ASCH: When reforming marijuana laws, we should look to science


Last week a viewpoint writer wrote a piece about how marijuana should remain illegal in Virginia. In his piece, Thomas Ferguson described the adverse health effects of marijuana use, and how it would not be in the Commonwealth’s interest to relax laws surrounding marijuana use. While there is a case to be made about the adverse health effects of marijuana, just like any other drug, the effects of large-scale legalization need to be studied. Instead of following years of failed drug policy, Virginia should follow the scientific research behind marijuana use and apply public policy accordingly. By criminalizing marijuana in Virginia, we may be banning a substance which could do good for individuals in our society.

In his piece, Ferguson prominently pointed out the large amount of tax revenue generated by the sale of marijuana in some states, but he also pointed out the societal costs of other substances — such as alcohol. While it is true that illicit substances do have adverse societal impacts, reforming marijuana laws would actually alleviate some societal costs. Studies show that states which have legalized medicalized marijuana have decreased opioid use. In the wake of the opioid crisis that affects so many in Virginia, it would be counter productive to keep marijuana illegal. Another substantial cost to our society that marijuana reform could help alleviate is mass incarceration. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, states collectively spent $3.6 billion dollars on marijuana enforcement. By decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana and reclassifying marijuana on the controlled substances list, the substantial costs which taxpayers incur from enforcing current marijuana laws would be alleviated.

While Ferguson compares marijuana and alcohol a decent amount in his piece, these are two very different drugs with very different impacts. Sure, it is true that there are adverse effects of marijuana use for adolescents, as well as links to psychosis established by some studies. That being said, alcohol use results in its own set of problems including alcohol poisoning, withdrawal and liver disease. Dr. Nathaniel Morris wrote in Scientific American that he and other healthcare providers see marijuana as “something [they] counsel patients about stopping or limiting, but nothing urgent to treat or immediately life-threatening.” After comparing alcohol, which is not a scheduled substance, to marijuana, it becomes clear that it makes no sense to continue regulating marijuana as a dangerous Schedule 1 substance, on par with other drugs like heroin and methamphetamines.

Rigorous scientific investigation of the effects of marijuana use is especially critical considering the limited amount of scientific research that went into creating current marijuana laws. President Richard Nixon designated marijuana a Schedule 1 substance not because of any research, but because of overt racism and a desire to cripple the left. Even in the face of contrary scientific research, Nixon continued to regulate marijuana as if it were incredibly dangerous. With these facts in mind, it makes no sense to continue observing marijuana laws as they stand now. By loosening current restrictions on marijuana research, we can better study its effects. With shifting societal attitudes about marijuana, we have a chance to create a regulatory regime based on reality, not racism.

By keeping marijuana laws as they are now, we ignore the real benefits the drug offers. In the United States, we allow doctors to prescribe all kinds of medicines with damaging side effects, some of which are far more disruptive than marijuana. In states with more lax laws, doctors prescribe medical marijuana to treat cancer, pain, depression and a number of other diseases. Instead of clinging to current marijuana laws, Virginia should join D.C. and 29 other states in allowing for the medical use of marijuana, as it would help doctors tackle the opioid crisis. By ignoring the scientific and historical context behind current marijuana laws, Ferguson is ignoring the usefulness of this drug. That being said, we should not rush into permitting recreational marijuana. Legal marijuana is a relatively new phenomenon, and it would be a mistake to make it legal nationally so soon. We should study its effects in the places where marijuana is legal, and then make future decisions about the drug accordingly. Instead of outlawing marijuana based on incomplete information, the best way to go about dealing with the marijuana issue is studying it with academic rigor and then applying effective policy solutions.