Legalizing Marijuana: What are the Social Consequences?
Last Tuesday, Washington and Colorado voters overwhelmingly approved the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. The battle for legalization of marijuana has been going on for years, led by small groups of activists. Currently 12 states allow for the use of marijuana for medical reasons, including Washington State.
Why did Washington voters approve this initiative? I believe that the culture in our state is largely supportive of the rights of individual to engage in self-directed choice, as long as their choices don’t harm others. There were many other arguments for legalization too. Many voters could not understand why alcohol should be legal, but marijuana illegal. Certainly, they reasoned, alcohol may be more harmful to one’s health, despite the recent evidence that a glass of red wine is medicinal! Other voters felt that marijuana would be a good source of potential tax revenue for the state. Despite the controversy over the measure, it passed with a greater plurality than any of the other initiatives!
Of course, the federal government may have another view entirely. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, as part of the Controlled Substances Act. The United States government is considering what legal action to take, if any. Despite the potential for federal action, Washington State just dropped charges against hundreds of individuals who had been charged for illegal possession of marijuana. They reasoned that it made no sense to prosecute individuals for an act that would be legal in less than in a month.
Like the majority of Washingtonians, I voted for the legalization of marijuana. Discussing this initiative around the dinner table—my wife said “I hope you are not planning to smoke pot!” Personally, I have no interest in using marijuana (to my wife’s relief!). But I am wondering-- What will the legalization of marijuana mean to adults? How will it be used? What ripples will this law trigger in our social fabric? What about teenagers and marijuana use?
Possession and use of marijuana will still be illegal for minors under the age of 21!—just like alcohol. As a parent, this makes me happy. I do not believe that it is healthy for teens to use marijuana or alcohol. Their brains and bodies are still developing. Their judgment is poor. They are overly influenced by their peers. All of those factors are a recipe for misery. I know that despite the law, many youngsters do experiment with using alcohol and marijuana. But as a parent, my job is to discourage this use. And, there are many serious consequences for the abuse of these drugs. So Kiddos, this new law doesn’t apply to you!
But what about the social use of marijuana by adults? The social use of alcohol is endemic to our culture, and many other cultures. Will marijuana take its place? What will be the social and psychological consequences of its use? What will constitute abuse? How do the effects of marijuana differ from alcohol? What will be the potential positive and negative impact of its use?
I went to a work gathering this weekend. Wine was served with dinner. In the years ahead, will marijuana brownies be served for dessert? I certainly can’t imagine a bunch of health care providers smoking anything—marijuana or tobacco!
What will constitute abuse? We have driving laws which identify “impairment” as a blood level of alcohol above .08 on a breathalyzer test. We have a vast amount of medical evidence as to the effect of alcohol on the adult body--but what about marijuana? How much marijuana impairs judgment or performance? How does the use of marijuana impact close relationships? How much is too much? How often, is too often? I don’t think we have good answers to these questions.
Obviously, many adults are already using marijuana despite its current legal status. According to a 2007 national survey, sponsored by the federal government, over 40% of the adult population has used marijuana at some point in their life. Close to 100 million adults did “inhale” at least once in their life. These are complex and intriguing issues.
What do you think?