Legalizing Marijuana in the United States

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In the United States, there are few social policy issues as divisive as that of the legalization of marijuana. The popular consumer drug is held to be illegal by federal law and is outlawed by most of the states that comprise the federal structure of the country. The issue of whether or not marijuana should be legalized, however, is a domestic policy decision that is wracked with both scientific inaccuracies as well as cultural misunderstandings regarding the impact of and economics of marijuana use. Moreover, the debate often centers on whether or marijuana should be legalized on a federal level for individuals who receive a permit, or prescription, to carry the drug. In this research paper, it is argued that the legalization of marijuana is something that should be achieved, and that the downsides to maintaining and enforcing laws against the use of marijuana have a negative impact on social order, state finances, and overall perceptions of the justice of the law.

The opening days of the War on Drugs, a massive effort launched by United States President Richard Nixon in 1971, heralded a dramatic shift in both the domestic and foreign policy of the United States. For the first time in history, an attack on drug use in the United States would be a central policy initiative by an American president. In addition to being a landmark policy development, the War on Wars would soon be characterized by substantial support to foreign governments, increased international cooperation, and supranational efforts aimed at reducing drug production, consumption, and violence in domestic populations. This massive undertaking, spearheaded by the United States but fought on the ground in Colombia, Mexico, and other Latin American countries, would be met with success and failures, as corruption, inefficiency, and a never-ending demand for illegal goods weakened the efforts. Though the War on Drugs continues to this day, many critics of the effort remark that legalization of particular substances would effectively destroy the underground market for illicit substances, thereby depriving drug runners, cartels, and other smuggling organizations of their source of revenue. Though the War on Drugs is not the focal point of this research paper, it does bear mentioning that legalization of certain substances, such as marijuana, could present an effective alternative to continued persecution of those who use the substance recreationally.

Legal Status of Marijuana

In the United States, marijuana is illegal at the federal level. O’Keefe (2013) states that, despite marijuana’s use as a medical agent for thousands of years of human existence, Congress “classified it in the most restrictive category under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)—Schedule 1”, which means that marijuana is considered to have zero medical benefits and is thus wholly illegal (p. 40). The Controlled Substances Act authorizes the Attorney General of the United States the ability to “reclassify” the drug to a different schedule, thereby opening its legality to the state; however, the Attorney General rejected this power, delegating it instead to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) of the United States federal government (p. 41). As such, the drug classification of marijuana is now up to the decision of the federal agency and, as a result, can be considered within the purview of the President of the United States. However, the legality of the substance itself must pass a vote of Congress, meaning that the President does not have the legal authority to allow for unrestricted access to marijuana across the country.

In the United States alone, an estimated one-third of Americans have dabbled in marijuana use at some point in their lives, with even President Obama admitting partaking in the substance in his teen years. Despite the incredible commonality of the drug, more than 750,000 “Americans were arrested for marijuana-related offenses, accounting for roughly half of all drug crimes in the United States” (Gwynne, 2013, p. 22). The incredible expenditure of resources on marijuana-related crimes notwithstanding, the legal status of marijuana is furthermore mired in the quagmire of federal and state jurisdiction. Legalization at the state level, such as Washington and Colorado, is often considered to be a “turning point” in the battle against the criminal nature of marijuana use and possession. As of 2013, marijuana has been legalized for medical purposes in “eighteen states and the District of Columbia that allows citizens to register, cultivate, and/or otherwise procure marijuana for personal medical use” (Simoni-Wastila & Palumbo, 2013, p. 59). These indicates a substantial level of support among the states and the American population as a whole that legalization of the substance may be a growing domestic policy decision that legislators can ill afford to ignore.

Indeed, the matter of marijuana’s criminal status is often focal point of critics of the War on Drugs. Danovitch (2012) states that the “War on Drugs has many critics, but nowhere is there greater consensus about its limitations than with marijuana” (p. 92). At the core of marijuana advocates’ arguments lay the idea that the relative harm marijuana does to a person is vastly and outrageously outweighed by the severity of punishment one can receive for using the substance. Moreover, the “wide-spread perception that marijuana punishments exceed marijuana’s harms has fueled popular advocacy for liberalization of marijuana policy” (p. 92). The matter, then, seems to devolve to whether or not it is possible to prove that marijuana does not represent any significant risk or harm to the individual taking it, and whether or not the criminalization of marijuana can be justified when compared to the legalization of other drugs and substances. If the reasoning behind the law, namely that marijuana is a harmful substance that is detrimental to the well-being of society, can be disproven empirically, it would stand to reason that marijuana should then be legalized. The question becomes twofold—to what extent does marijuana negatively impact the health of the individual, and to what extent does marijuana use create a public health hazard are the core questions to be answered.

Health Impacts of Marijuana

In order to understand the health impacts of marijuana and the associated legal concepts contained in that subject, it is necessary to give a cursory overview of what marijuana is and how it functions. Marijuana is, as researched in Danovitch (2012), a substance that is “produced from the cultivation of the Cannabis sativa” plant (p. 93). Commonly harvested and stored as dry leaves or buds, marijuana is relatively long-lasting as a substance and simple to grow. It achieves the effect it does through the all-important chemical component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which causes “mild euphoria, altered perception of time, relaxation, difficulty with memory and concentration, and intensification of sensory experiences” (p. 94). Extended use of marijuana tends to reinforce these effects.

