Editor’s Note (10/7/22): On October 6, President Joe Biden announced that he would pardon “all previous federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana” and asked U.S. governors to do the same to the state level. He also called for a review of the classification of marijuana on the federal drug schedule.
The U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill called Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Clearance Act (MORE). The bill would remove marijuana from the federal government’s list of illegal substances, a first of several steps in the process of decriminalizing the drug nationwide. The bill would not create a nationwide legal cannabis market (as some headlines have implied) or remove individual state criminal penalties; additional federal legislation would be required to achieve these goals.
Public opinion quickly swung in favor of legalization, and there is growing discontent among the public and policy makers with the criminalization of minor drug offenses. Lawmakers and legalization advocates will likely continue to push policies to legalize marijuana at the state and federal levels. As public health researchers who have studied policies regulating marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco, we are strongly in favor of decriminalization, but cautious about full legalization. The continued criminalization of marijuana hurts people, but the history of legal alcohol and tobacco shows that public health can suffer when profits take precedence over the public good. Here’s what we think an ideal federal cannabis policy might look like, taking into account three main considerations: fair and just criminal policy, individual liberty, and strict regulation.
Decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing it are two separate political issues. Our research has shown that they may have different results. From the 1970s to the 2000s, possession of cannabis was a misdemeanor in most states, carrying the possibility of heavy fines and a criminal record for having even small amounts of the drug. We and others have long believed that these sentences are disproportionate to the crime.
In 2008, Massachusetts reduced penalties so that possession of small amounts of marijuana was considered a traffic ticket. Many other states followed. It’s the decriminalization of marijuana: fewer or lesser penalties, but not necessarily with laws or infrastructure supporting legal sales. people of color are much more likely to be arrested for possession than whites, and that the disparity has worsened in states that have not decriminalized or legalized cannabis. For these reasons, public health advocates have become more vocal in calls for the decriminalization of cannabis, as there are health effects of being arrested or having a criminal record. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement in 2015 calling for the decriminalization of marijuana in light of the consequences such as loss of jobs and educational opportunities, and the trauma associated with arrest and detention.
Yet legalization does not completely solve the problem of criminalization, as people can still break the law through underage possession, illegal sales, and other violations. Our research has shown two interesting things: in states that have decriminalized marijuana and have age-restricted legal cannabis markets, there has been no immediate reduction in arrests for people under 21, but in states that have decriminalized possession of cannabis but have not fully legalized it, there has been a reduction in arrests, underage rates and enforcement disparities.
We don’t yet know why, but perhaps in states where decriminalization was the primary goal, legislators focused explicitly on criminal penalties and carefully crafted legislation that had maximum impact on criminal consequences. for all ages ; and in states where the primary goal of lawmakers was to create a legal market for marijuana, the decriminalization side of the equation has not received the same attention to detail.
And yet the poor and minorities bear the brunt of civil penalties and fines, even if there is no arrest record to accompany them. To combat this, we believe states should remove all penalties for transporting small amounts of cannabis, essentially legalizing possession for personal use, but not sale or distribution. We also believe that states should expunge the prior criminal records of people who have been convicted of possession of small amounts of marijuana and even low-level sales.
Our current drug policy regarding marijuana, compared to alcohol and tobacco laws, makes little sense. Cannabis rarely kills anyone, unlike alcohol and other drugs. And the deaths of the latter two are increasing. We believe that the individual choice and freedom that comes from a more liberal cannabis policy can contribute to the common good. Research of Uruguay, Canada and the United States suggests that legalizing age-restricted marijuana sales does not lead to large increases in cannabis use among young people, a major concern voiced by prohibition advocates. Some of this research has found that adults use more marijuana, but that’s normal. the laws provide legal access to adults who have chosen to consume it.
However, increased freedom for the cannabis industry is not necessarily a good in itself. Cannabis is an addictive substance. At its extreme, the legalization of laissez-faire with few regulations is harmful. History offers multiple examples of the societal harms that result from lax regulation, including the tobacco industry, an increasingly deregulated alcohol industry, and too few restrictions on the pharmaceutical marketing of opioids.
As with alcohol and other drugs, a small percentage of users consume most of the cannabis produced. These will be the cannabis industry’s marketing targets to increase sales and increase profits. Although heavy use is not known to cause death or organ damage, there are little question that cannabis has acute effects on learning and memory, and therefore on general functioning and productivity. Over time, these effects can negatively impact occupational and educational outcomes, which in turn worsen health and reduce life expectancy.
Our reading of current research on cannabis legalization is that most of the study’s findings are consistent with the “marketing hypothesisput forward by political analysts Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter, and supported by their studies of the Dutch experience of partial legalization. They argue that removing criminal penalties and tightly regulated sales should not lead to large increases in problematic cannabis use, but conspicuous advertising and aggressive marketing likely will.
As the US Senate considers the MORE Act, we urge policymakers to be as proactive as possible to alleviate the suffering caused by unnecessary and ineffective criminal penalties for marijuana violations. We urge policymakers to think about how to limit the power and influence of an industry that will inevitably oppose taxes, restrictions on advertising and promotion, and a 21-year-old purchase age. Decades of research show that these are the tools that can reduce the harms associated with addictive substances. Failure to use them will lead to a new addiction industry in the United States.