In 1979, in a poll conducted by The New York Times and CBS News, only 27 percent of respondents said that they’d support the legalization of marijuana. When that poll was conducted again in 2014, more than half of participants said they’d agree with the concept of legalization.[i] That’s a striking shift in cultural thinking in a short period of time, and it’s a little difficult to explain how this change came about.
For some, it might have been caused by increased exposure, changing politics or simple weariness with drug policing. However,for many, the acceptance of marijuana might have come about due to two factors: legalization and use in public places.
Understanding the Legalization Movement
As of 2014, 20 states had laws regarding the legal use of marijuana.[ii] Federal laws did not change, so people who used the drug in a legal state could still be breaking federal laws, but these states still have laws that permit marijuana for all sorts of purposes, including the following:
- Pain control
- Treatment of chronic conditions
- Recreational use
- Nausea control
States and districts with marijuana use laws include the following:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- Rhode Island
- Washington, DC
Some of these states developed laws in response to the rising cost of the war on drugs. According to a 2013 analysis conducted for Forbes, spending on drug enforcement laws exceeded $40 billion per year, and the number of people in federal prisons stood at 1.6 million.[iii] About half of these people were behind bars due to drug offenses, so the cost of their incarceration could reasonably be added to the cost of waging a war on the use of illicit substances. States looking for ways in which to cut costs might feel as though reducing the consequences regarding drug convictions and sentences would be a great shortcut.
States might also be tempted to dip into the revenue that legalized drugs can bring. When Colorado made marijuana legal, for example, the state pulled in $2 million in taxes, which was money that could be used to fund all sorts of projects that residents might both need and support.[iv] States dealing with low property values, a shrinking tax base and an increased need for infrastructure spending might be thrilled with the idea of making money on the sale of pot.
It’s also possible that the advent of new, designer drugs has made marijuana seem tame and benign. For example, the synthetic substance known as “bath salts” caused a huge health scare in 2011, when hospitals began treating patients who were both violent and hallucinating.[v] When stories like this hit the mainstream press, it’s reasonable to suspect that some people felt that marijuana was somehow safer than these drugs, and if it was safer, perhaps it should be legal.
The fact remains, however, that marijuana is still considered a serious, dangerous drug by many reputable organizations. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, for example, links the use of this drug to all sorts of terrible outcomes, including the following:
- Chronic cough
- Psychosis (in some vulnerable people)
- Lowered levels of life satisfaction
- Cognitive decline[vi]
These are facts that often get lost in a debate about legalization, money and crime resources. However,they are important to keep in mind.
Even though many experts suggest that marijuana is too dangerous to fit into the category of legal drug, states that have pushed forward legalization bills haven’t necessarily experienced negative results due to that shift. For example, when Colorado moved to make marijuana legal, some thought that a spike in crime would be sure to follow. If people could use the drug with impunity throughout the day, these people thought, a legal status would mean increased problems. However, a study done in 2014 found that violent crime in Colorado decreased by 11 percent in the years following legalization.[vii] The researchers suggested that users switched from alcohol to marijuana, and since alcohol is more often related to violent crime, that switch resulted in a lower crime rate; however, more research is needed in this area.
In a separate study, researchers attempted to determine whether the number of people who died in traffic accidents rose or fell as a result of marijuana legalization. Again, the idea here was that some critics felt that legalization would lead to a rise in the number of people who drove under the influence, and that increase would lead to more fatalities. Instead, researchers found no such rise in fatality rates. Instead, they found that after marijuana was made legal, the state experienced an eight to 11 percent decrease in fatalities.[viii] The researchers are quick to point out that other factors could be playing a role, but it seems that concerns about rampant, high driving might have been misplaced.
Studies like this make headlines, and they tend to fan the flames of legalization. People who read results like this become ever more convinced that marijuana is totally benign and that legalization is a good thing for individuals and the communities in which people live. It’s not a view experts agree with, of course, but these studies can make it hard for consumers to make good decisions that are in line with the decisions addiction experts might recommend them to make.
In addition to all of these studies about the legalization movement, people might also stumble across marijuana use if they attend a variety of outdoor festivals. For example, an article produced by San Francisco Weekly suggests that people who attend concerts in that city often light up before the lights go down.[x] The article suggests that this act isn’t considered particularly legal, and in some cases, people can get arrested for smoking pot, but it does seem to suggest that people do this sort of thing quite regularly in the Bay Area.
Other popular venues for summer music and arts gatherings have been linked to marijuana use, including the following:
- Burning Man
- The Oregon Country Fair
The symphony in Colorado even got into the act in 2014 as organizers planned a series of outdoor concerts in which classical music lovers would be encouraged to bring their own weed to the concert to enjoy while the music played.[xi] Public use like this can be considered remarkably dangerous as it tends to normalize the drug behavior. People who might never consider pot due to its illegal nature and inherent dangers might change their minds when they’re in a room filled with people lighting up and having a great time. They might wonder why they’re the only people who aren’t using the drug, and they may begin to use simply to fit in.
Making Sense of It All
It’s unclear whether or not the wave of legalization will continue. States might work to pass additional legislation that makes this drug legal, or there might be some shocking episode in the near future that highlights the very real dangers of making an illicit substance legal for all to use.
Whether or not the drug is legal, the fact remains that this substance comes with some very real dangers. In 2011, for example, the number of people entering treatment programs for marijuana was 14 percent higher than the number entering treatment for the same drug in 2001 even when the numbers were adjusted due to changes in population.[xii] Many people can and do develop addictions to this drug, and they do so whether it’s legal or illegal.
If you’re not using marijuana now, we encourage you to stay sober. If you are using this powerful drug, and you don’t know how to stop, we’d like to help. At The Canyon, we can offer you an evidenced-based path to recovery, and that work can begin right now. Please call us at our 24 hour, toll-free helpline, and our admissions coordinators can tell you more.