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pros and cons of marijuana legalization

Pros and cons of marijuana legalization

Pros and cons of marijuana legalization. More than half of US adults, over 128 million people, have tried marijuana, despite it being an illegal drug under federal law. Nearly 600,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession annually – more than one person per minute. Public support for legalizing marijuana went from 12% in 1969 to 66% today. Recreational marijuana, also known as adult-use marijuana, was first legalized in Colorado and Washington in 2012.

Proponents of legalizing recreational marijuana say it will add billions to the economy, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, free up scarce police resources, and stop the huge racial disparities in marijuana enforcement. They contend that regulating marijuana will lower street crime, take business away from the drug cartels, and make marijuana use safer through required testing, labeling, and child-proof packaging. They say marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, and that adults should have a right to use it if they wish.

Opponents of legalizing recreational marijuana say it will increase teen use and lead to more medical emergencies including traffic deaths from driving while high. They contend that revenue from legalization falls far short of the costs in increased hospital visits, addiction treatment, environmental damage, crime, workplace accidents, and lost productivity. They say that marijuana use harms the user physically and mentally, and that its use should be strongly discouraged, not legalized.


History of Recreational Marijuana

Pot. Weed. Ganja. Mary Jane. There are more than a thousand slang terms in the English language to refer to marijuana. A 1943 article in TIME magazine called it muggles, mooter, and bambalacha, and referred to marijuana cigarettes as goof-butts and giggle-smokes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, use of the word “marijuana” (also written as “marihuana” in older references) came to popularity in the United States in the 1930s as an alternative to the more familiar terms “cannabis” and “hemp.”

Cannabis, the scientific name for marijuana, is a plant that has three species (or strains): cannabis indica, cannabis sativa, and the less common cannabis ruderalis.  Marijuana and hemp are both cannabis plants, but marijuana contains higher levels of THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the primary psychoactive ingredient that causes people to get high. Hemp can be cultivated for industrial uses such as rope and burlap fabric, or for a low-THC, non-psychoactive, medicinal product. This website uses the words “cannabis” and “marijuana” interchangeably, and the words “recreational” and “adult-use” interchangeably.

Marijuana legalization refers to the practice of allowing and regulating the production, distribution, sale, and possession of cannabis so that marijuana use within the established rules is no longer a crime. There are different models of legalization, ranging from allowing people to grow their own marijuana to nonprofit co-ops to for-profit commercialization with retail sales.

Early History of Cannabis in the United States

Page from George Washington’s diary, in which he documented his hemp growing, dated Aug. 1765.
Source: Library of Congress (accessed Aug. 31, 2011)

While references to marijuana as a popular medicine are found in Chinese writings dating back to 2900 BC, the marijuana plant made its arrival in North America in 1611 thanks to the Jamestown settlers. Early colonists were required to grow hemp.  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp for clothing, rope, and fishing nets in the 1770s.By the 1800s, doctors were using cannabis extracts for various ailments, and marijuana was listed in the United States Pharmacopeia as a treatment for opiate addiction, leprosy, cholera, and more. In the mid-1800s, hemp was the third-largest crop in the United States, behind cotton and tobacco.

Trend towards Outlawing Marijuana, Early 1900s

At the start of the 20th century, drugs were largely unregulated: beverages such as Coca-Cola contained cocaine, heroin was sold as an over-the-counter medicine, and cannabis was available in tinctures. The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which specifically mentioned cannabis indica, kicked off drug regulation in the United States by requiring ingredient labeling in drugs and food.  The 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act, which regulated and taxed opiates and cocaine, was soon followed by the 1918 prohibition of alcohol.

Mexican immigrants entered the United States in record numbers following the 1910 Mexican Revolution. They reportedly introduced Americans to smoking marijuana for recreational purposes. Around the same time, sailors and West Indian immigrants brought marijuana from the Caribbean into North America via New Orleans. In the 1920s and 1930s, recreational cannabis use became associated with the jazz music, and the famous trumpet player Louis Armstrong was an early advocate for marijuana.

Reefer Madness movie poster.
Source: “REEFER MADNESS!,” (accessed Feb. 9, 2018)

The rise of the word “marijuana” (from the Spanish “marihuana”) as a replacement for the then-familiar terms cannabis and hemp is often attributed to prohibitionists, like Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics,who wanted to associate cannabis with demeaning or racist stereotypes about Mexican immigrants and other minorities. Following the 1933 repeal of alcohol prohibition, Anslinger focused on fighting marijuana, which had already been banned in 29 states by 1931.He tried to turn public opinion against cannabis with quotes such as: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” His efforts were aided by a 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film, Reefer Madness, as well as by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who famously printed articles designed to foster fear of the drug.