It stands to reason that a substance or drug should be deemed illegal and unfit for consumption if, and only if, one can demonstrate a negative health effect of substance that is significant enough to warrant its outlaw. In other words, it must be shown that a substance causes substantive harm to an individual’s health or to the health of the public as a whole for it to be claimed that a substance can be made illegal. Alternatively, it must be demonstrated that a particular drug, substance, or chemical can have, in specific cases, a positive health benefit for the patient overall. A common argument in favor of marijuana legalization is premised on the grounds that marijuana can be used for great benefit when it comes to medical issues and chronic pain. In terms of research and medical benefits, “the gold standard for establishing the efficacy of medical interventions is controlled and randomized clinical trials” (Danovitch, 2012, p. 94). Unfortunately, the illegality of the drug and its classification as a Schedule 1 substance means that any sort of rigorous studies performed in the United States would be held as criminal acts. Instead, European studies have shown, per Danovitch’s 2012 study, that “marijuana alleviates symptoms of some conditions” such as “nausea and vomiting, anorexia and wasting, neuropathic pain, and muscle spasticity” (p. 94). These, and numerous other studies, have shown repeatedly that marijuana can be an effective and useful tool in treating some conditions.

However, simply because a substance has demonstrated its ability to help treatment in situations is alone not sufficient to justify its legalization. Indeed, “the safety and efficacy of medications is assessed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prior to approval for medical applications”; this means that if the FDA believes a substance can have a risk of abuse or addiction, it can be subject to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) rules and regulations regarding controlled substances (Danovitch, 2012, p. 96). In other words, the FDA must decide whether or not a medication, drug, or substance carries with a risk of abuse and addiction. If the FDA decides this is so, it then becomes the purview of the DEA to place the drug “on its list of controlled substances”, which Congress has already legislated (p. 96). Specific to the issue of marijuana is that Schedule 1 drugs, such as marijuana, are classified with the label that they carry with their use significant risk of abuse and addiction and do not offer any medical benefit whatsoever, even under supervised care.

Unfortunately for advocates of the legalization of marijuana, the necessary requirement here is that the FDA must come to the conclusion that marijuana does not carry with it a risk of abuse. According to Danovitch, “the regulatory role of the FDA remains of paramount importance to the public health and the precedent of legislating medical interventions” (p. 96). Moreover, the FDA has repeatedly been accused of not viewing the issue of marijuana with objectivity and that its policies towards the substance are not based on science, but rather formed on the subjective opinions of its leaders and ideologues. As there exists “sufficient evidence to justify a re-evaluation of marijuana’s rescheduling” the FDA is often seen as “espousing an ideological position in place of rigorous, objective, scientific inquiry” (p. 96). Due to these institutional impediments, it could be proposed that the best solution for legalizing marijuana in the United States could be through reforming the process by which the FDA chooses to classify substances.

Even more unfortunate for users of marijuana is the way in which the level of criminal punishment is hardly correlated with the level of the crime at the federal level. Though much of drug enforcement arrests and prosecutions is done at the state level, federal officials can still make arrests, even for those citizens who have valid medical marijuana licenses from their respective states. Gerber (2004) found that “the severity of [...] penalties could make qualified patients face the uncertainty of arrest each time they obtained and used medical marijuana” (p. 122). The risk that patients face, regardless of the lack of federal enforcement, is very real. While users of medical marijuana still suffer from a technical violation of federal law, state officials cannot prosecute as medical marijuana is legal in their respective states. Thus, while patients retain liability for their actions, there is little effort on behalf of the federal government and federal officials to enforce federal policies where state law exists in opposition.

Discussion and Conclusions

It is clear that there is little ethical or moral ground to justify the continued criminalization of marijuana. Though no state or federal studies exist on the subject, given the strict regulation of the substance, a myriad of independent and third-party studies indicate that the negative health effects of marijuana are negligible, and that there exists a strong, empirically-verified body of evidence that supports the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Not only is the substance effective in treating a variety of ailments and conditions, but it carries with it no substantive risk of addiction that other medications do. In other words, marijuana is not only a harmless substance, but it has been proven to have a positive health impact when used as a medication and with a doctor’s consent.

The continued criminalization of marijuana exists only as a major drain on the resources of the state and federal government. With some half of the drug-related crimes in the United States belonging to the matter of marijuana, it is clear that the vast expenditure of manpower and resources on something as harmless as marijuana use would only continue to drain already limited resources from other, more important sectors. The impact on public health would be negligible; indeed, almost certainly positive, given that medical marijuana could be embraced by the nation as a whole and used to treat a variety of ailments and conditions without the risks that more dangerous medications offer. Moreover, though somewhat beyond the scope of this paper, the continued criminalization of marijuana is nothing more than intellectually dishonest, as classifying marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance is nothing more than preposterous. Far more dangerous medications exist that are legal on the federal and state level. In other words, the criminalization of marijuana is little more than the criminalization of a harmless substance that has been proven to be a positive alternative to other medication.

While it is clear that the issue of medical marijuana legalization is highly controversial, it becomes the responsibility of the state and respective regulatory agencies to make sure that the policies in place are logical, rational, and grounded in scientific evidence. The fact remains that the United States government has no legal, ethical, or moral justification to continue the criminalization of an effectively harmless drug. The use of medical marijuana would have only a positive impact on the public health of the United States, and the illegality of the substance is little more than a waste of resources that could be better spent elsewhere.


Danovitch, I. (2012). Sorting Through the Science on Marijuana: Facts, Fallacies, and Implications for Legalization. McGeorge Law Review, 43(1), 91-108.

Gerber, R. J. (2004). Legalizing marijuana: drug policy reform and prohibition politics. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Gwynne, K. (2013). Turning the Tide on Drug Reform. Nation, 296(7), 22-24.

O'Keefe, K. (2013). State Medical Marijuana Implementation and Federal Policy. Journal of Health Care Law & Policy, 16(1), 39-58.

Simoni-Wastila, L., & Palumbo, F. B. (2013). Medical Marijuana Legislation: What We Know-- and Don’t. Journal of Health Care Law & Policy, 16(1), 59-75.