevin Sabet, a preeminent authority on the drug and former advisor to the Office of National Drug Control Policy under both Democratic and Republican Administrations, cautions us against other short- and long-term effects of legalization.

His admonitions include analyses of ancillary effects of legalization, such as an increase in the incidence of impaired driving and traffic accidents; a heightened risk of addiction associated with the elevated THC content in current strains of the drug; and the economic impact of these externalities.  (He suggests any revenue garnered through taxation of legalized marijuana is more than offset by expenditures associated with its ill effects.)

In addition, and perhaps most significantly, he addresses the false dichotomy between legalization and decriminalization.  One may heartily support decriminalization and the rescission of any laws or policies that would unfairly penalize marijuana users without endorsing its legalization.  The criminalization of marijuana has surely caused harm to many (and to persons of color and other marginalized populations in particular).  This impels us to reevaluate the role of law enforcement and jurisprudence in public policy.  But it should not impel us to grant private corporations the legal authority to peddle an additional mind- and mood-altering substance to the public.  Consider the role of the private sector in the proliferation of tobacco.  Alcohol.  And…most recently…opiates.

This, as much as anything else, should give us pause and lead us to reconsider the current trajectory toward full legalization.

Ashley Brody

April 20, 2019