1937, the Year Marijuana Became Illegal

Mug shot of Samuel R. Caldwell, the first marijuana seller convicted under US federal law.
Source: (accessed Feb. 9, 2018)

The 1937 Marihuana Tax Act effectively outlawed cannabis use in the United States by adding strict regulations and prohibitive taxes that made marijuana too expensive to buy or sell legally. It became a federal crime to possess marijuana, including hemp, without having the required tax stamps. Importers and manufacturers of marijuana were required to pay an annual tax of $24 (more than $400 in 2018 dollars).Transfers of marijuana to non-registered people were subject to a tax of up to $100 per ounce (more than $1,700 in 2018 dollars). Legal transfers of marijuana involved special order forms and strict record keeping. Violations of the Act were subject to fines of up to $2,000 ($34,260 in 2018 dollars) and five years in prison. In October 1937, Samuel Caldwell became the first marijuana seller convicted under US federal law and he was sentenced to four years of hard labor at Leavenworth Penitentiary.

Marijuana from 1938 through the Sixties

In 1938, New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia directed the New York Academy of Medicine to research marijuana. Their report became one of the first comprehensive reviews of the drug’s impact.The 1944 LaGuardia report concluded that “The practice of smoking marihuana does not lead to addiction… Marihuana is not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes… The publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marihuana smoking in New York City is unfounded.” The findings infuriated Commissioner Anslinger, who denounced the report as a “government-printed invitation to youth and adults – above all teenagers – to go ahead and smoke all the reefers they feel like.” The report did not alter federal marijuana policy.

Marijuana remained popular with musicians, artists, writers, and others throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Marijuana use became more common on college campuses in the 1960s alongside the rise of the hippie counterculture and Vietnam war protests. It also became more widespread among upper-middle class white Americans. Efforts to re-legalize marijuana grew stronger. The 1965 arrest of Timothy Leary, a Harvard psychologist who experimented with hallucinogens and became a counterculture icon, led to the Marihuana Tax Act being overruled by the Supreme Court in 1969. The court agreed with Leary’s argument that the law violated his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination because he wouldn’t have been able to follow the law’s registration requirements without admitting to breaking state marijuana bans.

President Nixon and the 1970 Controlled Substances Act

In 1970, President Nixon signed the bill that makes marijuana illegal under federal law to this day. As a party to the 1961 Single Convention Treaty, the United States was required to limit marijuana use “exclusively to medical and scientific purposes.” That obligation was implemented with the 1970 Controlled Substance Act (CSA).  Under the CSA, drugs were put into one of five categories based on their medical use and potential for abuse. Marijuana was placed in the most restrictive category, Schedule I, which was designated for “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” along with heroin and LSD. Drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine were placed in the less restrictive Schedule II.

Marijuana’s placement in Schedule I was supposed to be temporary pending a federal review by the newly formed National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Policy (more commonly known as the Shafer Commission). The commission’s 1972 report concluded that “neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety,” and recommended that marijuana possession for personal use no longer be considered a criminal offense.  President Nixon’s response was, “[R]eading it did not change my mind. I oppose the legalization of marijuana.” Regardless of the commission’s recommendation, marijuana was left in Schedule I and remains there today.

NORML, Holland, and Decriminalization

The same year that the CSA was enacted, 1970, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was founded to advocate for the end of marijuana prohibition. Between 1973 and 1981, the organization successfully fought to get minor marijuana offenses decriminalized in 11 states and lower penalties for marijuana possession in other states.

A policy of decriminalization was adopted in the Netherlands in 1976 for what it deemed “soft drugs,” which included cannabis. Under the Dutch Opium Act, possession of less than five grams of marijuana is presumed to be for personal use and is therefore not prosecuted. The law also allows for coffee shops where people are able to buy and use cannabis. Decriminalization of marijuana means people don’t get arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana, and may be required to pay a civil fine instead of facing criminal charges. This is a step towards loosening marijuana prohibition, but is not considered to be legalization. Today, some marijuana legalization opponents advocate for decriminalization instead.

Marijuana at the End of the 20th Century

First Lady Nancy Reagan stands among children wearing t-shirts emblazoned with her anti-drug slogan, “Just Say No.”
Source: Timeline, “Watch: Ronald Reagan and His ‘War on Drugs,’”, June 26, 2017

In the 1980s, a rise in parent groups concerned about the increase in teen drug use coincided with the election of President Ronald Reagan, who in 1982 declared a “war on drugs,” echoing the phrase popularized by Nixon. First Lady Nancy Reagan spearheaded the “Just Say No” campaign aimed at convincing kids not to use drugs and seeking to overturn lenient drug laws. Parent lobbying groups such as the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth, now known as National Family Partnership, established a presence in Washington, DC, to advocate for anti-drug legislation. Throughout the 1980s, federal and state criminal penalties for marijuana became stricter and mandatory-minimum sentences were established.

