In 1996, marijuana was illegal everywhere in America. Now, just over twenty years later, cannabis has become a normalized substance: 33 states have legalized the drug in some form, ten states have legalized it for recreational use, and a majority of Americans now support legal pot. The effort to reverse the ban on weed has been fueled by worries of rising incarceration, the dangers of criminalization, and prospects of the drug’s beneficial health effects. But now that many case studies of legal pot exist in the U.S., can we definitively say that this effort has been justified?
Let’s start with an evaluation of crime. Supporters of marijuana decriminalization have argued that legalizing weed would eliminate black market transactions, thus legitimizing the cannabis industry. However, according to Atlantic writer Rene Chun, while some areas have seen a decrease of crime post-legalization, other areas have witnessed the opposite. In these places, increased demand, new regulations, and lower prices have only incentivized old-fashioned street deals and crop theft (1).
But concerns of increased crime do not stop at marijuana production. In the state of Washington, for example, homicide and assault rates increased 40% in the years following legalization, beating out increases in the national rate. This relationship could be a coincidence, as there hasn’t been enough research to confirm or deny causation. Before a conclusion can be made on the effect of legal weed on crime, more studies need to be developed to fully understand how the drug influences violent crime.
Marijuana legalization has also been debated in terms of health effects. A review from the journal Current Pharmaceutical Design highlights marijuana’s negative effects—such as poor judgment, reduced memory, and cognitive impairment—that can permanently alter brain development in teenagers (2). For adults, there may be a safe level of consumption, but that level has not been elucidated by research. Nevertheless, nearly half of all cannabis users consume the drug on a near-daily basis, and ten percent of all users admit to having issues, such as trouble quitting and a lack of responsibility (3).
So what about all the supposed health benefits of marijuana? In 2017, the National Academy of Medicine presented a report written by a panel of experts evaluating marijuana’s effects. The panel concluded that the claims of health benefits—in cancer, mental illness, pain, etc.—is largely insufficient (4). Insufficient evidence does not necessarily mean that cannabis should stay illegal, but it also doesn’t mean that weed should be romanticized as a medicinal panacea.
At this point, the reader might suspect that I will not be providing a definitive answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article. The truth is that, despite available legalization case studies, marijuana’s effects on crime, violence, and health are not well understood. The truth is that, despite the destigmatization and acceptance of weed by the American public in recent years, the benefits of legalized weed are not certain. Insufficient and conflicting evidence plague this issue, but if experts in the field can agree on anything, it’s that more research is desperately needed.
If you’re a pot enthusiast, don’t let this article ruin your high. Instead, be inspired to help change the unfortunate state of marijuana research by electing public officials committed to funding scientific study on the matter. In the meantime, remember that—while pot may not be the scary monster that some paint it out to be—it is also not the harmless, magic substance that others are glorifying.
Edited by: Anhthi Luong