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What’s the Holdup with Legal Marijuana?

While citizens of a few states now have access to legal marijuana, most of the U.S. isn’t there yet.

Over the last few years weed lovers have finally gotten the break they’ve been waiting for. Legislation has gradually been rolled out across the United States decriminalizing and even legalizing Cannabis both for medicinal and recreational purposes. And not just for smokers either: plenty of new and creative ideas abound in this thriving young industry. From “Mary Jane massages” to hemp-infused doggy treats, pot is undergoing a nationwide makeover. However, the number of states that have not legalized cannabis far outnumber those that have. Marijuana, along with a wealth of other substances, has a colorful history dating back centuries. But in the last 100 years or so, legal barriers have arisen preventing its free distribution and consumption. Unlike the drugs you can buy at pretty much any grocery store, from aspirin to alcohol to cigarettes, cannabis retains an aura of taboo which it has yet to fully shake off.

Here’s a story about how marijuana, as both a plant and an idea, has traveled through various stages of stigma and criminality to finally make the mainstream.

legal marijuana

Sustainable cannabis farmer Dylan Turner applies fertilizer to a crop of plants at Sunboldt Farms, a small family farm run by Sunshine and Eric Johnston in Humboldt County, California. Photo by Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“Marijuana is not new,” writes John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management, in his book Marijuana: A Short History. “For millennia, humans have used the cannabis plant for medicine, recreation, religious purposes, and food,” and yet it’s only in the last 100 or so years that laws were invented to regulate its various uses. Back in 1911 Massachusetts required a prescription for sales of “Indian hemp.” In 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, effectively prohibiting all use of cannabis on a federal level. During the 1970s and ’80s, set against the backdrop and aftermath of Vietnam, Nixon famously claimed “drugs” as “public enemy number one.” The rhetoric against “The War on Drugs” continued under Reagan and is still felt today in many areas, including the legacy of controversial stop-and-frisk policing. The consensus among critics is that the “War on Drugs” has failed, becoming more of a wildly expensive war for drugs, with the various factions simply competing for control of supply chains at the cost of the lives of both drug users and suppliers.

Though the subject continues to divide opinion, the last decade has seen progress in the form of certain states within the U.S. refocusing the issue away from dated social and scientific misconceptions and toward a conversation about responsible use. On a state level, in 2012 Colorado and Washington made history when they fully legalized recreational marijuana for adults 21 years of age or older, shortly followed by California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts via ballot in 2016. On a federal level, the Cole Memo overseen by Obama in 2014 marked an important change in that it dissuaded federal prosecutors from pursuing cannabis businesses. However, in the first week of 2018, Republican Attorney General Jeff Sessions sought to reverse the policy with his own memo, an action which has been met with criticism.

legal marijuana

Denver 420 Rally, April 20, 2017. Photo by Jason Connolly / AFP / Getty Images

But why the continual controversy? Many arguments exist as to why we have allowed certain chemical compounds to be used medicinally or recreationally. Of these, perhaps the most crucial point to note is that, in a certain sense, drugs don’t really exist. OK, so maybe I sound like I’ve eaten a few too many “special” brownies, but let’s just conduct a thought experiment: Define “drug.” Something that makes you high? Something that causes chemical reactions to take place in your body and affects your behavior? That definitely includes the beer you had while watching TV. But what about the caffeine in your latte? Oh, and food? Air? As the French philosopher Jacques Derrida observed, how we define a drug depends on our historical, cultural and social context. In fact, drugs are really more of a concept, and beyond this, “the concept of drugs is not a scientific concept, but is rather instituted on the basis of moral or political evaluations.” What you might call a drug, I might call medicine, and if we lived in Prohibition-era 1920s, what to you might have been a heinous crime against the good of the nation, to me might have seemed a mere leisurely evening on the boardwalk.

OK, but perhaps the holdup and why the rest of the 50 states aren’t there yet is that cannabis is bad for us? Well, lots of things in excess are bad for us: coffee, sugar, alcohol — heck, even exercise if done irresponsibly. Many of us may have an idea of what marijuana does in terms of how it might make people feel or act — we’ve all seen the circle sequence in That ‘70s Show — but maybe it’s worth refreshing our memories on what’s actually going on chemically. In a nutshell, weed does what it does because it contains chemicals called cannabinoids. The most important are THC and CBD, each of which have different effects and which act together to produce a “high” sensation. Our brains already produce cannabinoids, which have “a role in controlling memory, mood, appetite, sleep and other functions.” Ingesting cannabis simply reproduces this artificially.

There is debate as to the positive and negative long-term effects of cannabis use, and while polls, peer-reviewed research and medical professionals all acknowledge the fear that marijuana can indeed bring undesired adverse outcomes (commonly listed are psychosis and memory loss), evidence suggests that this not only depends on how the drug is used and by whom, but also the chemical compositions of varying strains. When used responsibly, there remains the potential for desired outcomes, such as treating pain in cancer patients or treating symptoms in people with multiple sclerosis. For instance, according to the independent scientific committee on drugs DrugScience, whose chair is Professor David Nutt of Imperial College London, while “psychosis is most clearly linked to very heavy use of cannabis[…] which has lots of THC, using cannabis with lots of CBD in it, like most types of hash, might not be linked to psychosis at all.” Ironically, beyond this, “CBD on its own is being tried out as a treatment for psychosis, and early results are promising.”

legal marijuana

MedMen dispensary in West Hollywood, California. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

On the whole, the arguments for and against legalization usually divide along lines of health and personal liberty. However, the backgrounded consequences involved in the underbelly of the drug trade are as convincing as any to give pause for thought. Legalizing cannabis eliminates a violent underground economy and highly racialized policing issue, moving the industry away from the hands of drug cartels, corrupt government officials and the deep state to Legal Marijuana businesses that can be better regulated, and, more than this: taxed. The cost analysis alone has been enough for many to put down their pointing fingers and pick up some papers.

It’s a contentious issue, but it’s worth reflecting on as its effects are felt worldwide. For more info on stats and figures and the popular arguments, you can check out this useful website published by Vox. And to get deeper into the theory and policy structuring the whole debate, check out VolteFace, which publishes papers, a journal and magazine on the subject.

legal marijuana

Snoop Dogg performs during The High Road Tour at Austin360 Amphitheater, August 21, 2016. Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage

Certainly any possible negative side effects of marijuana use have not managed to dissuade many from reaping the benefits of its benign qualities. A quick Google search will bring up thousands of new businesses and creative cannabis entrepreneurial endeavors. We’ve already run a story on some great craft edibles companies, and the market is ever expanding. Like I said, head over to Bark Avenue for their calming hemp dog treats, and I wasn’t joking about Colorado’s Bodhi Body Studios “Mary Jane” Massage. Even celebrities are taking a deep breath and sinking their teeth in. Check out Whoopi Goldberg’s medical cannabis for menstrual cramps, and of course the nation’s most famous blunt roller, Snoop Dogg, has his own branded marijuana line. And once you’ve checked out all that, let us know where you stand by leaving us a comment! end

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What’s the Holdup with Legal Marijuana?


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