Marijuana arrests increased dramatically in the 1990s, more than doubling between 1990 and 2002, from 327,000 to 697,000 annually. In New York City, marijuana arrests jumped 882% in that period. A report from the Sentencing Project stated, “Our analysis indicates that the ‘war on drugs’ in the 1990s was, essentially, a ‘war on marijuana.’” At the same time, public opinion was shifting in favor of medical marijuana. In 1996, California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes when voters passed Proposition 215. By the end of 2000, eight states had legalized medical marijuana. By 2017, 29 states and Washington, DC, had legalized it.

Protestors for and against marijuana at a rally in Michigan.
Source: William Breathes, “Violent Attack at Marijuana Rally Ignored by Police,”, Sep. 13, 2011

Trend towards Recreational Marijuana Legalization

Although a 2010 California proposition to legalize adult-use marijuana failed, measures to legalize recreational marijuana were on the ballots in three states two years later, in Nov. 2012.While Oregon voters turned down the measure, Colorado and Washington became the first two US states to legalize adult-use marijuana. Support for legalizing recreational marijuana increased as more people, including many who never tried marijuana, believed that marijuana use was not as dangerous as the government reported and not a gateway to using hard drugs. People were also becoming unhappy with the sheer cost of enforcing marijuana laws and the growing prison populations, especially among minority populations. Plus, more people were exposed to marijuana and “out-in-the-open” marijuana users thanks to liberalized marijuana policies in medical marijuana states. Younger generations were increasingly more likely to support legalization. Marijuana, however, remained an illegal Schedule I drug under federal law.

Concerns about how the federal government would react to the new laws were lessened somewhat with a 2013 communication from President Obama’s Justice Department known as the Cole memo. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole stated that so long as states had good regulations, then the federal government would hold off on challenging marijuana legalization. Marijuana retail stores opened in Colorado on Jan. 1, 2014, allowing adults 21 and older to purchase cannabis that is taxed and regulated under state law. Washington’s marijuana shops opened on July 8, 2014.

Sean Azzariti, a US veteran of the Iraq war, was the first person to legally purchase recreational marijuana when retail stores opened in Colorado on Jan. 1, 2014.
Source: Michael Martinez, “10 Things to Know about Nation’s First Recreational Marijuana Shops in Colorado,”, Jan. 1, 2014

In Nov. 2014, Oregon and Alaska passed recreational marijuana ballot measures following the same model as Washington and Colorado, which is a for-profit commercial marijuana industry that allows retail sales. That same year, Washington, DC, voters approved an initiative that allowed home cultivation and personal possession but not retail sales. In the Nov. 2016 election, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada all passed legal recreational ballot measures that follow the commercialization model, although retail sales in Maine were put on hold by the state legislature. In Jan. 2018, Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana by way of the state legislature rather than by ballot initiative, enacting a law that did not allow for retail sales.

The election of President Trump in 2016 and his appointment of Jeff Sessions as US Attorney General in 2017 raised new questions about whether the federal government would crack down on states that were legalizing adult-use marijuana. On Jan. 4, 2018, Sessions issued a memo that undid the hands-off policy enacted by President Obama’s Justice Department, and instructed federal prosecutors to determine for themselves when to prosecute marijuana activities.

On June 7, 2018, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) introduced the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which they say “ensures that each State has the right to determine for itself the best approach to marijuana within its borders.” Asked about the legislation, President Trump said, “I support Senator Gardner. I know exactly what he’s doing. We’re looking at it. But I probably will end up supporting that, yes.”

On Oct. 17, 2018, Canada’s Cannabis Act took effect, allowing adults age 18 and over to possess, share, purchase, and grow marijuana. Canada was the second country to legalize marijuana, following Uruguay’s 2013 legalization.

President Trump signed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (known as the Farm Bill) into law on Dec. 20, 2018. This law legalized industrial hemp that contains less than 0.3% THC by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act. Cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) remain federally illegal to include in food or health products without FDA approval, even if they were derived from hemp.

Four states legalized recreational marijuana in the Nov. 2020 election: Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota. Two states also legalized medical marijuana, Mississippi and South Dakota, with the latter being the first state to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana in the same election (though a court battle, ending on Nov. 24, 2021, would rule recreational marijuana still illegal in the state because of the way the ballot initiative was written). Taken as a whole, all six marijuana measures on the ballot in the Nov. 2020 election passed. Steve Hawkins, JD, Executive Director of the Marijuana Policy Project, stated, “With the passage of these initiatives, one-third of the population now lives in jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis for adult use, and 70% of all states have embraced cannabis for medical use.”

