State Legalization of Marijuana: California’s Example

By: Reginald Augustus

Is it time for states to legalize marijuana?  If so, should it be limited to medicinal purposes only?  Opponents of legalization argue that making marijuana use legal will lead to an increase in drug related societal problems. However, California’s 17 year legalization of marijuana for medical use has provided an interesting case study of what legalization may entail for other states.

For the first time in the United States’ history, a majority of Americans favor legalizing marijuana.  As the recreational use of marijuana nears legalization in Colorado and Washington state and voter initiatives are in the pipeline in other states, the question of what impact legalization will have in these communities needs to be assessed.  While California’s legalization is only for medicinal purposes, trends in usage, crime, and regulation can provide a glimpse into what other states can expect.

California first legalized medical marijuana use in 1996 and the drug is widely available.  Currently, the law in California only permits individuals who have a medical need for marijuana to purchase it; however, the requirements for a “medical need” to obtain a card to purchase the drug are relatively lax.  Doctors are allowed to recommend the drug’s use for problems such as headaches and sleeplessness.  Some opponents of partial legalization warned that civic disorder, increase of other drug use, and an increase in lawlessness would occur; however, such concerns have so far proved unfounded.  For example, research has suggested that marijuana, in California and other states that have legalized the drug, has become a replacement for alcohol use in younger people.  However, there is no hard evidence that use has risen with teenagers since it has been legalized.  Research has also suggested that the effects of marijuana use while driving versus driving under the influence of alcohol will be less dangerous.

Although the city of Los Angeles has had issues the with regulation of marijuana dispensaries and some neighborhoods are disgruntled about the quantity of dispensaries, the concerns of unsavory street traffic and stigma of marijuana shops have not been realized.  It appears that although regulation of large numbers of dispensaries has been burdensome on the government, the early use of strict regulations on operations has been effective.

Some counties within the state of California such as Oakland and San Jose have imposed a local tax on medical marijuana.  Contrary to what many analysts believed, the tax did not push consumers to use drug dealers instead.  The theory is that legal marijuana is high quality and reliable, therefore there is no need to acquire the drug through illegal methods.  The legalization of medical marijuana has provided an expanded market that generally offers cheaper prices and consumers have a significant assortment of marijuana of varying potency to choose from.  These findings tend to show that regulation of the drug provides the consumer with a product that is safer.

Proponents of marijuana legalization believe states such as Colorado and Washington are the start of a movement toward legalization of the drug.  State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco said “[t]here is definitely going to be legalization here at some point, one way or another, like in Colorado and Washington….”  However, there still remains strong opposition to the legalization of marijuana, including some in law enforcement who believe that the use of marijuana leads to dependence on the drug, poses health risks, and encourages the use of other drugs.  Executive director Darrel W. Stephens of the Major Cities Chiefs Association wrote “[u]fortunately, many have been convinced that marijuana is harmless, and many in policing do not believe that is the case….”  Additionally, other opponents cite problems in Los Angeles and thefts of cash-rich marijuana farms in the northern parts of California as two of several reasons that states should think twice about legalizing marijuana.

Based on popular opinion, it appears that the trend of legalization of medical marijuana and eventually the outright legalization of the drug by states is only a matter of time.  The use of marijuana in California has become somewhat accepted culturally and is almost as common as alcohol consumption in some parts of the state.  The cultivation of the drug in the northern regions of California has become an economic benefit to many communities, creating wealth and tax revenues.  Such economic benefits as tax revenue for cash-strapped states such as California are too much of a draw to turn down.  Furthermore, the belief by many that marijuana is not an addictive drug that can be successfully regulated, coupled with the fact that its legalization has not proven to materially increase drug-related problems within communities, only strengthens proponents’ position.  Following California, 19 states and the District of Columbia have also legalized medical marijuana.  It is foreseeable that California’s successful partial legalization of the drug has provided the example that other states will continue to follow.

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