Coming off the High: What’s the Real Deal with Marijuana Legalization in the US?


Cannabis, marijuana, weed, pot, etc. has been the subject of a growing debate in the United States, especially as more and more states are not only legalizing it for medical use but for recreational purposes as well.

Many more states are coming out with variations of marijuana legalization laws besides the twenty three already out (“State”). States across the US are turning to a more tolerant view of marijuana decriminalization, with “Portland, Me., and three Michigan cities just pass[ing] measures legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults” and “activists in Massachusetts…pushing to put a full legalization referendum on the ballot in 2016” (Hall).

Looking at the entire population of the United States, however, the line is much hazier (no pun intended). The gap between those who thought marijuana should be legal and should not be legal was quite dramatic from the 1970s to the early 2000s with the latter belief held as the most popular. According to a Gallup Poll, in 1969, 84% of people in the United States stated that marijuana use should not be legalized, as compared to 12% asserting it should. This was the largest gap. Now, flash forward almost a half century to 2009-ish where the standing was 54-44%, with those opposing legalization coming out ahead. But then a tiny shift occurred, so small yet very profound. Around 2010-2011, the numbers changed ever so slightly and those calling for legalized marijuana became the majority by a few percentage points. By 2013 there was a 58-39% standing with the pro-marijuana people decisively leading (Folsom). Yet, this gap is still moving, closing actually, with 51-47% being the most recent projection according to Gallup (Saad). Those for marijuana legalization are still ahead, but not by much.

It is hard to say whether these shifts in perspective are because of a cultural shift in the tolerance of marijuana or a political restructuring of society. According to a Gallup poll, “in contrast to high levels of support among liberals and solid support among moderates, less than a third of conservative Americans think marijuana should be legal. As a result, such measures are likely to be more viable in relatively liberal locales” (Saad). So there is definitely a shift in perspectives, but only among those with certain political agendas. And whether marijuana legalization is actually helping the country is another long-winded and complex debate.

On the one hand, there are people arguing for the economic benefits of legalizing marijuana, and their points carry some weight and evidence, but there are also certain structural pieces that may need to be looked at twice. For example, “Cannabis growers have been left to improvise since no commercial pesticides are labeled for legal use on cannabis plants.” As a consequence, some weird chemicals have been caught being used on marijuana farms, which is hardly a safe situation for marijuana consumers (Haun). Furthermore, like alcohol abuse with teens, there has been an increase in weed consumption, which has caused “education problems in middle schools and high schools” as well as “a spike in ‘edibles’-related emergency room visits” (Haun). These issues are serious and need to be dealt with in effective ways.

Marijuana may be a “minor” drug, but like alcohol, its effects are still precarious. Unlike alcohol, however, there are fewer regulations and law enforcement strategies surrounding cannabis consumption in those areas of the United States where the drug is legalized for recreational use. This is a structural issue that needs attention if people ever want to see marijuana become part of this country’s culture. Or, for those who do not, it is still problematic as the number of “marijuana-intoxicated driving” cases and the “illegal movement of vast amounts of cannabis product into other states” increase (Haun).

But to end on a more positive note, there have been movements to use marijuana legalization in influential and beneficial ways. Nicholas Erker bought an abandoned prison in the Colorado town of Brush which he plans to transform into a marijuana factory. It is interesting to note that “the lack of crime means jails are empty and its place sprouts weed,” a consequence that may or may not have resulted from legalizing marijuana (Bard). In any case, it is a distinctly ironic occurrence and could mean something symbolically as well. No longer needing the jail space for minor drug crimes, Colorado can devote more time into planting the crop that seems to be changing the face of the economy: a seeming win-win in either case.