The impression to decriminalize marijuana in the US has continuously been at the focus of heated debates in the United States. On the one hand, there are those individuals who vehemently believe that legalizing marijuana will help reduce crimes, raise tax revenues, improve public health, and promote safety. On the other hand, critics aver that legalization of marijuana will help in promoting the use of drugs, harm public health, and affect public safety. With such contrasting views it means that one of these factions is wrong or the truth lies in between.
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Under US federal laws, marijuana is declared as an illegal drug. However, over 40 states currently decriminalized marijuana while 30 states have it approved for medical reasons, and it has been allowed for recreational purposes in about 11 states (Montour, 2016). In the state of Florida marijuana was approved for medicinal purposes in 2016. Since then they have been concerted efforts by activities to legalize the use of recreational marijuana in Florida. Currently there are two major advocacy groups mainly Make It Legal, Florida, and Regulate Florida, that are collecting signatures to reach the recommended threshold of the required 766,632 (Golzar, 2015). While these groups are far from attaining this threshold they show the importance with which Florida residents’ accord to cannabis legalization.
For most onlookers, the debate on cannabis legalization may seem to be minor or inconsequential at best. However, the truth of the matter is that the discussion of marijuana has significant repercussions for overall public policy. First and foremost, marijuana use or non-use has a direct correlation on the public health system. Research has found out that marijuana can be used to treat medical conditions such as epilepsy, on the other hand, marijuana dependence and addiction can have significant consequences on the public health systems (Montour, 2016). Besides, public health the legalizations of marijuana have substantial on issues of social justice as result of massive incarceration due to its criminalization. Cannabis also has significant impact on a state’s tax revenues and economics (Todd, 2018). These broad issues of concern indicate that marijuana is not an issue that can be wished away as some people purport. It is a subject that has significant implications for individuals, families and the general community.
This paper attempts to discuss and analyze the policy options and considerations on marijuana while considering existing polices on the subject to provide appropriate recommendations for Florida. The paper states by explaining essential concepts of health, economics, politics, and legal frameworks concerned with marijuana legalization. In the second part of this paper we review the implemented policies implemented in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska in regards to the concepts mentioned above. The paper concludes by offering recommendations for implementation in Florida.
Policy Options and Considerations
“Federal law classifies marijuana has a schedule 1 drug meaning it is considered to have no medicinal value and poses a high potential for abuse” (Montour, 2016). For context this classification places cannabis on the same class as heroine and higher than cocaine and meth placed in schedule 2. This classification has meant that there are significant hurdles in conducting large-scale clinical trials on cannabis to prove its therapeutic value. This has further complicated to international treaties where the US plays role. These treaties prohibit the US from legalizing marijuana; however countries like Canada and Uruguay have managed to bypass this international legalization. Essentially, this means that pot will remain legal at the federal level for the foreseeable future.
The autonomy offered to State government has allowed several states in the US to allow the decriminalization, medical use, and recreational use of cannabis in their respective countries. It is essential to start by decomposing what these three levels of legalization mean. Decriminalization of marijuana refers to the elimination of jail time for people found in possession of small amounts of marijuana (Todd, 2018). However, there remain minimal penalties such as fines or probations. Approval for medical marijuana means doctors can prescribe marijuana for acute pains, PTSD, severe epilepsy, inflammatory bowel diseases among other illnesses. Full legalization implies the removal of all government-enforced restrictions on use, production, and distribution of marijuana. Aside from these three categories of legalization there are several alternatives such possession but no sales and allowing state agencies or monitored non-profits to produce and distribute cannabis.
In Florida, the use of recreational marijuana is considered, with custody of over 20 grams being charged as a misdemeanor (Golzar, 2015). The penalties for possession may attract a fine of up to $1000, one-year jail term, and (or) the revocation of a suspect driving license. Cities and counties such as Tampa, Orlando, Broward County, and Palm Beach County have instituted measures to minimize the penalties for marijuana possession (Montour, 2016). Shi, (2017) indicates that in 2016, the state voted through a referendum for the purposes of legalizing medical marijuana use. Since then there have been other laws such as SB 670, HB 339, HB 149, HB 25, and SB 212 that have been enacted to deal with marijuana legalization (Golzar, 2015). Today, the States is faced with clamor to legalize marijuana led by the Make it Legal Florida and Regulate Florida movements. The groups are hoping to raise enough signatures to trigger a referendum on legalizing marijuana in Florida.
