Marijuana is now legal in several states out west, and the world has yet to end. That’s part of why two Connecticut lawmakers, Reps. Edwin Vargas, D-Hartford, and Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, want to bring legalization east.
Is that a good idea? What will happen if we fully legalize marijuana?
Conventional wisdom on that breaks down into two camps: One side says that crime will go up, use will go up, and that all of this will pose a serious public health risk. The other says that legalization will save the government money, help keep people out of jail, and otherwise not make life too different.
Which is true: dystopia or pothead paradise? Well, like most things, the reality falls somewhere in the murky middle.
That legalization brings in revenue isn’t in doubt. So far taxes on marijuana on Colorado have brought in more than $39 million in revenue, which, for a state staring at a deficit, is nothing to sneeze at. Other states are seeing similar windfalls.
However, as legalization becomes more common across the country – and there’s no reason at this point to think it won’t – these effects will start to diminish. This is sort of like gambling: it brought in a lot of revenue when Foxwoods was the only casino this side of New York City, but now that casinos are a lot more common, each new casino brings in less and less. So sure, the state will get some money, but it may be less than we think.
What about use going up? Based on experiences following the intermediate steps of medical marijuana and marijuana decriminalization – which made it so that possessing a small amount of marijuana would be punishable by a relatively small fine instead of much larger fines and jail time – it’s not abundantly clear that marijuana use rates would go up significantly, if at all.
As for crime, at least one report suggests that crime rates went up after medical marijuana legalization and/or decriminalization, though it’s not clear why that happened. But Colorado reports after one year of legalization that violent crime rates are actually down, as are traffic fatalities. These look like continuations of ongoing trends, which means that in one state, at least, the immediate effects were almost negligible.
What about health effects, though? The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that marijuana has a “wide range of effects, particularly on cardiopulmonary and mental health.” A 2014 meta-study published in the New England Journal of Medicine does suggest that some of these health risks are reasonably well-documented, but that there are plenty of “confounding factors” that make assessing the severity of those risks difficult. The science seems to boil down to the following: marijuana is definitely harmful, but we’re still not certain just how harmful it is.
So we’re left with frustrating uncertainty. Public opinion actually favors legalization, but the governor has said that he won’t sign a legalization bill. Would it really be worth trying to change his mind if there isn’t a clear answer one way or the other?
I think it is, for a couple of reasons.
First, let’s admit it: Lots of people in this state smoke pot, and for the most part they get it from illicit dealers. Naturally, there’s no regulation of their products. Because of that, over the past decades we’ve seen a rise in the psychoactive ingredient THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) content of marijuana from 3 percent in 1980 to about 12 percent today. The various studies out there suggest that the dangers of marijuana increase as the THC percentage goes up. Trying to get people to stop using marijuana hasn’t been effective, and neither has trying to stop the production and trafficking of the drug. Doesn’t it make sense to try and at least make it safer?
It also makes sense to bring marijuana use and sale out of the shadows. If someone you love is going to use marijuana anyway, wouldn’t you rather they acquired it safely?
We have such a strange relationship with various drugs, both legal and not. A lot of us drink alcohol or smoke tobacco cigarettes, for instance. In both of those cases, the government and public health advocates have opted to try and educate the public, regulate the sale and composition of tobacco and alcohol, and impose significant “sin taxes” instead of banning them. Maybe that’s the way to go here.
It’s not a perfect solution, to be sure. But our current drug policies don’t work at all. Let’s use our common sense and give these bills the consideration they deserve.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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