Marijuana is the most frequently used illicit drug in the United States. According to the 2011 National Household Study on Drug Abuse and Health, 18.1 million Americans are current (i.e., past month) users. In the year 2011, an estimated 3.1 million persons aged 12 or older used an illicit drug for the first time and 67.5 percent reported that their first drug was marijuana. There are over 100 million American adults who have tried cannabis and nearly 5 million people who report using marijuana on a daily or almost daily basis.
Despite the widespread use of marijuana, the substance is classified as illegal and prohibited by the federal government and the majority of U.S. states. Categorized as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana is defined as having no acceptable medicinal value and having a high potential for abuse. Marijuana control policy is based primarily on a system of criminalization that prohibits the possession, distribution, and production of the substance and emphasizes severe sanctions for drug law violators. Relying on a philosophy of deterrence, the U.S. criminal justice system attempts to control marijuana and its users through arrests and incarceration. The deterrence ideology contends that swift, certain, and harsh formal punishments will eliminate or at least minimize the use, possession, cultivation, and distribution of marijuana. These strong deterrence policies, manifested in the War on Drugs, result in the incarceration of countless U.S. citizens. These prohibitionist policies are continuously criticized, both in regard to efficacy and ethics, as American citizens are divided on the appropriate laws and regulations for cannabis.
Those who support the continued prohibition of marijuana believe that the illegality of the substance is ethically justified because the drug is a risk to the health of users and the overall safety of society. Prohibitionists claim that marijuana is a “gateway drug” and that the use of marijuana reliably predicts deeper and more severe drug involvements. They assert that marijuana should remain illegal because of its detrimental health impact and claim that marijuana causes cancer, psychological disorders, reproductive deficiencies, and destroys brain cells. From this point of view, marijuana use also produces “amotivational syndrome” and causes the user to become a lazy and unproductive member of society.
Prohibitionists also claim that marijuana is highly addictive and point to the fact that there are more young people in treatment for marijuana than any other illicit drug. Those who support criminalization also claim environmental hazards and assert that outdoor marijuana cultivation results in the destruction of natural habitats from diesel spills, pesticide runoff, and chemical pollution. Still, other Americans believe that the use of marijuana constitutes a moral transgression. They see prohibition as sending a moral message to marijuana users and society that drug use is both criminal and immoral. Overall, the prohibitionists steadfastly oppose legalization of marijuana and claim that legalization would increase the availability and use of cannabis and pose significant health and safety risks to all Americans, particularly young people.
In contrast, those who support the legalization or regulation and control of marijuana claim that prohibitionist policies are harmful to society and ethically dubious. Legalizers claim that policies of criminalization simply do not work and that marijuana is as widely available as ever. For example, according to the National Household Study on Drug Abuse and Health, almost half (47.7 percent) of youths aged 12 to 17 reported in 2011 that it would be “fairly easy” or “very easy” for them to obtain marijuana if they wanted some. Those against the prohibition of marijuana and the War on Drugs assert the fact that the moderate and recreational use of marijuana is no more, if not less, harmful to a person than the use of alcohol and tobacco. They point to the mounting scientific evidence that, contrary to earlier rhetoric, marijuana does not cause cancer, brain damage, psychological disorders, or reproductive deficiencies. Furthermore, they note that the vast majority of young people in treatment are not there because they have a substance abuse problem, but because they were caught with a criminalized substance and required to attend by parents, guardians, or the law as an alternative to prison.
Furthermore, those who criticize the prohibition of marijuana point to the enormous social and economic consequences of the War on Drugs, which has historically focused on marijuana. Despite the official rhetoric that the War on Drugs is focused on “hard drugs” and drug traffickers, according to the Uniform Crime Reports, of the 1,638,846 drug arrests in 2010, 853,808 were for marijuana. Of these arrests, 750,591 were simply for the possession of marijuana and constituted 45.8 percent of all drug arrests in 2010. The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world; in 2010, 50.4 percent of federal prisoners were incarcerated for drug offenses, more than all other crimes combined. There are approximately 100,000 more persons imprisoned in the United States for nonviolent drug offenses than in the European Union for all offenses combined, despite the fact that the European Union has 100 million more citizens.
