Decriminalization of Cannabis: Definition, Pros & Cons

Instructor: Dawn Young

Dawn has a Juris Doctorate and experience teaching Government and Political Science classes.

Some people believe that cannabis is a victimless drug that should be legal while others believe that cannabis is harmful and addictive and should be illegal. This lesson defines decriminalization of cannabis and explores its many pros and cons.

What is Cannabis?

You can smoke it, drink it, or eat it. It can make you happy, dizzy, nauseas, relaxed, hungry or confused. It is known by many different names: Mary Jane, Grass, Hash, Chronic, Dope, Weed, Ganja and Marijuana. But they all refer to the same mind-altering drug derived from the Cannabis sativa plant. In the United States, cannabis is the most commonly used illegal drug; over 18 million people report they have used it.

Since 1996, 23 states and Washington D.C., have passed laws decriminalizing cannabis when used for medical purposes. Four states, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, have passed laws decriminalizing the sale and distribution of cannabis for personal use. In 2015, the District of Columbia passed a law decriminalizing possession of cannabis. Decriminalization of cannabis is defined as removing or reducing the criminal classification or status of cannabis use. While some states have begun to pass laws decriminalizing the use of cannabis, not everyone believes cannabis should be decriminalized. In fact, the federal government still defines cannabis as a dangerous drug, with a high potential for abuse and no medical value.

Pros of Decriminalization of Cannabis

Supporters believe there are some major benefits to decriminalizing cannabis: First, cannabis can be used for medical treatment; second, decriminalizing cannabis would reduce the prison population and save the government money; and third, cannabis is safer than alcohol or tobacco.

Medical Treatment

Supporters believe cannabis should be decriminalized because the plant can be used to help those suffering with medical conditions. Supporters point to studies done by the University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, where it was found that cannabis reduced the nerve pain of patients suffering with cancer, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS. Another study done by the Center found that Multiple Sclerosis patients who smoked cannabis had reduced pain. Currently, more than 60 U.S. and international health organizations support the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Decrease the Prison Population

Supporters believe that decriminalizing cannabis will decrease the prison population and save money that the government now spends on enforcing cannabis laws. Supporters point out that since 1972, about 16.5 million Americans have been arrested for violating cannabis laws. Over 80% of these arrests were for minor possession charges. In addition, currently, one in eight inmates is incarcerated because of cannabis. The U.S. has spent over 20 billion dollars enforcing cannabis laws and over one billion dollars a year incarcerating those who violate the laws. Cannabis supporters believe that this money could be better spent elsewhere.

Safer Than Alcohol or Tobacco

Supporters of decriminalization believe that the use of cannabis is safer than using alcohol or tobacco. They point out that about 50,000 people each year die from alcohol poisoning, and each year more than 40,000 deaths are attributed to the use of tobacco. In addition, you cannot die from an overdose using cannabis and it is non-toxic. Yet, both alcohol and tobacco, which cause more deaths each year than cannabis, are legal.

Cons of Decriminalization of Cannabis

Critics believe that decriminalizing cannabis has the following major drawbacks: First, cannabis is harmful to your health; second, cannabis is addictive; and third, decriminalizing cannabis would not reduce the number of arrests.

Cannabis is Harmful

Critics of cannabis believe it should not be decriminalized because cannabis is harmful to your health. Critics point to research that indicates chronic use of cannabis may increase the risk of schizophrenia in certain individuals. In addition, high doses of the drug can produce acute psychotic reactions. Critics also point to another study that found there is nearly a five-fold increase in the risk of heart attack in the first hour after smoking cannabis. Critics also note that in a study done between 450 cannabis smokers and 450 non-smokers, those persons who smoked cannabis frequently had more health problems than those who did not smoke. In addition to harming your health, researchers found that, among adolescents, long term use of cannabis may be linked with a lower IQ later in life.

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