On Dec. 4, 2020, the US House passed a marijuana decriminalization bill (228-164) that would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, as well as add a 5% tax on marijuana to help people most affected by marijuana criminalization and to fund community and small business grants. Though the bill did not pass the Republican-controlled Senate, it was the first time either chamber has passed such an act. The legislation was led by Representative Jerry Nadler (D-NY) with Senator and Vice-President elect Kamala Harris (D-CA).

In a largely partisan vote, the US House of Representatives voted 220 to 204 to decriminalize marijuana on Apr. 1, 2022. Tom McClintock (R-CA), Brian Mast (R-FL), and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) crossed party lines to support the bill, while Henry Cuellar (D-TX) and Chris Pappas (D-NH) voted against decriminalization. If passed by the Senate, the bill “will prevent federal agencies from denying federal workers security clearances for cannabis use, and will allow the Veterans’ Administration to recommend medical marijuana to veterans living with posttraumatic stress disorder, plus gains revenue by authorizing a sales tax on marijuana sales” and “expunge… the record of people convicted of non-violent cannabis offenses.” However, neither the House bill nor a similar bill in the Senate are expected to garner enough Republican votes to be passed.

International Laws

As of Dec. 15, 2021, three countries have fully legalized recreational marijuana: Malta (2021), Canada (2018), and Uruguay (2013). Luxembourg plans to legalize according to a statement released on Oct. 22, 2021. In a handful of other countries, including but not limited to Georgia, Mexico, and South Africa, adult-use marijuana is decriminalized, meaning possession and consumption of marijuana are legal, but selling or buying is illegal. Some countries with decriminalized marijuana allow cultivation, others do not.


Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1

Marijuana legalization boosts the economy.

The marijuana industry (adult-use and medical) in the United States could exceed $24 billion in revenue by 2025. For every $1.00 spent in the marijuana industry, between $2.13 and $2.40 in economic activity is generated. Tourism, banking, food, real estate, construction, and transportation are a few of the industries that benefit from legal marijuana.


The legal marijuana industry generated $7.2 billion in economic activity in 2016, and added millions of dollars in federal taxes paid by cannabis businesses. One study on adult-use marijuana in Nevada projected $7.5 billion in economic activity over the first seven years of legalization, including $1.7 billion in labor income. A study by the University of California Agricultural Issues Center estimated that the legal marijuana market in California could generate $5 billion annually.


In Colorado, marijuana brings in three times more tax revenue than alcohol.The state raised $78 million in the first fiscal year after starting retail sales, and $129 million the second fiscal year. Washington collected a total of $220 million in tax revenues in its second fiscal year of sales.


Pro 2

Legalizing marijuana results in decreased teen marijuana use.

Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine found that “the rates of marijuana use by young people are falling despite the fact more US states are legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana use and the number of adults using the drug has increased.” Marijuana use among 8th graders in Washington state decreased following legalization in 2012, from 9.8 percent to 7.3 percent in 2014/2016, according to a Dec. 2018 report from RAND.  A study from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that past-year marijuana use decreased by 17%, from 15.8% in 2002 to 13.1% in 2014, among US kids ages 12 to 17. Colorado teens between 12 and 17 years old reported a nearly 12% drop in marijuana use just two years after adult use was legalized, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.


The Marijuana Policy Project, an organization that leads marijuana legalization campaigns, said, “Study after study has confirmed that marijuana policy reforms do not cause rates of youth marijuana use to increase… The most in-depth state surveys suggest modest decreases in rates of youth marijuana use in Colorado and Washington.”  Even though retail marijuana shops opened in Colorado and Washington in 2014, past-year marijuana use among teens in those states was lower in 2015-2016 than in 2014-2015.


Pro 3

Traffic deaths and arrests for DUIs do not increase, and may decrease, when marijuana is legalized.

Traffic deaths dropped 11% on average in states that legalized medical marijuana. Arrests for driving under the influence have decreased in Washington and Colorado. Benjamin Hansen, an economics professor at the University of Oregon at Eugene who studied traffic deaths post-medical marijuana legalization, stated that “Public safety doesn’t decrease with increased access to marijuana, rather it improves.”


Studies show that drivers under the influence of marijuana tend to be more cautious and take fewer risks than drunk drivers, such as making fewer lane changes and reducing speed.  A fact sheet about marijuana’s effects on drivers posted on the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration website stated that “Some drivers may actually be able to improve performance for brief periods by overcompensating for self-perceived impairment.


Pro 4

Legal marijuana is regulated for consumer safety.

