One drug, two nations and the marijuana debate

Pot fanatics are not holding it in any longer. Not only on campus, but nationwide, advocates for the legalization of marijuana have clearly voiced their demands.

In November 2013, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana, sparking nationwide movements and policy debates.

“The pulse of the country is changing and moving towards legalization and decriminalization,” said Will Pizio, associate professor of justice and policy studies. “I don’t think it’s right for us to stand in the way.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by a first-year who wished to remain anonymous.

“I definitely support legalization,” the first-year said. “I support any way to get my weed easier.”

Medicinal Value

To others, the answer to the legalization debate is not so straightforward: a distinction must be drawn between recreational and medicinal marijuana, they argue.

“When most people think of medical marijuana these days, they don’t think of Dronabinol; they think of the entire leafy portion of the plant, usually being smoked,” said Kevin Sabet, former senior adviser for policy to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama administration, in an email interview with The Guilfordian.

Earlier this year, Sabet founded Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), a combined initiative by medical doctors, lawmakers, and law enforcement to find a “middle road between incarceration and legalization.”

“(People) don’t smoke opium to get the medicinal benefits of morphine or eat willow bark to get the benefits of aspirin — why not apply the same logic to marijuana?” Sabet asked.

While many advocates of legalization expect marijuana to play a role in treating Crohn’s disease, cancer, and glaucoma, Early College senior Brent Eisenbarth, a victim of glaucoma, is skeptical.

“No doctor that I have spoken with has seriously entertained the option of medical marijuana,” said Eisenbarth. “Glaucoma has lifelong implications, and other drugs and surgical operations are more effective.”

Those who argue against legalization also point to marijuana’s addictive qualities, claiming that addictive harm from the drug far outweighs any medical benefit.

David Long is a former special agent with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General, Division of Labor Racketeering. He pointed to the higher rates of addiction associated with alcohol and tobacco in comparison to marijuana.

“Tobacco and alcohol have much higher addiction rates,” Long said in a phone interview with The Guilfordian. “The logical argument then follows that, rather than banning marijuana, we should ban tobacco and alcohol. Nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs and yet is legal.”

Long recently joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nonprofit of criminal justice professionals who “bear witness to the harms of our current drug policies.”

While Sabet also admitted to marijuana’s lower addiction rates, he highlighted several negative effects of its use.

“Addiction is not the only reason for which we should continue to restrict marijuana,” Sabet said. “Its use is significantly related to other serious health consequences such as mental illness, schizophrenia and hindered cognitive development (particularly for children).”

Social Consequences

Legalization also poses significant social implications for the country. At the spotlight of the concerns regarding legalization is the potential for greater adolescent use.

Many however, doubt that legalization will have any effect on children at all.

“The most foolish thing for us to do is to ban the production and sale of marijuana,” Allen St. Pierre, executive director of The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told The Guilfordian in a phone interview. “Marijuana prohibition doesn’t stop usage in youth. People have more access to marijuana when it is illegal than when taxed and regulated.”

“In five to 10 years of legalization, we might have a slight increase in youth usage,” St. Pierre said. “But just like with tobacco and alcohol, usage would plateau and then decrease because people, as a part of human nature, won’t seek to harm themselves.”

Long also expressed similar sentiments as he explained the social costs of postponing legalization.

“Take for instance, California,” he said. “Every year we spend more money maintaining our prison population and incarcerating drug offenders than we spend on public education or health care.”

Long argued that not only are we imprisoning more criminals, we are creating them.

“We created Al Capone and we created the Mexican drug cartels and we have the power to put an end to them,” said Long.

Sabet, however, disagrees. “The drug trade is so profitable that even undercutting the legal (taxed) market price would leave cartels with a handsome profit,” he said. “Drug legalization would also do nothing to loosen the cartels’ grip on other illegal trades such as human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion and piracy.”

Economic Impact

Legalization may also have economic repercussions — many of which have proven to be especially dividing.

“It is a waste of money to keep it illegal,” said Adam Pearman ’09.

Proponents of the economic argument claim that the government will not only save money from reduced drug enforcement spending but will also gain significant revenue from taxing the sale of marijuana.

Sophomore Jordan Williams is in favor of the taxation.

“My gut instinct is to say that, if legalized, marijuana should be heavily restricted and taxed,” Williams said.

Pizio agreed with Williams, saying that, “The amount of money we spend on trying to keep these drugs out of the American people’s hands is exorbitant — not to mention the costs associated with combating drug cartels.”

“I understand the government’s duty to protect society but they have to allow citizens the freedom to make their own decisions and help themselves,” he said.

Sabet, however, advocated a different position.

“For nearly every $1.00 gained in alcohol and tobacco tax revenues, $10.00 are lost in social costs,” argued Sabet. “The tax revenue estimates that legalizers promote are unrealistic for a number of reasons: a) legalization will drive the market price of marijuana down b) lower prices and greater social acceptability increase harm (to both users and society) and raise social costs c) tax revenues would be exceeded by legal, criminal justice, and regulatory costs, and d) tax evasion would be widespread.”

An Uncertain Future

As evidenced by the myriad of opinions and arguments with respect to the legalization of marijuana, one could argue that the issue is complex and multifaceted. With 20 states having already legalized medical marijuana, the question that now remains is: will others follow suit, or will they turn away?