Art by Rosie Robinson

The legalization of marijuana has been one of the most polarizing and prevalent issues confronting America in recent years, reflecting changing attitudes towards social issues. Today, marijuana is recreationally legal in four states and medically legal in twenty-three states and Washington D.C. Florida voters recently failed to ratify an amendment to the state constitution that would have legalized cultivation, purchase, possession and use of medical marijuana as a means to treat certain medical ailments.

After decades of national dismissal of the plant, the national attitude towards marijuana has evolved immensely. While vehement rejection of marijuana still exists, the stance towards marijuana is much more mild and open-minded than in years past. This change in the conversation has come about because of marijuana’s medicinal qualities and economic benefits.

After recent innovation in implementation by doctors, medical marijuana has gained traction throughout the medical community for an array of medicinal benefits. Because of the naturally occurring pain-killing cannabinoids within the cannabis plant, marijuana has been used to treat the painful symptoms of gout, HIV and multiple sclerosis. Marijuana has also been used to treat the blinding symptoms of glaucoma. In addition, patients suffering from suppressed appetite, nausea and vomiting have looked to marijuana to treat these ailments.

Despite these medical benefits of marijuana, there are still medical detriments. The THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) in marijuana binds with cannabinoid receptors within the brain, affecting the user’s attention, judgment and balance. The main side effect propagated by marijuana’s detractors is that marijuana causes cancer, as determined by the National Institutes of Health. Studies investigating this proposition remain inconclusive. One key factor regarding the issue of marijuana is the level of THC within the plant today. During the beginning of its popularity in the 1960’s, marijuana contained about 1-3 percent THC. However, the average THC potency in marijuana today is around 12.3 percent, according to a recent Harvard study. This recent increase in THC potency creates a problem when investigating the health effects of marijuana.

Along with the changing view of marijuana as a legitimate medical treatment, people have begun to examine the economic benefits of marijuana. Three hundred economists have signed a petition recognizing a recent study conducted by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron. The study concluded that the U.S. could save up to $13.7 billion if it were to legalize and tax marijuana. While this will by no means make a dent in the $18 trillion national debt, implementation policies can make an economic difference on the state level. Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, collected $60 million in tax revenue from marijuana during only the first year of the drug’s legalization. Additionally, the state saved $145 million by not punishing people for using marijuana. The large amount of money saved from not enforcing prohibitory marijuana laws comes largely from the legal costs of marijuana-related felons throughout the court system, from simple court costs to the immense financial burden placed on prisons for housing inmates. Over 50 percent of U.S. inmates are imprisoned for drug offenses, with over 27 percent of these offenders imprisoned solely for marijuana-related crimes. Proponents of legalization often compare America’s treatment of marijuana to that of alcohol and tobacco, both of which are legal. Proponents cite the harmful medical qualities of alcohol and tobacco, both of which have proved to be effectively dangerous to consume. Alcohol and tobacco are both physically addictive substances that have been proven to have the potential for overdose, cancer, autoimmune disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Both of these substances are taxed and regulated on the state and federal levels, bringing in over $21 billion in revenue per year, according to the Tax Policy Center.

While medical and economic developments have swayed public opinion, student opinion remains split. Many, like first-year political science major Pedro Otálora-Peláez, believe this persecution of those associated with marijuana is unjust. “The legalization of marijuana will help end a bloody, expensive, and ineffective war on drugs,” he said. “It’s time to spend that money on educative efforts in minority communities and shift the focus from detention to communication. Even then, many of marijuana’s health effects have been debunked, and there are many legal substances that are far more harmful than marijuana.” Others, like third-year sociology major Kalyani Hawaldar, are more skeptical about legalizing the drug. “The biggest concern in the debate over medical marijuana is that there isn’t enough longitudinal data to identify serious health risks,” she said. “One study showed that chronic marijuana usage is linked with smaller brain volume in the orbitofrontal cortex. The significance of this cannot be known until we develop better methodologies in these long-term usage studies.”

While economic and medical benefits of marijuana remain in question, it is becoming abundantly clear that the national conversation regarding marijuana is growing and should be dealt with soon. As younger generations push a new social agenda forward, the legalization of marijuana should be at the forefront of the national conversation.