Pot culture | What America’s changing opinion on marijuana means for public policy
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

Pot culture What America’s changing opinion on marijuana means for public policy

, Rare Staff

Who uses marijuana?

Bad people, drug addicts, criminals, heathens, lazy progressive college students and old hippies. At least that’s the stereotype.

Marijuana, or cannabis – differences in terms are explained here – offers many things to many people. For veterans, it’s comfort from decades-long battles with PTSD. For children, it’s an answer to violent epileptic seizures. For others, it’s post-surgical pain relief, help with mental illness or medicine for chronic illness. To all patients, it offers hope.

While more and more Americans are discovering the benefits of marijuana, many others have yet to see the light. But according to Pew Research Center, those in favor of legalization have already overtaken majority opinion on the matter and continue to rise in number. And it’s a diverse position. As Pew Research Center notes, support has steadily risen among all age groups, with some groups falling back every so often. Support also transcends political party, evidenced by the 63 percent of Republican millennials who favor legalizing the drug.

The shift in support for legalization comes with more education about marijuana. In 2015, Pew Research Centerreported that of the 53 percent of Americans who supported legalization that year, the first and second most popular reasons for doing were because of medical benefits and because they believed that it was safer than alcohol and cigarettes:

When asked, in their own words, why they favor or oppose legalizing marijuana, people on opposite sides of the issue offer very different perspectives. But a common theme is the danger posed by marijuana: Supporters of legalization mention its perceived health benefits, or see it as no more dangerous than other drugs. To opponents, it is a dangerous drug, one that inflicts damage on people and society more generally.

The most frequently cited reasons for supporting the legalization of marijuana are its medicinal benefits (41%) and the belief that marijuana is no worse than other drugs (36%) – with many explicitly mentioning that they think it is no more dangerous than alcohol or cigarettes.

The medical benefits of marijuana have become a blessing to children, veterans, the mentally ill, and the physically ill. The American Cancer Society provides a breakdown of the substance, which “has been used in herbal remedies for centuries.” The chemical component delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, “can help relieve pain and nausea, reduce inflammation, and can act as an antioxidant.” The chemical component cannabidiol, or CBD, “can help treat seizures, can reduce anxiety and paranoia, and can counteract the ‘high’ caused by THC.” There are other benefits, including easing “vomiting and nausea” from chemotherapy treatments, treating neuropathic pain and assisting HIV patients in regaining their appetites. Though the American Cancer Society has stated that more research is required to better develop effective remedies, marijuana’s classification as an illegal drug hinders scientific advances.

The shift in support for legalization comes with more education about marijuana.

Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD, ecstasy, methaqualone and peyote. Schedule I drugs “have a high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence,” a descriptor that appears to apply less and less to marijuana as more research is performed. In fact, the argument that marijuana is a safer substance than legal alternatives is absolutely correct. Marijuana is approximately 114 times safer than the two most popular recreational drugs, which are mysteriously missing from the DEA’s list: alcohol and tobacco cigarettes:

Researchers sought to quantify the risk of death associated with the use of a variety of commonly-used substances. They found that at the level of individual use, alcohol was the deadliest substance, followed by heroin and cocaine.

And all the way at the bottom of the list? Weed — roughly 114 times less deadly than booze, according to the authors, who ran calculations that compared lethal doses of a given substance with the amount that a typical person uses. Marijuana is also the only drug studied that posed low mortality risk to its users.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2015 that more than six out of 10 drug overdose deaths involved an opioid, such as prescription opioid painkillers or heroin. Marijuana has been the cause of zero overdose deaths. A 20-year study on the drug by Dr. Wayne Hall of the University of Queensland – both Mic and the Washington Post do a wonderful job debunking any misunderstandings from the study – concludes what many already suspected about the nature of marijuana. The Washington Post explains:

“The estimated fatal dose [of THC, the primary active compound in marijuana] in humans derived from animal studies is between 15 and 70 grams. This is a far greater amount of cannabis that even a very heavy cannabis user could use in a day,” Hall writes. The average joint contains about a half a gram of marijuana, and the average potency of seized marijuana in 2013 was 12.58 percent, which means there are about 0.06 grams of THC in the average joint, which means that somebody would need to smoke somewhere between 238 and 1,113 joints in a day – or at least 10 joints an hour, for 24 hours straight – before overdose could become a realistic concern.

