Recent Attacks on Recreational Marijuana Legalization Are All Smoke

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In 2012 Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Minnesota recently became the 23rd. Maryland, New Jersey, and Minnesota are expected to follow soon. When they do, 25 states and Washington DC will allow adults to use a Schedule 1 substance recreationally. 

The marijuana liberalization movement calling for more access and decriminalization of use for arguably the most widely used substance worldwide has been swift and widespread across the US. But not everyone considers this a step in the right direction.

Newsweek recently published an article titled “After a Decade, Marijuana Legalization Is Not Going Well.” Citing findings from Smart Approaches to Marijuana’s 2023 Impact Report, the article makes several eye-opening statements about marijuana liberalization nationwide. Some of these include:

“today’s marijuana is not the same drug that was used a generation ago. Marijuana flower, the type used in joints, averaged 3.75 percent THC in 1995. Industrialization has made it now more than four times as strong.”

The article concludes:

“As a result, more people are using marijuana and they are using it more heavily. In 2021, 52.5 million Americans over the age of 12 used marijuana at least once in the past year, more than doubled from two decades ago. There were 13.2 million daily users of THC products in 2021, compared with 5.4 million in 2012 and 3.1 million in 2002.”

Unfortunately, many of these statements are overstated and misleading. Firstly, the high effect of marijuana is also explained by variance in cannabinoids and terpenes, which affect users differently. Higher THC concentrations are not necessarily dangerous. Nearly all medicinal marijuana products physicians prescribe have THC content above 15 percent. The Food and Drug Administration approved several pharmaceuticals with high THC or synthetic THC content to assist with chemotherapy.  

More importantly, if THC content is a concern, recreational marijuana laws are part of the solution. As economist Mark Thornton notes in his book The Economics of Prohibition, black markets shift resources toward finding ways to circumvent the laws instead developing and standardizing goods. Recreational marijuana dispensaries advertise THC content and other information about the product to help consumers make the best purchase possible.

Try finding that in 1995. 

The increase in daily users of THC from 2002 to 2021 also lacks context. Adjusting for the nearly 45 million person increase in population over this time, these changes account for a less than 3 percent increase for the overall population. Over largely the same period, the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics finds considerable decreases in marijuana use disorder despite increases in recreational use- from about 35 percent of all regular marijuana users in 2001 to under 10 percent in 2022. 

But the bigger policy concern isn’t how many people use marijuana. It is what happens when they use it. And despite allegations of widespread car crashes, hospitalizations, and other health concerns mentioned in the article, peer-reviewed studies find the opposite. 

Economics and public health research almost universally find recreational marijuana legalization is linked to lower crime rates, decreased care accidents, and many health benefits. One study published in the prestigious The Economics Journal finds introducing medicinal marijuana—which is much less commonly used than recreational marijuana—reduced crimes across the US-Mexico border for bordering states which adopted it.  

While I strongly disagree with the article’s conclusion and arguments, I share its concerns. Recreational marijuana use is increasing, testing what we know about safety for general consumption. Decades of stifled research stemming from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s heavy-handed scheduling make much of marijuana’s potential harms and benefits unclear. 

But our research has overwhelmingly shown that many previous concerns from policymakers and the public are exaggerated. This article is a clear example.