Pot is getting political. Congress is back in session this week after summer break. And one of the things lawmakers have started considering in recent months is whether to legalize weed across the country.
We’ll be blunt: this is a guide about marijuana. Specifically, its legalization in the US.
Pop your headphones in. Skimm Notes gets into how weed first showed up in Asia around 500 BC and how it became controversial in the US.
Weed is still illegal on the federal level. But in recent years, you might’ve noticed something in the air. It’s the smell of the country becoming more tolerant about marijuana legalization. Polls show that the majority of Americans support making weed legal. Since the ‘90s, 33 states plus DC have legalized medical marijuana in some form. Since 2012, 11 states plus DC have legalized weed for recreational purposes. Momentum seems to be picking up internationally too. Uruguay became the first country to legalize weed in 2013. Canada followed in 2018.
History suggests that as medical marijuana became increasingly mainstream, the stigma surrounding weed started to fade. One case study found that media coverage may have shaped public perception, with stories increasingly associating marijuana with medical purposes instead of crime. Then there’s the social justice angle.
The ‘80s and ‘90s-era crackdown on drug offenses has disproportionately affected minorities. For example, even though whites and blacks use weed about the same amount, a study found African Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for possession. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle increasingly see legalization as a way to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
First, there’s a difference between legalizing weed and decriminalizing it. And there are also a lot of opinions on how exactly to do these things.
Legalization...typically means legalizing weed for recreational purposes. But there are still restrictions. Only people 21 and older can possess a small amount of pot. But they can’t necessarily use it in public. And some places (Vermont and DC) have legalized possession but not sales.
Decriminalization...typically means reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of weed. But it’s still technically illegal.
Lawmakers are considering a few bills.
One would make it easier for banks to do business with the marijuana industry without worrying about a federal crackdown.
Another would guarantee that the feds won’t come after states where weed is legalized.
Some say these don’t go far enough, and instead support a bill that would legalize weed nationally, letting the gov tax marijuana products and expunging marijuana convictions for millions of Americans.
At the same time, the issue has become a campaign trail talking point heading into 2020. Nearly all of the Democratic candidates support legalizing weed nationwide.
Over the summer, a bipartisan group of lawmakers held a hearing to talk about whether to legalize pot. But that was in the Democratically-controlled House. Anything that makes it through the House is expected to have a tougher time in the GOP-controlled Senate. Meanwhile, President Trump has gone back and forth on his support for federal legalization of weed. And some people still have concerns about the impact of making weed more accessible. The surgeon general aka the nation’s top health chief recently warned pregnant women and young adults to stay away from marijuana altogether because of its negative effects on brain development, and the potential for addiction.
The CDC says that 1 in 10 people who use weed will become addicted. And that rate goes up for people who start from a young age. It can also negatively impact brain development, memory, your ability to pay attention, and lead to things like anxiety and psychosis depending on how strong the weed is. More recently, there’ve been concerns about marijuana vaping products too. A new study showed that vitamin E acetate, which is found in these products, is a common link between vaping illnesses across the country.
Different (legal) substance. We’ve Skimm’d that too.
Colorado was one of the first states to legalize weed back in 2012. Weed sales started in 2014. And a report that came out last year is one of the first glimpses we have at the effects of legalizing marijuana. Here are some of the takeaways:
Legalization didn’t lead to an increase in pot use in young people, which was a concern. It didn’t impact graduation or dropout rates.
Colorado’s tax revenue increased more than 260% between 2014 and 2017.
Marijuana-related arrests are down, but black people are still being arrested at higher rates compared to white people.
Marijuana-related hospitalizations increased, and so did fatalities involving drivers with marijuana in their system (but since THC can stay in the bloodstream for weeks, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were high behind the wheel).
Translation: legalizing weed didn’t necessarily have the harmful effects people were expecting, but there have been some negative consequences. And it also didn’t necessarily address racial inequality in arrests.
Marijuana has become destigmatized and more mainstream in the past decade in particular. Some called the recent Congressional hearing “historic” for showing bipartisan support for federal legalization. With a divided Congress, it’s tough to say how far legalization efforts will go. But in the meantime, states are taking matters into their own hands.
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