It is interesting to observe that, even as American attitudes regarding marijuana usage have significantly relaxed in recent decades, debate still rages as to legalizing the substance on a national level. While certain states have already so altered marijuana’s former criminal status, others remain reluctant, and this reinforces the divisiveness of opinion. It is as well opinion ranging from an outright conviction that marijuana is a dangerous psychoactive drug and a “gateway” substance encouraging use of other narcotics, to beliefs that it is in fact less pernicious or harmful to the individual than alcohol, which is of course legal for adults. In the following, then, the varied thinking fueling the debate on legalization of marijuana is explored, with due attention given to the alternating viewpoints and facts culled from research.
Debate: Opposition to Legalization
A variety of aspects seem to mark those most opposed to marijuana legalization, and a recent Pew survey identified religion as strongly influencing thinking on the subject. The two populations most against legalization, in fact, are white Protestants and Hispanic Catholics. Moreover, frequency of worship attendance also goes to how opposition exists. Of those who attend services on a consistent weekly basis, for example, 63 percent oppose legalization, while those who sporadically attend and are against legalization come to 38 percent (Galston, Dionne, 2013, p. 8). The implication is then both reasonably arrived at and clear; for such populations, using marijuana is a moral issue, and one defying the faith-based principles of the opponents. If this is a viewpoint at least partially based on longstanding perceptions of marijuana as promoting laziness, use of other drugs, and a general dismissal of social norms, the greater reality is that it strongly motivates opposition and reflects a deep-seated antipathy to the substance.
Then, and as noted, there is no escaping that marijuana is a drug; this being the reality, opponents to legalization often perceive it as “opening the door” to the legalization of other narcotics and control substances (Caulkins, 2012, p. 125). Research does not support this as a reality, by any means. It is established that young people who use marijuana are more likely to turn to other drugs than those who never use it. At the same time, however, there is no means of ascertaining how other factors in the individual’s life may promote such usage; more exactly, it is at least arguable that the same personality traits prompting the marijuana use would encourage experimentation with other drugs regardless of the marijuana (Caulkins, p. 68). Nonetheless, opposition to legalization tends to focus on the statistics, and insist that using the substance promotes addiction and/or interest in harder and more dangerous drugs.
Ultimately, it appears that this form of opposition primarily relies on beliefs reflecting ethical concerns, and legalization opponents tend to express an aversion to marijuana based on how it alters behavior, and is perceived as encouraging idleness and/or dissolute behavior. This being the case, opposition is typically more adamant than support, as even supporters of legalization have difficulty in perceiving marijuana use as a positive good (Galston, Dionne, p. 3). Consequently, the opposition stance remains all the more firm, as it is inherently difficult at best to express unqualified support for any recreational substance.
Support of Legalization
Questions of morality aside, a number of powerful arguments go to legalizing marijuana, and one of the most significant is how other nations have either decriminalized or legalized marijuana, and with no observable negative consequences. Beginning in the 1970s, for example, the Netherlands led the European movement in legalizing cannabis, as the nation remains the most liberal in terms of production, trafficking, and consumption. What is notable here, however, is that there is no evidence of usage as having increased since the changes in the law (Reuter, 2010, p. 3). Then, increasing numbers of Western nations are relaxing or eliminating criminal status as attached to usage, and with no documented issues as ensuing.
Other rationales also go to support, and a persuasive one is based on how criminalization has thus far been unable to stem marijuana traffic. Interestingly: “A significant minority favor legalization, not because they think that smoking marijuana is an affirmative good, but because they doubt the ability of law to enforce a prohibition against it” (Galston, Dionne, 2013, p. 4). The argument is strong, as is another going to the economy. Importantly, legalization would completely reverse the drain on the society created by this single aspect of the “drug war.” With marijuana as legal, the government may turn from vast expenditures in policing those who use it to gaining significant tax revenues (Caulkins, p. 168). Supporters also, and with some justification, cite the legality of alcohol, widely known to harm health and alter behavior, as an incontrovertible reason to make marijuana legal.
It may well be that many in the society believe that marijuana as legalized by every state or be federal law is only a matter of a few years’ time. Such a view, however, ignores the critical reality that bias against the substance remains strong in large numbers of the population, and that the perception of marijuana as a harmful narcotic persists. Some states have legalized cannabis and more are permitting the sale of medical marijuana, but this of itself does not guarantee a national end to opposition. In the final analysis, then, it is logical to conclude that the marijuana legalization debate in the U.S. is far from being resolved.