Marijuana and public health are closely intertwined; while there has been no documented case of marijuana indulgence, it does not mean that the drug is entirely harmless. One of the primary criticisms leveled against marijuana is its addictive nature. There are several reports in the United States and across the world of people who have become dependent on marijuana and are unable to quit despite perceiving its adverse effects (Shi, 2017). Spending more time intoxicated leads to impaired judgment and lower productivity, which are issues that our societies could do without. The health challenge of marijuana is further compounded by reports indicating that marijuana is responsible for respiratory problems (smoking), low birth weight for pregnant women, lower social achievements, schizophrenia, and psychosis.
Studies have also shown that it is marijuana is useful in treatment of illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, chronic pains, chemotherapy-induced nausea, epilepsy, PTSD, and irritable bowel syndrome (Shi, 2017). While some of the results of these studies demonstrating the benefits and (or) dangers posed by cannabis are inconclusive there is no denying that a specific correlation exists. Some studies have even been approved by federal, state, academic, and pharmaceuticals. For the foreseeable future cannabis will remain at the center of debates surrounding individual and public health.
Justice System and Political Support
The fight to legalizing marijuana has been closely associated with social injustices and the incarceration of minorities. A 2013report by the American Civil Liberties found that over 8.2 million people faced arrest for cannabis-related charges between 2001 and 2010 (ACLU, 2013). Of the 8.2 million arrests over 90 % were as a result of marijuana possession. The research further indicated that the arrest was disproportionately against black and Hispanic minorities despite the fact the number of consumptions in these demographics closely align with those of whites. For the long term, now there has been a significant belief within political and media circles that the war on bhang is inherently skewed against minorities.
On the other hand, the acceptance of recreational marijuana use has spurred dramatically over the last three decades. A 2018 survey by Gallupindicates that approval for marijuana in the US has increased to around 66% from approximately 12% in 1969 (As cited by Lopez, 2019). A different survey by PEW Research indicates that 63% of Americans believe that states should move away from punitive measures against cannabis use and possession (Daniller, 2019). The approval rates in Florida can also be depicted by the 71% approval during the 2016 referendum (Golzar, 2015). More and more, Americans approve marijuana use compared to the use of legal drugs such as Alcohol and Tobacco which are more harmful.
The economic benefits of marijuana have been at the core of arguments to legalize marijuana. Proponents have argued that current laws prohibiting the use, distribution, and production of cannabis have failed to achieve the intended purposes. Today, marijuana is the third most abused drug after alcohol and tobacco. Proponents of legalization have argued that instead of fighting a losing battle States could be better served by targeting this tax rich industry. The latest statistics indicate that the current marijuana markets Florida are around $626 million. In the next five years the figure is projected to rise to approximately $1.9 billion (Golzar, 2015). Legalizing recreational cannabis could almost lead to doubling this projection to around $4.7 billion (Golzar, 2015). These statistics indicate an industry that is ripe for taxation that would significantly propel the growth of the state.
Existing Policy Critique
Under this section, we will assess the effect on policies on legalization of marijuana in four states Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. These states were chosen because they are among the pioneer members in legalizing recreational cannabis. The policy critique compares data pre-legalization versus after legalization.
The prohibition of marijuana in the US under federal and state law began in the early 20th century as a response to the influx of Mexican immigrants (Golzar, 2015). The racial prejudice prevailing at the time associated Mexican migrant workers with the use of marijuana. Golzar, (2015) notes that the period between 1930 and 1970 saw the passing of numerous federal laws such as the Marijuana Tax Act, Narcotics Control Act, and Boggs Act which instituted punitive measures targeted at marijuana use, production, and distribution. The result of these repressive laws increased stigmatization and militarization of the war against bhang.
The 1970s saw several states back off from this trend. In 1975, Colorado decriminalized marijuana after recommendation by the Shafer Commission. Fast forward in 2000, the state legalized the use medical marijuana. In 2006, the state tried to legalize recreational marijuana but failed in a ballot with 58% opposed to legalization (Dills et al., 2016). In 2012, the State became the first to legalize marijuana in the US via a public ballot won by 55% (Dills et al., 2016). Washington, on its hand decriminalized marijuana much earlier than Colorado in 1971; two months after Colorado, the state allowed legal possession of cannabis. In 2014, both Oregon and Alaska followed suit in allowing ability to possess and or use marijuana for recreational purposes. The legalization process in these four states took a long drawn out path; it was not an instantaneous process. Aside from the policies there is also similarity in the provisions in these four states. The first sale is only allowed to people over the age of 21; the amount allowed per individual is also restricted (Dills et al., 2016). Another common feature in these four jurisdictions is that the suppliers and distributors are required to adhere to certain conditions and principles. While the specifics in each case differ the consensus is that distributors must be licensed and regulated by the state.
