Medical Marijuana: The Road to Legalization?

May 25, 2010

The issue of medicinal use of marijuana is of growing national concern. Some 14 states have made it legal to use marijuana for medical purposes, with more likely to follow. In California, perhaps the best known example of a state legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes, they may soon be voting on the issue of full legalization. This would put them at odds with the federal government which under the Controlled Substances Act classifies marijuana as a drug in the same class as heroin, LSD, and others. There are a couple of issues at hand: whether or not there is some benefit from the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and whether or not this limited level of legalization will lead to complete decriminalization. (Actually, in the interests of accuracy I believe there is a difference between legalization and decriminalization; however, for my purposesĀ  I will use the term interchangeably)

There appears to be a growing consensus on the potential benefits of medical marijuana. In 2007-2008, 27 states considered medical marijuana legislation during their respective legislative sessions. Aside from the states which do protect patients and caregivers from criminal penalties, as many as 17 other states have statutes which recognize the benefits of medical marijuana but rely on cooperation from the federal government to be effective (which hasn’t happened). Meanwhile, the medical community has produced literature and evidence demonstrating positive results with marijuana to treat a range of diseases or symptoms including pain relief and appetite stimulants for cancer-stricken or HIV-positive patients. In many cases, patients find marijuana preferable to pharmaceutical alternatives because of fewer side effects. From a personal standpoint, I know which substance I would rather put in my body even if it were smoked.

The logical question then becomes whether or not this is more of a strategy to get the ball rolling on marijuana legalization in America. After all, sure there are benefits to medical marijuana, but there are also alternatives available which show to be effective in clinical trials. Why, then, is the nation’s largest marijuana legalization advocacy organization, NORML, pushing so hard for increased usage of medical marijuana? Sure, America has gone on a bit of a natural/organic-type health kick, but I don’t think marijuana gets lumped in there. There is always a benefit to having options, especially considering every person is different and certain drugs may work better for certain people. Realistically, though, marijuana seems to have relatively limited applicability in the medical field. So yes, medical marijuana is probably more of a legalization strategy than anything; and you know what? GOOD!

The prohibition of marijuana is one of the most asinine public policies in history. I would say it is right after Prohibition, but it’s lasted a hell of a lot longer, so isn’t it worse? How long will the shadow of Harry J. Anslinger’s ridiculous anti-marijuana campaign be cast over America? Marijuana won’t make you insane after a few uses. There is little scientific evidence which lends credence to the gateway drug theory; you usually are just dealing with individuals predisposed to experimentation or drug use. Is marijuana good for you? No, of course not (with the exception of particular medical patients). Is it any worse than tobacco, or even alcohol? Again, no.

The criminalization of marijuana has a tremendous impact on other aspects of public policy, too. From a criminal justice perspective, untold numbers of nonviolent marijuana offenders have been stigmatized by prison sentences and exposed to criminogenic networks within prison. Research shows that treatment is a much more effective policy than punishment, yet the lion’s share of funding goes to punishing drug offenders. President Obama has recently acknowledged this fact, but his budget priorities don’t share this recognition as funding remains largely disproportionate. And what about the possible revenue from regulated marijuana? California generated over $100 million in state taxes from their medical marijuana business.

So yeah, medical marijuana probably is part of a big-picture strategy for marijuana advocates in America. But, so what? Maybe they’re right, and you can’t fault them for pursuing a strategy which has largely been successful to-date. Polls show Americans favor legalization for medicinal purposes, but not for recreational use. Maybe it is the case that there is only one way to discredit the lies and absurdities which persist from the Anslinger era and that way is to slowly change the perceptions of marijuana and marijuana users. If it helps change one of the worst public policies, in my opinion, in American history then I’m all for it.