The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington was a boon to stoners everywhere – if they weren’t taking pilgrimages to the new Pot Promised Land, they were reveling in the fact that each state victory on the marijuana front is potentially one step closer to legalization everywhere.
But is legal marijuana really the fiscal and medical savior that advocates claim it to be? Maybe, maybe not. Here, we weigh both sides of the debate.
Weed, the Super Drug…
Certainly the case for the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes in Washington and Colorado was aided by the relative success of medical marijuana programs in 22 states around the country. In fact, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a respected neurosurgeon and CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, wrote a cannabis love letter of sorts in 2013, retracting his previous opinion that marijuana should not be legalized. “…There are very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works,” wrote Gupta, recounting the story of Charlotte Figi, a Colorado woman whose 300-plus seizures per week has been reduced to 2 to 3 per month thanks to medical marijuana. “I have seen more patients like Charlotte first hand, spent time with them and come to the realization that it is irresponsible not to provide the best care we can as a medical community, care that could involve marijuana.”
Marijuana has been reported to help with medical issues ranging from simple pain relief, to glaucoma treatment, to an appetite stimulator for patients suffering from cancer, AIDS or anorexia. Even still, not everyone agrees with Gupta. “Smoking is generally a poor way to deliver medicine,” says Dr. Akikur Mohammad, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist with a specialty in addictive medicine. “As a doctor, I assure you that it is almost impossible to administer safe, regulated dosages of medicines in smoked form. Morphine, for example, has proven to be a medically valuable drug, but no responsible physician endorses smoking opium or heroin.”
Recent studies have also suggested that marijuana use in youth can lead to permanent damage, a problem that would likely be exacerbated by widespread legalization. Ultimately, though, definitive conclusions on the medical benefits or drawbacks of marijuana are hard to come by, since the drug’s status as a schedule 1 substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency makes it’s difficult to obtain even for research purposes.
Or Cash Cow?
Marijuana’s potential effect on the medical community may be unclear at this point, but one thing is certain: It’s economic impact is massive. In an interview with Katie Couric, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper estimated that his state will bring in between $60 and $100 million in marijuana-related taxes this year, and as much as $130 in 2015.
And when it comes to the war on drugs, the DEA’s much-maligned and generally unsuccessful attempt to stem the street drug trade, legal marijuana is a winner yet again. “By legalizing, regulating and taxing the drug, we are able to keep illegal inventory out of circulation,” says David Cohn, editor-in-chief of FloridaMarijuanaInfo.org. “By using seed-to-sale tracking systems like what Washington has put in place, all inventory is accounted for, which makes it nearly impossible to slip in illegal inventory from outside drug cartels. More importantly, making it easy and safe for people to get marijuana from legal dispensaries puts illegal drug dealers out of business. A recent FBI report noted that violent crime has gone down in places like Colorado where it has been legalized.” Hickenlooper shared a similar sentiment, stating that Colorado’s black market for weed had definitely been damaged.
There are expenses related to this brand new industry, however. Hickenlooper noted that, because the federal government still considers marijuana illegal, banks won’t accept money from drug retailers. As a result, Colorado is working to create a financial institution of it’s own to combat the issue, thus allowing the pot industry to graduate from it’s current cash-only status.
“The major drawback economically is the costs inferred by repealing the current laws and the costs of implementing and enforcing the proposed reforms,” adds Cohn. In Colorado Hickenlooper is also working to control the amount of THC (marijuana’s active ingredient) in edible products, as well as working on a campaign to discourage vulnerable adolescents from getting high.
The Jury’s Still Out
The legalization of marijuana will likely go down as one of the largest social experiments of the 21st century, and that’s just it – it’s an experiment. Proponents argue that the drug is no different (and perhaps safer and less addictive) than alcohol and tobacco. But at this point, determining whether marijuana works long-term as a legal industry is impossible to call. All we can do is wait and watch.
As Bill Clinton stated in his recent Meet the Press appearance, “We should leave it to the states. This really is a time when there should be laboratories of democracy because nobody really knows where this is going. Are there adequate quality controls? There’s pot and there’s pot; what’s in it? What’s going to happen? There are all these questions. And I think that, unlike where it is now, if the state wants to try it, they can. And then they’ll be able to see what happens.”