Pros and Cons of Legalizing Marijuana in the U.S.

Cannabis plants grow under artificial lights
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According to a 2017 poll, 52% percent of American adults have tried marijuana at some point in their lives. The dried blossom of cannabis sativa and cannabis indica plants, marijuana has been used for centuries as an herb, a medicine, hemp for rope-making, and as a recreational drug.

Did You Know?

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

As of 2018, the U.S. government claims the right to—and does—criminalize the growing, selling, and possession of marijuana in all states. This right is not given to them by the Constitution but by the U.S. Supreme Court, most notably in their 2005 ruling in Gonzales v. Raich. This case upheld the right of the federal government to ban marijuana use in all states in spite of the dissenting voice of Justice Clarence Thomas, who stated: "By holding that Congress may regulate activity that is neither interstate nor commerce under the Interstate Commerce Clause, the Court abandons any attempt to enforce the Constitution's limits on federal power."

Brief History

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. temperance 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 the production and distribution of the drug.

In spite of federal regulations, eleven states have voted to legalize the growth, use, and distribution of marijuana within their borders and many others are debating whether or not to do the same.

Pros and Cons of Legalization

Primary reasons in support of legalizing marijuana include:

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 as well as regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
  • Marijuana has proven medical benefits for patients suffering from a host of ailments and diseases, including cancer, AIDS, and glaucoma.
  • 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

  • According to the FBI Unified Crime Statistics, marijuana accounted for 3.3% of sale/manufacturing drug crime arrests and 36.8% of possession and use drug crime arrests in 2018. As a result, marijuana arrests place a significant burden on our judicial system.
  • 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. According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, combined four-year sales of marijuana for that state since it legalized cannabis in 2014 has now topped $7.6 billion.
  • "... mainstream pundits like The Blaze's Glenn Beck and political commentator 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 were legalized and regulated, the industry could generate up to $106.7 billion annually for local, state, and federal governments. Some estimates say that the government spends $29 billion annually on drug prohibition alone and that this too could be saved by legalizing marijuana.

Primary reasons against legalizing marijuana include:

Social Reasons

  • In much the same way that pro-life advocates seek to make abortion illegal for all based on moral grounds, so too do some Americans wish to make marijuana illegal because they believe its use is immoral.
  • 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 the 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 significant fiscal reasons against the U.S. legalizing marijuana.

Legal Background

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

  • Prohibition, 1919 to 1933: As the 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: This act pushed the states, rather than federal authorities, to regulate narcotics.
  • Marijuana Tax Act of 1937: People who sought certain medical benefits of marijuana could now do so freely, provided they paid an excise tax.
  • 1944, New York Academy of Medicine: The esteemed institution bucked current thinking by putting out a report finding that marijuana does not "induce violence, insanity or sex crimes."
  • Narcotics Control Act of 1956: This piece of legislation set mandatory prison sentences and fines for drug offenses, including for marijuana.
  • 1960s Counter-Culture Movement: U.S. marijuana use grew rapidly during this time. Studies commissioned by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson concluded that "marijuana use did not induce violence."
  • 1970: 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: President Nixon created the DEA to enforce the controlled substances regulations and laws of the United States.
  • Oregon Decriminalization Bill of 1973: In spite of federal regulations, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize marijuana.
  • 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."
  • The Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act of 1978: By passing this act in its legislature, New Mexico became the first state in the Union to legally recognize the medical value of marijuana.
  • 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": In his Presidential Address of September 5, George H.W. Bush outlined a new strategy to combat the evils of drug use and trafficking, led by Bill Benett, the nation's first-ever drug policy director.
  • 1996 in California: Voters legalized marijuana use for cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, and other patients, via a doctor's prescription.
  • 1996 to 2018, nationwide: The war on drugs continued, yet marijuana was either legalized for consumption, legalized for medical use, or decriminalized in 42 states.
  • February 25, 2009Attorney General Eric Holder announced that "federal agents will now target marijuana distributors only when they violate both federal and state laws," which effectively meant that if a state had legalized marijuana, the Obama administration would not override state law. 
  • Cole Memorandum of 2013: US Attorney General James M. Cole conveys to federal prosecutors that they should not expend resources prosecuting state-legal marijuana businesses, except in the case of one of eight law enforcement priorities, such as distributing pot to minors or across state lines. 
  • 2018: Vermont became the first state to legalize recreational cannabis by way of the state legislature.
  • January 4, 2018: Attorney Jeff Sessions rescinds a trio of Obama-era rules, including the Holder and Cole memorandums, which had adopted a policy of non-intervention in marijuana-friendly states.

Moves to Legalize

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.)  Said Congressman Frank to the Christian Science Monitor of the bill: 

"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."

Another bill to decriminalize marijuana across the country was introduced on February 5, 2013, by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). Neither of the two bills made it out of the House.

The states, on the other hand, have taken matters into their own hands. By 2018, nine states and Washington, D.C. had legalized recreational use of marijuana by adults. Thirteen additional states have decriminalized marijuana, and a full 33 allow its use in medical treatment. By January 1, 2018, legalization was on the docket for another 12 states; now, the total is 11 states and Washington, D.C.

Federal Push Back

To date, no U.S. president has supported the decriminalization of marijuana, not even President Barack Obama, who, when asked at a March 2009 online town hall meeting about marijuana legalization, laughingly demurred, 

"I don't know what this says about the online audience.” He then continued, "But, no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.” This in spite of the fact that Obama told the crowd at his 2004 appearance at Northwestern University, "I think the war on drugs has been a failure, and I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws."

Almost one year into Donald Trump’s presidency, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a January 4, 2018 memo to United States Attorneys, rescinded the Obama-era policies discouraging federal prosecution of marijuana cases in those states where the drug was legal. This move outraged many pro-legalization advocates on both sides of the aisle, including conservative political activists Charles and David Koch, whose general counsel, Mark Holden, blasted both Trump and Sessions for the move. Roger Stone, President Trump’s former campaign adviser, called the move by Sessions a “cataclysmic mistake."

If any president were to publicly support the nationwide decriminalization of marijuana, he or she would likely do so by granting states the jurisdiction to decide this issue, just as states decide marriage laws for their residents.

View Article Sources
  1. "Yahoo News/Marist Poll: Weed & The American Family." MaristPoll. Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, 17 Apr. 2017.

  2. "Marijuana Overview - Legalization." National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 Oct. 2019.

  3. "Cannabis (Marijuana) and Cannabinoids: What You Need To Know." National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 5 Dec. 2019.

  4. "Persons Arrested." 2018 Crime in the United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

  5. "Marijuana Sales Reports." Colorado Department of Revenue.

  6. Miron, Jeffrey. "The Budgetary Effects of Ending Drug Prohibition." Tax and Budget Bulletin No. 83. Cato Institute, 23 July 2018.

  7. Moran, Thomas J. "Just a Little Bit of History Repeating: The California Model of Marijuana Legalization and How it Might Affect Racial and Ethnic Minorities." Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice, vol. 17, no. 2, 1 Apr. 2011, pp.557-590.

  8. "State Medical Marijuana Laws." National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 Oct. 2019.

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Your Citation
White, Deborah. "Pros and Cons of Legalizing Marijuana in the U.S." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, White, Deborah. (2021, July 31). Pros and Cons of Legalizing Marijuana in the U.S. Retrieved from White, Deborah. "Pros and Cons of Legalizing Marijuana in the U.S." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 23, 2021).