One of the most potent dangers of marijuana use is its predisposition to abuse other drugs such as alcohol and cocaine. While there differing opinions on the use of marijuana data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) indicate that there were no effects on drug use in the four states before and after legalization. In Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, the rates of Cocaine and Alcohol use remained steady before and after legalization. However, Marijuana use increased slightly in the three states.
Figure 1: Showing a survey on Drug use in the state of Colorado (participants were 12+ yrs.)
Figure 2: Showing a survey on Drug use in the state of Washington (participants were 12+ yrs.)
Figure 3: Showing a survey on Drug use in the state of Oregon (participants were 12+ yrs.)
The statistics above disputes the assertion by opponents of legalization that allowing for recreational purposes promotes the use of other drugs. Perhaps, even the slight increase in marijuana consumption could be explained the consequence of increased accountability in recording cannabis use statistics.
Analysis of the statistics pre and post-legalization in Colorado and Washington further helps to debunk the notion that marijuana legalization would lead to increased psychological issues and suicide cases.
Figure 4: Annual Rates of Suicide (per 100,000 people)
The above table further demonstrates that marijuana legalization does not correlate with increased suicides in the four states. Further statistics from the CDC do not illustrate any increasing in drug-related admissions and hazards even after being allowed (Dills et al., 2016).
Figure 5: Treatment Admissions for the State of Colorado
Figure 6: Drug King County Treatment Admissions
Further data from the Bureau of Economic analysis has moved to debunk the notion that legalizing marijuana would increase violent crimes. Results from Portland, Seattle, and Denver indicate a similar trend in crime rates, economic development, youth outcomes, and road safety (Dills et al., 2016). The patterns vary with each specific City or State. Overall, this analysis indicates that some of the adverse effects of legalization peddled by opponents are far from factual. While the statistics do not demonstrate the apparent benefits of legalization the consensus is that criminalization of cannabis presents more challenges than benefits. Following up with the American principles of freedom and liberty there should be no reason why the State of Florida the right to consume whatever they wish to in the absence of clear and definite harms caused by their actions.
Conclusion and Recommendation
From the above discussions, it is evident that there exists a substantial gap in concrete and significant benefits of cannabis. Most of the research conducted on the drug to date has been inconclusive; it is, therefore, imperative for the state to undertake programs aimed at examining and promoting research on the subject. Apart from research the Florida government should take significant interest in listening and understanding the concerns and wishes of citizens concerning the issue. Listening will allow the state’s government to make decisions that are in the best interest of its citizenry. If or when cannabis is legalized the state should also take a keen interest in protecting individual and public health by providing guidelines that manage production levels, its distribution and possession. Furthermore, during the current dispensation of medical marijuana the state should continually evaluate the efficacy of the policy by monitoring cases of abuse and inappropriate view.
- ACLU. (2013). The War On Marijuana In Black And White. Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests. ACLU Report. Retrieved from: https://www.aclu.org/issues/smart-justice/sentencing-reform/war-marijuana-black-and-white?redirect=marijuana
- Daniller, A. (2019). Two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/11/14/americans-support-marijuana-legalization/
- Dills, A. K., Goffard, S., & Miron, J. (2016). Dose of Reality: The effect of state marijuana legalizations. Cato Institute Policy Analysis, (799).Retrieved from: https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/dose-reality-effect-state-marijuana-legalizations
- Golzar, T. I. (2015). An Economic Analysis of Marijuana Legalization in Florida. Duke University, North Carolina. Retrieved from: https://sites.duke.edu/djepapers/files/2016/10/golzar-dje.original.pdf
- Lopez, G. (2019). 9 questions about marijuana legalization, you were too embarrassed to ask. Retrieved from: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/8/30/20826835/marijuana-legalization-medical-decriminalization-federal-vote
- Montour, K. (2016). Where There's Smoke, There's Fire: The State-Tribal Quandary of Tribal Marijuana. American Indian Law Journal, 4(2), 3. Retrieved from: http://digitalcommons.law.seattleu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1125&context=ailj
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- Todd, T. (2018). The Benefits of Marijuana Legalization and Regulation. Berkeley J. Crim. L., 23, 99. Retrieved from: https://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1124&context=bjcl
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