The recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state is stirring up a lot of questions and controversy. Whether it’s good or bad in terms of economic gains or public health is debatable. It’s hard to say so early in the implementation of these policies how marijuana legalization will play out, in either the small scale of the two states or in the possible mass scale of the entire country. For now, no one can predict what the outcomes will be, but what we can do is provide a better understanding of the marijuana controversy as well as potential trends and health effects of marijuana legalization.
MARIJUANA: HELPFUL OR HARMFUL?
By now, the science behind the medical benefits of marijuana has gained enough ground that it is nearly indisputable.
For people with serious illness or injuries, using regulated pot can help them manage pain, retain a healthy appetite, improve their quality of sleep, and in some cases reduce or relieve symptoms of anxiety. That being said, medical marijuana should be understood as a prescription drug like any other: good or necessary for certain people with certain health issues. The recreational use of marijuana is another beast altogether, as pot also has dangerous qualities.
“What a lot of people fail to understand about pot is that it can be addictive”
The illusion that any prescription drug, including marijuana, is absolutely “safe” because it is recommended by a doctor is highly problematic. What a lot of people fail to understand about pot is that it can be addictive, partly due to the roughly 600% increase in potency the drug has boasted in the past few decades (Sabet, 2014). Today’s marijuana is stronger than ever, so strong in fact that the National Institute of Health cites one in six 16 year-olds who try pot will become addicted (Sabet, 2014). Not only that, but pot has repeatedly been shown to negatively impact brain development in young people and heavy use can even lower IQ (Sabet, 2014). As with other substances, drivers under the influence of marijuana are in an altered state of mind and are thus hazardous to themselves and those around them. According to the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, there are also links between marijuana and mental illness; marijuana use can trigger latent mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, psychosis, or bipolar disorders in some individuals. Despite these risk factors, most pot users will not likely experience adverse or extreme health consequences; however, it’s important to understand that—like most drugs—marijuana use can be potentially harmful or helpful.
WEED TOURISM AND “BIG MARIJUANA”
There is a lot of concern over what some loosely refer to as weed tourism and the “Big Marijuana” industry that’s afoot. Weed tourism is the potentially emerging market of visitors to Colorado and Washington state that will travel for the sole purpose of buying marijuana products (for personal use or to illegally hoard back to their home states for sale) (Sabet, 2014). It’s projected that up to 30% of recreational sales will be made to consumers from out-of-state (Gorski, 2013). Another great fear is that marketing and the new industry of Big Marijuana and weed tours—a la wine tours in Napa Valley, CA—will draw in new and young users in order to create a chunk of lifelong consumers the same way Big Tobacco and alcohol advertising does (Gorski, 2013). All these points are valid. The good thing is, the marijuana policies being implemented are applying rules to pot that are similar to those for alcohol. For instance, in Colorado, you won’t be able to buy more than a quarter-ounce of pot at a time if you’re not a native, and you won’t be able to cross state lines in any way with your weed products (Gorski, 2013). You also won’t be able to drive around with opened weed paraphernalia the same way you can’t drive around with opened alcoholic beverages (Gorski, 2013). Hopefully, law enforcement takes these preventative measures seriously so that such problems can be avoided. A major thing to look for in the coming months is the likely flood of fake I.D.’s in Colorado and Washington state, in order to circumvent the 21 year-old age limit for both alcohol (in every state) and weed for tourism purposes.
So far as the dangers of weed advertising are concerned, the clever evils of targeting young people will likely not exceed those that already exist for tobacco and alcohol, which everyone knows in absolute certainty to be hazardous to our health. Most people seem to love the Budweiser commercials with puppies and Clydesdales that play during the Super Bowl, despite the fact that it’s blatantly trying to sell beer to everyone, especially young viewers. Before we can call marijuana advertising the evil stepsister, there may be some larger issues to call out in the name of capitalism. That being said, a major statistic that supports opposition to marijuana legalization involves the economic potential of tax benefits. A lot of people are pro-marijuana because they believe taxing it will help their state’s, or the country’s, economic issues. The problem is, if the “revenue” is similar to that of tobacco and alcohol, marijuana will likely cost the people $10 for every $1 gained in taxes (Sabet, 2014).
PORTUGAL AND THE NETHERLANDS
What may be a comfort to some are the trends of marijuana use per its legalization in Portugal and the Netherlands. In the first five years that Portugal decriminalized all drugs, use among teens declined, and lifetime drug usage rates fell among youth and other age groups, signaling a critical and positive public health trend (Regan, 2011). In the Netherlands, a country famous for pot use and weed tourism, their young people are actually less likely to smoke marijuana than young Americans (Regan, 2011). Interestingly, the use of marijuana by young Americans has increased in recent years. According to the 2013 Monitoring the Future Survey, American high school seniors have shown a lowered use of alcohol and cigarettes, and have increased their past-month use of pot 4.4% since 2006. In other words, 22.7% of 12th graders in the survey had used marijuana in the past month, which is the highest usage rate in fourteen years. So, these seemingly counterintuitive statistics raise the question: how much drug use is due to the allure of it being “forbidden fruit”?
THE WAITING GAME
In the end, the results of pot legalization in the states of Colorado and Washington are—as of right now—unpredictable. There will be things that work and things that don’t work, and in that sense, these marijuana policies are the guinea pigs in a grand, and interesting experiment. Hopefully, the benefits will outweigh the costs and potential dangers. For now, all the majority of us can do is wait and see how it all plays out.
Gorski, E. (2013). Pot tourism seeks acceptance in Colorado as first retail shops open. The Denver Post. Retrieved from http://www.denverpost.com/marijuana/ci_24820035/pot-tourism-seeks-acceptance-colorado-first-retail-shops
Regan, T. (2011). What pot legalization looks like Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/trish-regan/what-pot-legalization-loo_b_851550.html
Sabet, K.A. (2014). Colorado will show why legalizing marijuana is a mistake. The Washington Times. Retrieved from http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jan/17/sabet-marijuana-legalizations-worst-enemy/
(2012). Marijuana and driving: research brief. University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. Retrieved from http://adai.uw.edu/marijuana/factsheets/driving.htm
(2014) Marijuana use by U.S. 12th graders increases even as alcohol and cigarette use continue to decline. Cesar FAX, Vol. 23, (3). Retrieved from http://www.cesar.umd.edu/cesar/cesarfax/vol23/23-03.pdf
(2013). Mental health and marijuana. University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. Retrieved from http://adai.uw.edu/marijuana/factsheets/mentalhealth.htm