Pros and Cons of Legalizing Marijuana

Cropped Image Of Hand Holding Marijuana Against Clear Sky
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The question of "legalizing marijuana" refers to whether or not Americans should be allowed to legally grow, sell, buy or ingest marijuana.

At present, the U.S. government claims the right to, and does, criminalize the growing, selling and possession of marijuana in all states. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this federal right in two separate court cases:

  • In 2001, U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, which overturned California proposition 215 which, in 1996, legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes.
  • In 2005, Gonzales v. Raich, which again upheld the right of the federal government to ban marijuana use in all states.

(See page two of this article for specific Pros & Cons of Legalizing Marijuana.)

What Is Marijuana?

Marijuana is the dried blossom of cannabis sativa and cannabis indica plants, leafy annual plants with parts that are used for as herbs, animal food, medicine and as hemp for rope-making.

"The flowers... contain psychoactive and physiologically active chemical compounds known as cannabinoids that are consumed for recreational, medicinal, and spiritual purposes," per Wikipedia.

Why is Marijuana Banned in the U.S.?

Before the 20th century, cannabis plants in the U.S. were relatively unregulated, and marijuana was a common ingredient in medicines.

Recreational use of marijuana was thought to have been introduced in the U.S. early in the 20th century by immigrants from Mexico. In the 1930s, marijuana was linked publicly in several research studies, and via a famed 1936 film named "Reefer Madness," to crime, violence, and anti-social behavior.

Many believe that objections to marijuana first rose sharply as part of the U.S. temperence movement against alcohol. Others claim that marijuana was initially demonized partly due to fears of the Mexican immigrants associated with the drug.

In the 21st century, marijuana is illegal in the U.S. ostensibly due to moral and public health reasons, and because of continuing concern over violence and crime associated with production and distribution of the drug.

Latest Developments

On June 23, 2011, a federal bill to fully legalize marijuana was introduced in the House by Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA.) The bill would remove marijuana from controlled substance classification.

On February 25, 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that "that federal agents will now target marijuana distributors only when they violate both federal and state laws."

The impact of Holder's statement is that if a state has legalized marijuana, then the Obama administration will not override state law. To date, thirteen states have decriminalized marijuana for medical purposes only.

In 2010, States Move to Loosen Marijuana Laws

In November 2010, Californians defeated a ballot proposition that "Californians over age 21 would be able to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, and grow their own plants on a plot up to 5 feet by 5 feet large."

Washington, New Hampshire and Massachusetts state legislatures are slated to consider marijuana legalization bills in 2010-2011. And more than 20 other states are considering bills to otherwise loosen criminalization of marijuana use and possession.

President Obama Avoids the Marijuana Question

When asked at a March 2009 online town hall about marijuana legalization, President Barack Obama avoided a serious answer, and laughingly demurred "I don't know what this says about the online audience.

But, no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy" Wrote an irritated college newspaper columnist at State University of New York at Geneseo:

"Many people were disappointed by his reaction, as Obama did not offer any counter-arguments and completely ignored the potential medical and social benefits of ending the prohibition on marijuana.

"Yes, some who wish to see marijuana legalized use it for recreational purposes, but the other benefits cannot be ignored. Cannabis is known to ease pain disorders, including the side-effects cancer patients experience throughout treatment.

"In addition to this, legalization would strike an enormous blow to organized crime, free up the overflowing prison system and reduce violence along the Mexican-American border."

Obama Supported Decriminalization in 2004

However, in a 2004 appearance at Northwestern University, then Illinois politician Obama told a crowd, "I think the war on drugs has been a failure, and I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws."

(See page two of this article for specific Pros & Cons of Legalizing Marijuana.)


The following are milestones of federal marijuana enforcement in U.S. history:

  • Prohibition, 1919 to 1933 - As use of marijuana became popular in response to alcohol prohibition, conservative anti-drug campaigners railed against the "Marijuana Menace," linking the drug to crime, violence and other bad behaviors.
  • 1930, Federal Bureau of Narcotics established - By 1931, 29 states had criminalized marijuana.
  • Uniform State Narcotic Act of 1932 - Pushed states, rather than federal authorities, to regulate narcotics.
  • Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 - Restricted marijuana to persons who paid an excise tax for certain medical uses of the drug.
  • 1944, New York Academy of Medicine - Report finds that marijuana does not "induce violence, insanity or sex crimes."
  • 1960s Counter-Culture Movement - U.S. marijuana use grew rapidly. Studies commissioned by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson concluded that "marijuana use did not induce violence."
  • 1970 in Congress - Repealed mandatory penalties for drug offenses. Marijuana was differentiated from other drugs.

Per PBS, "It was widely acknowledged that the mandatory minimum sentences of the 1950s had done nothing to eliminate the drug culture that embraced marijuana use throughout the 60s... "

  • 1973, Drug Enforcement Agency - Created by President Nixon.
  • 1976, Conservative Christian Groups - Led by Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, rising conservative groups lobbied for stricter marijuana laws. The coalition grew powerful, leading to the 1980s "War on Drugs."
    • Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 - Pushed for and signed by President Reagan, the Act raised penalties for marijuana offenses, and established harsh mandatory "three strikes" sentencing laws.
    • 1989, New "War on Drugs" - Declared by President George H.W. Bush
    • 1996 in California - Voters legalized marijuana use for cancer, AIDS, glaucoma and other patients, via a doctor's prescription.
    • 1996 to 2008 - 12 other states legalized medicinal marijuana use, albeit with widely varying restrictions.