People buying marijuana on the street have no way of knowing if what they’re ingesting is covered with mold, fungus, pesticides, or other harmful substances. Once marijuana is legalized, the government is able to enforce laboratory testing and regulations to ensure that marijuana is free of toxins. For example, Washington law requires health warnings, quality assurance, labeling for the concentration of THC, and other important regulations for consumers.


Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska all passed regulations to prevent kids’ exposure to marijuana, including child-resistant packaging. Legalization allows the government to set age restrictions on buyers and to license and regulate the entire supply chain of marijuana, including growers, distributors, retailers, and testing laboratories. California regulations include limitations on the serving sizes for edible marijuana products, seed-to-sale testing and tracking, and 24-hour video surveillance at retail stores.

Pro 5

Legalization of marijuana is phasing out black markets and taking money away from drug cartels, organized crime, and street gangs.

Data from the US Border Patrol show that marijuana seizures have decreased by millions of pounds and are at their lowest levels in over a decade, indicating that legal domestic production is decreasing demand for marijuana smuggled in from Mexico. A Mexican cannabis farmer told NPR, “If the US continues to legalize pot, they’ll run us into the ground.” According to the ACLU, legalization in Colorado and Washington has cost Mexican drug cartels an estimated $2.7 billion in profits.


Stephen Downing, a retired deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, said, “There’s no question that ending today’s prohibition on drugs — starting with marijuana — would do more to hurt the cartels than any level of law enforcement skill or dedication ever can.” By the year 2020, an estimated 90% of the marijuana market in Colorado will be supplied by licensed and taxed vendors, demonstrating that the black market can be replaced by legal, regulated sales.

Pro 6

The enforcement of marijuana prohibition is racist because people of color are disproportionately impacted.

Statistics show a significant racial disparity in the enforcement of marijuana laws: even though white and black people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, a black person in the United States is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession on average. In Iowa, the state with the highest inequity, black people are 8.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.  In New York City, 15.8% of marijuana possession cases involving white people result in conviction, compared to 32.3% involving black people and 30% involving Hispanic people.


Marijuana possession convictions can impact people’s ability to get public housing, financial aid for school, loans, and jobs. Over the past ten years, drug sentences for black men have been 9% to 13% longer than those received by white men. Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, Criminal Justice and Drug Policy director for the ACLU of California, stated, “Racial disparities in marijuana enforcement are widespread and longstanding.” Legalizing marijuana would help correct the disparity.

Pro 7

Crime goes down when marijuana is legalized.

Studies show that medical marijuana dispensaries decreased crime in their neighborhoods because of an increased security presence and more people walking around the area.


Research indicates that people drink less and alcohol sales drop in places where marijuana is legalized. The amount of crime and violence caused by alcohol use is ten times higher than by marijuana use and alcohol is a factor in around 40% of violent crimes. A shift from drinking to cannabis use will decrease crimes associated with alcohol, such as domestic violence and assault. According to FBI crime statistics, violent crime in Washington decreased in the years after legalization (295.6 violent offenses reported per 100,000 Washington residents in 2011 vs. 284.4 violent offenses per 100,000 people in 2015).


Taylor West, former deputy director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said, “We’re not seeing any increase in crime rates through marijuana — we’re seeing lower crime rates, and there are good rational reasons for that: We’re really beginning to cripple the criminal market, which is where violence actually occurs.”

Pro 8

Legalizing marijuana would end the costly enforcement of marijuana laws and free up police resources.

Arresting people for marijuana possession costs the United States between $1.19 billion and $6.03 billion annually. These costs include police, judicial, legal, and corrections expenses. Incarcerating marijuana offenders costs the United States an estimated $600 million per year. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron has estimated that marijuana legalization would save between $7.7 billion and $13.7 billion annually.


Instead of arresting people for marijuana, police officers could focus on serious crimes including rape, assault, and homicide. For example, marijuana legalization in Washington significantly freed up law enforcement resources; marijuana possession arrests dropped from 5,531 the year before legalization to 120 the year after.


Howard Wooldridge, a former police detective from Michigan who co-founded LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), said, “Marijuana prohibition is a horrible waste of good police time. Every hour spent looking for pot reduces public safety.”

Pro 9

Marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, which are already legal.

Alcohol and tobacco are legal, yet they are known to cause cancer, heart failure, liver damage, and more. According to the CDC, six people die from alcohol poisoning every day and 88,000 people die annually due to excessive alcohol use in the United States. There are no recorded cases of death from marijuana overdose.


