The history of marijuana in the United States is more rhetoric than chronicle. President Ronald Reagan once famously said, “smoking even one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast.” In the '90s, former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates told the U.S. Senate that casual drug users were traitors and “ought to be taken out and shot.” Today, nearly half the United States has legalized marijuana in some capacity — be it for medical or recreational use — and as far as we can tell, the effects have been at worst benign and at best beneficial.
The debate over marijuana, which started in the early 1900s in response to an influx of Mexican immigrants and the subsequent news coverage that claimed marijuana use was driving them to madness and murder, has taken several tones over the decades. But it wasn’t until recently that researchers could capture the necessary data to begin adequately assessing the effects of legalization.
When states such as Colorado and Washington took steps to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, the public was split, and a large argument from the dissenting side was that easier access to the drug was going to spur increased usage among teens.
Not an H-Bomb
In the December 2015 issue of The CBHSQ Report, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration published the results of a survey spanning 2012 to 2014 that documented marijuana use among adolescents 12 to 17 years old. Throughout the surveyed period, drug use among the youth of Colorado increased just over 1 percent, from 11.16 percent to 12.56 percent. However, while this increase coincides with the state legalization of marijuana, similar increases occurred in states without the same recreational freedoms, including New Jersey, California, Washington, D.C. (which legalized recreational marijuana use in November 2014), Kansas, Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine and Maryland. SAMHSA considered the increases statistically insignificant.
A separate study published last year in The Lancet Psychiatry, which pulled 24 years of pot-use data among over a million teenagers in 48 states, bolstered the findings of the SAMHSA survey, showing no correlation between the legalization of marijuana and increased usage.
But we can’t pretend that more teens smoking pot is the only concern about legalization. Its opponents cite health concerns as well, though none as extreme as President Reagan’s.
Health, Taxes, Crime and Border Security
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, there are negative effects to prolonged marijuana use — things like breathing problems and an increased heart rate. But while those problems exist, they are no worse, and, in fact, are less severe, than the problems stemming from much more common recreational drugs such as nicotine and alcohol. In a recent report from the Boston Globe, Colorado’s leading public health department official, Dr. Larry Wolk, confirmed that since legalization, “no large trouble public health trends have cropped up.”
The wider trends that have cropped up from legalization, however, have been largely positive, including a decrease in the amount of cannabis seized along the U.S.-Mexico border and a massive swelling of revenues for the states able to tax it. In May 2015, Colorado generated $82 million in taxes from adult marijuana use and $102 million in fees and taxes from related businesses, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. As a result, Business Insider ranked the state as the number-one fastest-growing economy in the United States. Washington, which legalized recreational marijuana use in July 2014, was named the seventh fastest-growing economy.
Thousands of jobs are being generated, tourism in legal states is on the rise, home prices in the marijuana centers such as Denver, are skyrocketing, and crime seems to be trending downward. It’s like Ron Kammerzell of the Colorado Department of Revenue said: “…the sky hasn’t fallen…”