Those who support the decriminalization (i.e., regulation and control) of marijuana argue that ethical problems are caused not by marijuana per se but by prohibition. While prohibitionists continually tout the health risks of marijuana and claim that marijuana prohibition protects citizens and children, those who support regulation and control disagree. They contend that while marijuana is not completely safe and can be abused, it is less addictive and harmful than alcohol and tobacco.
Legalizers stress the primary harm to society is the prohibition itself. They believe the policies of prohibition are ethically unjust as they criminalize large segments of the population and introduce people into the criminal justice system for nonviolent possession of marijuana. The continued criminalization of marijuana has numerous consequences for modern society such as massive incarceration rates, systemic violence, homicide, corruption of law enforcement and public officials, civil rights violations, racial profiling, drug contamination, disrespect for the law, family disintegration, and denial of social services, public housing, and education financial aid. Those arrested for marijuana felonies constitute a growing underclass who are denied the right to own a gun, vote in elections, serve on a jury, receive welfare benefits, attend college, or live in public housing. Legalizers assert that the health risks posed by marijuana pale in comparison to the social, economic, and ethical consequences of the war on marijuana.
Another debate concerning the continued prohibition of marijuana is the increasing evidence of its medicinal potential. Currently 18 states and the District of Columbia have removed criminal sanctions for the medical use of marijuana. Forces on opposing sides of the prohibition-legalization debate view medical marijuana laws as a route to its decriminalization or legalization. The federal government vigorously opposes policies aimed at medicalizing marijuana and continues to raid marijuana dispensaries and cultivators operating under state law. Ethically speaking, supporters of marijuana legalization for medicinal purposes argue that people should have access to marijuana as it treats a wide range of debilitating symptoms associated with conditions such as HIV, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, arthritis, and Crohn’s disease. Many politicians, health care professionals, doctors, and patients believe that sick people and their doctors should have the right to prescribe any medicine that may improve the life of the patient; to refuse to do so is unethical.
In 201e, both Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. Yet the debate continued, as prohibitionists called for the federal government to step in, assert federal power, and enforce the Controlled Substances Act. Again, those who opposed these legalization measures claimed legalization laws would severely threaten the public and safety goals and contradict the National Drug Control Strategy. Prohibitionists asserted that state legalization would make it impossible to comply with federal regulations and obstruct the achievement of Congress’s objectives to prohibit the use, sale, manufacture, and distribution of marijuana.
The ethical debate surrounding the legalization versus prohibition of cannabis will continue for years. However, as the massive spending, incarceration rates, and human rights violations of marijuana prohibition continue and mounting scientific evidence supports the efficacy and safety of medical cannabis, many states and local governments are rethinking marijuana prohibition.
- Chapkis, Wendy and Richard J. Webb. Dying to Get High: Marijuana as Medicine. New York: New York University Press, 2008.
- Clark, Pater, A. “The Ethics of Medical Marijuana: Government Restriction Versus Medical Necessity.” Journal of Public Health Policy, v.21 (2000).
- Duncan, Cynthia S. “The Need for Change: An Economic Analysis of Marijuana Policy.” Connecticut Law Review, v.41/5 (2009).
- Earleywine, Mitch. Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- O’Brien, Patrick K. “Medical Marijuana and Social Control: Escaping Criminalization and Embracing Medicalization.” Deviant Behavior, v.34/6 (2013).
- Office of National Drug Control Policy. “What Americans Need to Know About Marijuana: Important Facts About Our Nation’s Most Misunderstood Illegal Drug” (2010). https://www.ncjrs.gov/ondcppubs/publications/pdf/mj_rev.pdf (Assessed December 2011).
- Uniform Crime Reports, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice. “Crime in the United States: Arrests” (2011). http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2010/crime-in-the-u.s.-2010/personsarrested (Accessed November 2011).
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