Three to four times as many Americans are dependent on alcohol as on marijuana.  A study in the Lancet ranking the harmfulness of drugs put alcohol first as the most harmful, tobacco as sixth, and cannabis eighth.  A national poll found that people view tobacco as a greater threat to health than marijuana by a margin of four to one (76% vs. 18%), and 72% of people surveyed believed that regular use of alcohol was more dangerous than marijuana use.


“In several respects, even sugar poses more of a threat to our nation’s health than pot,” said Dr. David L. Nathan, a clinical psychiatrist and president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation.

Pro 10

Taxes collected from the legal sale of marijuana support important public programs.

Tax revenues in legal marijuana states provide funding to the police, drug treatment and mental health centers, and housing programs, along with school programs such as anti-bullying campaigns, youth mentoring, and public school grants. “The impact is really felt at the local level. Some counties have done 20 years of infrastructure work in just one year’s time. They’ve provided lunch for kids who need it,” said Brian Vicente, partner at Vicente Sederberg LLC, a law firm specializing in the marijuana industry.


In Colorado, $40 million of marijuana tax revenue went to public school construction, while $105 million went to housing programs, mental health programs in jails, and health programs in middle schools in 2016-2017.

Pro 11

Legalizing marijuana creates thousands of needed jobs.

There were an estimated 122,814 legal full-time marijuana jobs in the United States as of Jan. 2017. A report from New Frontier Data found that the cannabis industry could create a quarter of a million new jobs by 2020. An economic impact estimate from the Marijuana Policy Group forecast the creation of more than 130,000 jobs in California following legalization. Within a few years of legalization, approximately 18,000 additional full-time jobs were created in Colorado annually, both in the actual marijuana business as well as in related fields such as security and real estate.Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) stated that the cannabis industry in the United States “is expected to produce nearly 300,000 jobs by 2020 and grow to $24 billion by 2025.”

Pro 12

A majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana.

A 2018 Gallup poll found a record-high 66% support for legalizing marijuana, up from 12% in 1969, the first year the polling company asked about marijuana. The poll first surpassed 50% support in 2011. According to Gallup, “the transformation in public attitudes about marijuana over the past half-century has mirrored the liberalization of public attitudes about gay rights and the same-sex-marriage movement.” While Democrats (72%) and Independents (67%) have been more likely to back legalization, a majority of Republicans (51%) now agree. Polls by CBS News and the AP both found that 61% of Americans favor legalizing marijuana.

The public clearly supports changing our failed anti-marijuana policies. More than half of US states have legalized medical marijuana, and 40 states took some action to relax their drug laws (such as decriminalizing or lowering penalties for possession) between 2009 and 2013.

Pro 13

The government doesn’t have the right to tell adults what they can put in their own bodies.

David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute, said, “people have the right to live their lives in any way they choose so long as they don’t violate the equal rights of others. What right could be more basic, more inherent in human nature, than the right to choose what substances to put in one’s own body?” More than 3,500 people die from drowning every year in the United States, but the government wouldn’t arrest people for owning swimming pools. Over 30,000 people are killed annually in car accidents, but the government doesn’t outlaw driving. Adults should be allowed to make adult decisions about how they choose to relax or have fun without government interference, especially when they’re not hurting anyone.

US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) said, “There is no doubt in my mind that the federal government should not be in the marijuana prohibition business… From every perspective—a libertarian perspective, fiscal conservative’s perspective, Christian evangelical perspective, progressive perspective—marijuana prohibition is just wrong.”




Con 1

Legalized marijuana creates steep costs for society and taxpayers that far outweigh its tax revenues.

Marijuana use harms more than just the person using the drug.Societal costs of marijuana use include paying for increased emergency room visits, medical care, and addiction treatment for the uninsured; more victims of drugged driving accidents; increased crime; and a negative impact on health from secondhand smoke.


Annual societal costs from alcohol ($223.5 billion) and tobacco ($193 billion) far exceed the $24 billion in tax revenues they raise.  Money raised from legal marijuana taxes generally accounts for less than 1% of a state’s tax revenue.


Legalizing marijuana would put one more harmful substance in our society that costs more than the revenue it generates.According to the Pew Research Center, “the most frequently mentioned reason why people oppose legalization is that marijuana generally hurts society.”

Con 2

Legalizing marijuana increases use by teens, with harmful results.

The percentage of 12- to 17-year-olds using marijuana is higher in every legal marijuana state than the national average. For example, 16.21% of Colorado teens and 18.86% of teens in Alaska reported marijuana use in the past year, compared to an average of 12.29% for the United States overall in 2015-2016 . Colorado past-month teen marijuana use jumped 20% in the two-year average after marijuana was legalized for adults.


