by Becky Hay, Noah Prickett, and Michael Williams

Since the 1930s, when the possession and sale of marijuana was made illegal in the United States, there has been an endless debate between those who wish for marijuana to remain illegal, and those who wish for it to be fully legalized.  Both sides have presented a cacophony of convincing arguments, which can leave the casual observer with a massive headache. The goal of this editorial is to argue that, in light of what we now know about marijuana’s chemical effects as well as the contribution of the drug’s criminalization to mass incarceration in the United States, marijuana use and possession should be decriminalized in the United States.

To begin, a convincing argument made by proponents of marijuana legalization is that marijuana has shown signs of treating bipolar disorder, PTSD, epilepsy, and Parkinson’s disease, among other ailments. Researchers at the American Academy of Neurology have also found that medical marijuana in the form of pills or oral sprays seemed to reduce stiffness and muscle spasms in patients with multiple sclerosis. While, marijuana does indeed aid in treating certain illnesses, it’s only certain chemicals in marijuana that are beneficial, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (sold as the drug Marinol) and artificial drugs similar to those found in marijuana such as nabilone (sold as Cesamet).

Smoking marijuana, however, has been shown to be actually quite harmful.  In 1999, the Institute of Medicine stated, “Scientific data indicate the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoid drugs.  Smoked marijuana, however, is a crude tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) delivery system that also delivers harmful substances and should not be recommended.” The conclusion that can be logically derived from this is that it is medicines containing certain specific compounds contained in marijuana that are beneficial, not marijuana itself.  Therefore, those who would say that marijuana is safe and should be legalized because a few chemicals in it are beneficial are operating on shaky ground.

One very valid argument is that the possession and use of marijuana shouldn’t be grounds for incarceration.  While only a small amount of marijuana users has been incarcerated, over 12% of the incarcerated in the United States have done nothing other than to be found in possession of marijuana. The amount of marijuana-related arrests has also skyrocketed. In 1965, there were 18,815 marijuana related arrests; this number jumped to 858,408 in 2009.

The Justice Policy Institute has observed that “increasing spending and arrest rates against marijuana has not affected the number of marijuana users in the U.S.” The “war on marijuana” has cost this country almost $1 trillion in the last four decades.

Supporters of decriminalization also argue that the negative health effects of marijuana are of no more magnitude than those of tobacco or alcohol.  This is true, but only regarding short term use. Long term use does affects the user’s health negatively. Additionally, marijuana is often described as a “gateway drug,” which means that, after a while, users no longer feel as noticeable a high as they did at first, which prompts the user to search for a stronger drug, usually heroin, LSD, or cocaine.

Other arguments for marijuana legalization are that states could benefit by taxing marijuana, and that, as Brandon Sheline suggests, “limiting the use of the drug intrudes on personal freedom. Even if the drug is shown to be harmful, isn’t it the right of every person to choose what harms him or her?” While these are rather callous arguments, they are still valid.  Colorado has cashed in immensely on the marijuana market, and ironically, is using the money to fund its public schools. It would also be fair to state that, yes, each person should be free to choose what they ingest, that is, if smoking marijuana were a victimless crime. It is not. “Driving high” would have the potential to be as common as drunk driving, and would be difficult to detect.

In conclusion, while the argument for the legalization of marijuana is on relatively shaky ground, it is clear that marijuana use and possession should be decriminalized. This would save money that is currently designated to be spent in the “war on marijuana” and would reduce America’s prison population.

This editorial, written by Becky Hay, Noah Prickett, and Michael Williams, is the basis for a documentary project conducted within the Contemporary Questions course, an honors class for first-year students. On Monday, November 23, the Contemporary Questions class will be presenting all of their documentary films at 6:00p.m., in Canterbury Hall.