Is marijuana without its risks? Of course not. It is never a wise idea to operate a vehicle under the influence of a substance or show up at your place of work with bloodshot eyes. However, many arguments against marijuana’s use quickly become hypocritical when they very well could be applied to alcohol. Two years ago, Jacob Sullum Reason Magazine did a very fair job addressing one of marijuana’s critics. Anti-marijuana activist Kevin Sabet of the Heritage Foundation argued that marijuana was, in fact, a killer. As Sullum pointed out, Sabet’s reefer madness was little more than a verdict based on barely-there, circumstantial evidence and ignorance of proportion:

What is the comparable figure for marijuana? Tellingly, Sabet does not have one, but he wants you to know it is more than zero. To recap, these are the annual death tolls from three of our most popular drugs, the first two of which happen to be legal:

Tobacco: 480,000

Alcohol: 88,000

Marijuana: > 0

“You can’t say marijuana doesn’t kill anybody,” Sabet declares. No, but you can say that marijuana’s relative hazards have nothing to do with its legal status.

Similar to the shift in attitudes towards legalization, the face of marijuana consumption is rapidly changing. Marijuana use once called to mind gangsters, cartels and broken souls, but there are some people working to change that.

Marijuana is slowly becoming an integral part of society, whether it be found in gatherings between suburban moms…

…or as a staple ingredient in fine dining.

Changes in the casual views and use of marijuana are also coinciding with a shift in attitudes toward drug addiction and the drug war.

Even Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), who himself is anti-legalization, had a profound message about the way drug addicts in general should be treated. During his run in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Christie spoke about his mother on the campaign trail. Christie’s mother passed away from lung cancer:

No one came to me and said, “Hey listen your mother was dumb she started smoking when she was 16, and then after we told her it was bad for her, she kept doing it. So we are not going to giver her chemotherapy, we are not going to giver her radiation, we are not going to give her any of that stuff. You know why? Because she is getting what she deserves.” No one said that. No one said about someone who had cancer.

Yet somehow if it’s heroin, cocaine or alcohol we say, “Uh, they decided. They are getting what they deserve.”

Christie also spoke of his friend, an Ivy League student, a married man, a father of three and a partner at a law firm. Following a running accident, Christie’s friend was given Percocet, a prescription pill made up of acetaminophen and oxycodone. His friend died of an overdose after a 10-year battle in and out of rehab. “By every measure that we define success in this country, this guy had it. He had everything. He’s a drug addict. And he couldn’t get help, and he’s dead.” Christie called for treatment over jail. He cited his pro-life values, saying, “I’m pro-life. And I think that if you’re pro-life, that means you got to be pro-life for the whole life. Not just for the nine months they are in the womb.”

Christians and law enforcement have also joined the cause. In 2015, the 600 churches of the New England Conference of United Methodist Churches signed a resolution asking that the drug war will be revisited:

Our United Methodist Book of Discipline charges us to seek restorative, not punitive, justice. Specifically, it states:

In the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable, we urge the creation of a genuinely new system for the care and restoration of victims, offenders, criminal justice officials, and the community as a whole. Restorative justice grows out of biblical authority, which emphasizes a right relationship with God, self and community. When such relationships are violated or broken through crime, opportunities are created to make things right. (BOD PP164, H)


Be it Resolved: That the New England Annual Conference supports seeking means other than prohibition to address the problem of substance abuse; and is further resolved to support the mission of the international educational organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) to reduce the multitude of unintended harmful consequences resulting from fighting the war on drugs and to lessen the incidence of death, disease, crime and addiction by ending drug prohibition.

Other Christians have called for the legalization of marijuana or an end to the drug war. Their calls for reform are mirrored by retired law enforcement officers like Howard Wooldridge and his peers, who are members of advocacy groups such as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Civilians Opposing Prohibition.

These officers believe that prohibition aides addiction:

Founded on March 16, 2002, LEAP is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization made up of current and former members of the law enforcement and criminal justice communities who are speaking out about the failures of our existing drug policies. Those policies have failed, and continue to fail, to effectively address the problems of drug abuse, especially the problems of juvenile drug use, the problems of addiction and the problems of crime created by criminal control of illegal drug sales.

By continuing to fight the so-called “War on Drugs,” the US government has worsened these problems of society instead of alleviating them. A system of regulation and control of these substances (by the government, replacing the current system of control by the black market) would be a less harmful, less costly, more ethical and more effective public policy.

But what do the evolving attitudes of private citizens, organizations and advocates mean for policy?

The American voters answered that question in November. Though the country divided among presidential choices and political parties, marijuana “won” on the ballots of several states. Americans in four states – California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada – voted to make the recreational use of marijuana legal. Four more – Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota – voted to make the medical use of marijuana legal. Only one other state with marijuana on the ballot – Arkansas – rejected its legal use. The first four states now join peers such as Colorado and Washington, which are currently reaping the vast economic benefits of the substance.

Regardless, this detailed map of marijuana laws by state show that there is still a long fight ahead.

The history of the ‘war on drugs’

This is part five of our series “Pardon,” examining the state of nonviolent criminal justice reform as the Obama presidency comes to a close.

Zuri Davis About the author:
Zuri Davis is a media writer for Rare. Follow her on Twitter @RiEleDavis.
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