Marijuana is especially dangerous for young people, because human brains are not fully developed until around age 25 (four years past the legal age in states that allow recreational marijuana). The American Academy of Pediatrics said that adverse effects of teen marijuana use include “impaired short-term memory and decreased concentration, attention span, and problem solving, which clearly interfere with learning. Alterations in motor control, coordination, judgment, reaction time, and tracking ability have also been documented; these may contribute to unintentional deaths and injuries.” Studies show that students who use cannabis perform worse in school.

Con 3

Traffic accidents and deaths increase when marijuana is legalized.

Marijuana-related traffic deaths rose 62% following the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. Jim Leal, former Chief of Police of Newark, California, said of legalizing marijuana, “You are commercializing a product that is just going to put more impaired drivers on the road, worsening a problem that we already have. What officers are seeing with THC levels being very high is they are seeing impairment being far worse than they have ever seen in the past.”


The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported that fatal crashes involving marijuana doubled after legalization in Washington. Marshall Doney, President and CEO of AAA, said, “Marijuana can affect driver safety by impairing vehicle control and judgment.” The Highway Loss Data Institute found an increased crash risk in legal marijuana states and said collision claims in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington increased 6% as compared to states that don’t have legal marijuana. A meta-study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) concluded that “Cannabis use prior to driving increases the risk of being involved in a motor vehicle accident.

Con 4

Marijuana is addictive, and dependence on the drug will increase with legalization.

Heavy users who stop using marijuana may suffer withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, nausea, chills, and stomach pain. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, as many as four million Americans meet the diagnostic criteria for a marijuana use disorder, such as abuse, dependence, or addiction.  Dr. Drew Pinsky, a board-certified internist and addiction medicine specialist, said, “I’ve been treating cannabis addiction for 20 years. When people are addicted to cannabis, cocaine and alcohol the drug they have the most difficult time giving up is the cannabis.”


A study in the Journal of Drug Issues found that the number of US daily marijuana users has risen dramatically since 2002 and now 68% of users report daily or near-daily use. Kevin Sabet, director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, wrote, “The scientific verdict is that marijuana can be addictive and dangerous… Many baby boomers have a hard time understanding this simply because today’s marijuana can be so much stronger than the marijuana of the past.”

Con 5

The black market and organized crime benefit from marijuana legalization.

Law enforcement says that legal marijuana has actually enhanced opportunities for the black market. Prices charged by state-licensed sellers can easily be undercut by cartels. A drug dealer told Vice News, “Right now with the way the tax structure is in Washington, the black market is going to thrive.”


In Colorado, a sharp increase in marijuana-related charges filed under the state’s Organized Crime Control Act coincided with the legalization of marijuana, indicating a rise in organized crime. The Colorado Attorney General’s office stated that legalization “has inadvertently helped fuel the business of Mexican drug cartels… cartels are now trading drugs like heroin for marijuana, and the trade has since opened the door to drug and human trafficking.” Local officials said that Mexican cartels were growing marijuana under the cover of legal operations in Colorado and using that to fuel the black market in other states.

Con 6

Legalizing marijuana leads to more marijuana-related medical emergencies.

After retail marijuana stores opened in Colorado, emergency room visits related to marijuana shot up nearly 30% and hospitalizations related to marijuana rose 200%. “The emergency department has seen increased visits for primary care needs, breathing problems related to inhalation of marijuana, including asthma, bronchitis, upper respiratory tract infections, as well as psychiatric needs, accidental or intentional overdoses and, unfortunately, increased pediatric patients with issues related to marijuana,” said Dr. Karen Randall, an emergency room physician in Colorado.


People are used to the idea that a candy bar is a single serving size, but a candy bar with marijuana could have four or more times the recommended dose of THC, depending on the state’s regulations.  People end up in the ER with anxiety attacks or psychotic-like symptoms from eating sweets infused with more marijuana than they were expecting–or, in some cases, not expecting at all.


Poison-control marijuana exposure cases for kids ages 9 and under increased more than five-fold in Colorado after legalization. NAS found “increased risk of unintentional cannabis overdose injuries among children” in legal marijuana states. The University of Colorado burn center reported a “substantial increase” in the number of marijuana-related burns after legalization.

Con 7

Marijuana use harms the brain, and legalization will increase mental health problems.

Cannabis use may increase the risk of developing schizophrenia, depression, and other psychiatric disorders. Researchers at Harvard and Northwestern found that recreational marijuana smokers showed abnormalities in the shape, volume, and density of certain areas of the brain. 


Dr. Hans Breiter, a psychiatrist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital who co-authored the study, said, “People think a little marijuana shouldn’t cause a problem if someone is doing O.K. with work or school. Our data directly says this is not so.” A British Journal of Psychiatry study stated, “There is good evidence that taking cannabis leads to acute adverse mental effects in a high proportion of regular users.”