    Most states can't implement their programs, though, as the Bush DEA executed a series of surprise raids on marijuana clinics, arresting both sellers and patients. The White House claimed that federal law held precedence over state legislatures. MAIN SOURCE: Condensed from materials produced by PBS and WGBH/Frontline.


    (See page one of this article for current developments and milestones in U.S. marijuana history.)

    Primary reasons in support of legalizing marijuana are:

    • Social Reasons
    • Prohibition of marijuana is unwarranted government intrusion into individual freedom of choice.
    • Marijuana is no more harmful to a person's health than alcohol or tobacco, which are both legal and widely used, and regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
    • Marijuana has proven medical benefits for cancer, AIDS, glaucoma and other patients.
    • Crime and violence, both within the U.S. and at the U.S.-Mexico border, are greatly increased due to illegal selling and buying of marijuana. Legalization would logically end the need for such criminal behavior.
    • Law Enforcement Reasons
    • "National statistics show 872,000 arrests last year related to marijuana, 775,000 of them for possession, not sale or manufacturing - sparking some critics to suggest that the resources of the criminal justice system, including the crowded state prisons and courts, might be better used elsewhere," per the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009.
    • Drug busts of youth for marijuana offenses often carry harsh penalties that can cause undue social harm with lifelong consequences.
    • Fiscal Reasons
    • Marijuana is one of America's top-selling agricultural products. One California politician estimates that marijuana sales in his state top $14 billion annually.

      New tax revenues from legalized marijuana sales could exceed $1 billion just for California. This rich new source of tax revenues nationwide would help lift the U.S. economy out of its worst recession in decades.

    • "... mainstream pundits like Fox News' Glenn Beck and CNN's Jack Cafferty have publicly questioned the billions spent each year fighting the endless war against drugs," per the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009.

      If marijuana was legalized and regulated, an estimated $8 billion would be saved annually in government spending on enforcement, including for the FBI and U.S.-Mexico border security.


      Primary reasons against legalizing marijuana are:

      • Social Reasons
      • Some Americans believe that marijuana ingestion is immoral, and that their moral standards should be required of all Americans.
      • Long-term or abusive use of marijuana can be harmful to a person's health and well-being.
      • Second-hand smoke from marijuana can be harmful to others.
      • Many allege that regular marijuana use can lead to use of harder, more harmful drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
      • Law Enforcement Reasons
      • Some opponents of legalizing marijuana believe that individuals involved in illegal buying and selling of the drug are more likely than average to be involved in other crimes, and that society is safer with marijuana offenders incarcerated.
      • Law enforcement agencies don't want to be construed as supporting drug use.
      There are no signficant fiscal reasons against U.S. legalization of marijuana.

      Where It Stands

      On June 23, 2011, a federal bill to fully legalize marijuana was introduced in the House by Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA.) The bill would remove marijuana from controlled substance classification.

      Commented Congressman Frank to the Christian Science Monitor, "Criminally prosecuting adults for making the choice to smoke marijuana is a waste of law enforcement resources and an intrusion on personal freedom.

      I do not advocate urging people to smoke marijuana, neither do I urge them to drink alcoholic beverages or smoke tobacco, but in none of these cases do I think prohibition enforced by criminal sanctions is good public policy."

      In November 2010, Californians will vote via state referendum whether or not "Californians over age 21 would be able to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, and grow their own plants on a plot up to 5 feet by 5 feet large."

      Additionally, Washington, New Hampshire and Massachusetts state legislatures are slated to vote on marijuana legalization bills in 2010. And more than 20 other states are considering bills to otherwise loosen criminalization of marijuana use and possession.

      Will President Obama Move to Legalize Medical Marijuana?

      Esquire magazine reported in December 2008, after Obama's election but before his inauguration, "Turns out, with several drug-war veterans close to the president-elect's ear, insiders think reform could come in Obama's second term -- or sooner."

      Certainly, Obama may move to decriminalize marijuana for medical reasons. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in February 2009: "During one campaign appearance, Obama recalled that his mother had died of cancer and said he saw no difference between doctor-prescribed morphine and marijuana as pain relievers. He told an interviewer in March that it was 'entirely appropriate' for a state to legalize the medical use of marijuana 'with the same controls as other drugs prescribed by doctors.'"

      States Could Be Given Jurisdiction Over Marijuana

      If President Obama does move to support decriminalization of marijuana, look for him to do so by granting states the jurisdiction to decide this issue, just as states decide marriage laws for their residents.

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      Your Citation
      White, Deborah. "Pros and Cons of Legalizing Marijuana." ThoughtCo, May. 13, 2017, White, Deborah. (2017, May 13). Pros and Cons of Legalizing Marijuana. Retrieved from White, Deborah. "Pros and Cons of Legalizing Marijuana." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 18, 2018).