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Outside the Bubble: Legalize it


Colorado and Washington state legalized marijuana for recreational use just over one year ago. Opponents warned that voters had created the new Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet both states are miraculously still standing and are implementing regulatory regimes to tax the drug and govern its distribution and use. To many residents, legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in states that allow its medicinal use must not have seemed remarkable. Reported cases of migraines, anxiety and sleep apnea among 20-somethings may plummet. But other than that, as time passes, it’s hard to fathom what had opponents of legalization in such a tizzy.

The medical case for continuing prohibition is more nebulous than smoke from a joint. Marijuana is less harmful to people’s health than tobacco. A 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared the long-term affects of weed and cigarettes. Habitual tobacco smokers, the study found, suffered greater lung damage than marijuana users over 20 years. In fact, the study actually downplayed the dangers of taking an infrequent toke. “Our findings suggest that occasional use of marijuana ... may not be associated with adverse consequences on pulmonary function,” Dr. Mark Pletcher, the paper’s main author,said.


The discrepancy between the two substances’ health effects has to do in part with the different ways in which they are used. Smokers take many fewer puffs of joints than drags of cigarettes. Opponents of legalization correctly note that if weed were smoked as frequently as tobacco, it would cause significant pulmonary damage. But there is nothing compelling or unique about this argument for continuing marijuana’s prohibition. Legalization may lure more people into trying weed, but there is no evidence to suggest that it will cause those individuals to abuse the drug grossly and habitually.

In addition to medical arguments, proponents of prohibition frequently rely on a favorite scare tactic: the “gateway drug” fallacy. In 1999, Congress called on the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies to draft a report on whether marijuana leads to the use of hard drugs. The Institute found, “There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.” With health concerns allayed, states should legalize, tax and regulate weed to generate revenue and ensure its safe use by those who are of age.

Legalizing marijuana would be an important step toward ending the ballooning incarceration rates in America brought on, in part, by the drug war. The pernicious, racially disparate impacts of America’s drug laws extend well beyond statutes pertaining to weed. But marijuana laws are indicative of the broader inequities ingrained in the criminal justice system. Blacks and whites use weed at roughly the same rates. Yet blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. These arrests, charges and convictions hamper applicants’ job prospects by forming a ceiling above which it is difficult to rise.

There are also strong financial incentives to legalize marijuana. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that ending weed’s prohibition would save the country $7.7 billion in enforcement annually. There are broader social costs to keeping marijuana illegal, in addition to direct government spending on enforcement. Tax revenue garnered from selling marijuana would also help alleviate states’ budgetary constraints. For example, Washington state projects that weed sales will yield up to $1.9 billion over five years. That money could go toward reducing a deficit, revitalizing a school system, rebuilding a road or any other shortage facing a state.

But legalization’s benefits aren’t only domestic. The billions in potential revenue come with an added national security benefit. The Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a highly respected Mexican think tank, estimated that legalizing marijuana would cost the Mexican cartels 30 percent of their earnings from trafficking. Legalization wouldn’t bring down the cartels overnight, as they generate profits from a slew of horrid ventures; when faced with diminished revenue, the cartels spawn new cash streams like the Hydra sprouts heads. Ending weed’s prohibition is only one important component of a broader strategy beat the cartels.

With no medical or fiscal case left to make, prohibition advocates peddle conflicting stereotypes about pot. It’s hard to argue that legalizing marijuana will both subdue a generation into scarfing Cheetos on the couch and be a ruinous social ill. Well, Americans are seeing through the charade in record numbers. For the first time, a majority of Americans — 58 percent, to be exact — favor legalizing the drug. The unprecedented support for ending prohibition evidences millenials’ undeniable independent streak. Whether it’s marijuana or gay marriage, young people today are asking their parents one simple question in increasing numbers: What’s the big deal?


David Will is a religion major from Chevy Chase, Md. He can be reached at

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