A survey published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal reported that 22% of marijuana users experienced “acute anxiety or panic attacks following cannabis use,” and 15% had psychotic symptoms following use.

Con 8

Marijuana harms the health of users and people around them.

Smoking marijuana can damage lung tissues and cause respiratory problems; secondhand marijuana smoke is also dangerous. Research shows that smoking one marijuana joint is as damaging to the lungs as five tobacco cigarettes. Marijuana may contain five times as much carbon monoxide concentration and three times as much tar as tobacco. There is a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes in the hours immediately after smoking cannabis.


A study found that using a vaporization device “likely leads to enhanced ingestion of toxic ammonia known to result in neurobehavioral impairment.” Ammonia ingested while vaping can result in lung irritation, nervous system effects, and asthma attacks.

Con 9

Commercialized marijuana will create a “Big Marijuana” industry that exploits people for profit and targets children.

“Big Marijuana” is already using similar tactics to “Big Tobacco,” which marketed cigarettes using ads that appealed to kids, including the Joe Camel cartoon character. Marijuana food products that are colorful, sweet, or branded with cartoons are most likely to attract children. Marijuana is available in kid-friendly forms such as gummy bears and lollipops, and products sometimes resemble familiar brands, such as “Buddahfinger” or “KeefKat” in wrappers that look like a Butterfinger or KitKat candy bar.


Mark A. R. Kleiman, a drug policy expert, said, “[I]f you’re in the [for-profit] cannabis business, casual users aren’t much use to you while heavy users are your best customers, accounting for the bulk of your sales… the commercial interest demands maximizing problem use.” Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, senior economist at RAND Corporation, said heavy marijuana users account for the “vast majority of the total amount sold and/or consumed

Con 10

Legalizing marijuana hurts businesses by causing preventable accidents and lost productivity.

Workplace incidents involving employees under the influence of marijuana increased from 6% to 20% the year after legalization in Colorado. Employees who screened positive for marijuana use had 55% more industrial accidents, 85% more injuries, and absenteeism rates 75% higher than those who tested negative, according to a study done on postal workers. Paul L. Bittner, partner and vice chair of the Labor and Employment Group at Ice Miller law firm, said, “You not only lose productivity, but the bigger concern for employers is potential liability if there’s an accident and someone gets hurt or killed.”


Researchers found that using marijuana even just once a week can impact the parts of the brain that are linked to motivation, sometimes in irreversible ways. Long-term marijuana users produce less dopamine, a neurochemical considered crucial to summoning motivation. People who smoked marijuana in the previous year reported less dedication to their jobs than non-marijuana users, according to a study in the journal Addiction.

Con 11

The United States has signed international treaties that prevent us from legalizing marijuana.

Three United Nations treaties set worldwide drug controls. As a party to the treaties, the United States has agreed to limit the use of marijuana “exclusively to medical and scientific purposes.” The move by some US states to legalize adult-use marijuana has upset the UN monitoring organization, which stated that legalization “cannot be reconciled with the legal obligation” to uphold the Single Convention treaty.


Legalizing marijuana puts the United States in a position of weakness when we need to hold other nations accountable to legal agreements.  “It is a path the United States—with its strong interest in international institutions and the rule of law—should tread with great caution,” wrote Wells Bennett, a Fellow in National Security Law at the Brookings Institution, and John Walsh, Senior Associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Con 12

Legalizing marijuana is opposed by major public health organizations.

Some of the public health associations that oppose legalizing marijuana for recreational use include the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.


“Legalization campaigns that imply that marijuana is a benign substance present a significant challenge for educating the public about its known risks and adverse effects,” the American Academy of Pediatrics said. The ASAM “does not support the legalization of marijuana and recommends that jurisdictions that have not acted to legalize marijuana be most cautious and not adopt a policy of legalization until more can be learned.” The AMA “believes that (1) cannabis is a dangerous drug and as such is a public health concern; (2) sale of cannabis should not be legalized.”

Con 13

Growing marijuana harms the environment.

Marijuana cultivation results in deforestation, soil erosion, habitat destruction, and river diversion.  Cannabis plants require nearly double the amount of water needed to grow grapes or tomatoes. Rosamond Naylor, Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, said, “Taking water directly from rivers and streams in the summer [to grow marijuana] not only reduces the water available for agriculture but also threatens wildlife species… Regardless of the legal status of marijuana, the way we are currently managing its impacts on water and wildlife in California just doesn’t work.”

Legal indoor growing requires a lot of electricity for lighting, heating, and ventilation. This produces an amount of greenhouse gas emissions equal to that of three million cars each year, and places a burden on public utilities.

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