Comparative Safety, Social Cost Reduction, & Social Responsibility
The debate concerning the legalization of marijuana has rage for decades. Despite tremendous amounts of evidence that shows that marijuana is safer than many legal mind altering substances, policies and laws continue to be enforced which prohibit the use of this drug. The reasons for legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use can be found in three important concepts. The three reasons for legalization of marijuana include: comparative safety, social cost reduction, and social responsibility.
The single largest argument concerning the continued criminalization of marijuana is the issue of safety. The argument that marijuana is dangerous when consumed or smoked has persisted as a result of decades of propaganda. Since the 1920s the US government has persisted in a campaign to show that marijuana is a dangerous drug. The belief that marijuana is dangerous has resulted in cannabis being listed as a Schedule I drug which is considered the most dangerous of drugs, e.g. cocaine, heroin, crack, etc… The basis of this listing is found in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (GPO, 1970). The criteria for being classified as a Schedule I drug are defined as:
Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence (DEA, n.d.).
The issue with listing cannabis in this manner is apparent when one begins to compare the statistics concerning drug safety with regard to marijuana. When one looks at the safety statistics of legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco the discrepancies with marijuana become evident. Tobacco, despite being heavily regulated and considered a dangerous addictive substance is neither listed as a drug nor is it illegal except to those under the age of 18. The Center for Disease Control reports that annual death rates resulting from cigarette smoking are estimated at 443,000 (CDC, 2012). This is a total of 1/5 of all US deaths (CDC, 2012). This means that more deaths are the result of smoking than from the combined impact of HIV, illegal drugs, alcohol, motor vehicle accidents, suicides, and murders (CDC, 2012).
Alcohol, another highly addictive substance, (which is also not listed on the FDA drug schedule), is the most dangerous substance second only to tobacco. When one studies alcohol impacts the danger of this substance is undeniable. Alcohol attributes not only to the death of users but also to innocent people such as in the case of automobile accidents and murder (CDC, 2013). The CDC lists these deaths as “Acute Causes” and the annual rates of death for these causes include situations such alcohol poisoning, aspiration, child maltreatment, drowning, excessive blood alcohol level, fall injuries, fire injuries, firearm injuries, homicide, hypothermia, motor-vehicle non-traffic crashes, etc… (CDC, 2013) The total death resulting from alcohol related acute causes is approximately 49,544 annually (CDC, 2013).
In summation, alcohol kills approximately 87,798 people and nicotine kills 443,000 people on an annual basis. Both nicotine and alcohol are considered highly addictive substances with a high potential of abuse but are not considered Schedule I drugs. In contrast to these statistics, the only annual deaths that are recorded by the FDA, resulting from Marijuana use, are those deaths that have resulted from interactions between prescription drugs and marijuana. From 1997 to 2005 the FDA reported 279 deaths resulting from reactions with medical marijuana. In fact the only deaths recorded from marijuana are those that have resulted from either medicine interactions or from marijuana being used in conjunction with other drugs such as alcohol. Interestingly enough, between the same years the FDA reported 11,687 deaths resulting strictly from prescription drug usage (Procon.org, 2009).
In a large study, published by the British Medical Journal, it was reported that marijuana users had no greater mortality rate than non-marijuana users (Sidney, 2003). This study was conducted using thousands of participants across a decade. The findings contradict the idea that marijuana presents a danger to uses or psychological or physical dependence (Sidney, 2003).
Despite these statistics concerning alcohol and nicotine both products are legal and over-the-counter with only age restrictions. The argument that marijuana is dangerous has little evidence to support its claim. For this reason, to claim that cannabis should be considered a Schedule I drug has no merit.
There is a great deal of controversy over the cost of marijuana enforcement. Despite the conflicting figures, the ACLU has estimated the cost at a low and high dollar amount. The conservative or low end cost of marijuana enforcement was estimated at $1.196 billion dollars (ACLU, 2013). This cost is inclusive of all costs associated with marijuana law enforcement including adjudication, policing, and prison terms (ACLU, 2013).
Now this cost would be acceptable if it was preventing some greater cost such as damages to property or intrinsic costs such as loss of life. However, as seen in the comparison of dangerous substances aforementioned, there is no significant loss of life or danger associated with marijuana use. The cost of enforcement however, is a different matter. The cost of billions of dollars per year spent enforcing the criminalization of a relatively safe drug seems to lack rational. This is especially true when one considers the fact that the low cost of enforcement is $6 $1.2 billion but the high-end cost is estimated at $6 billion dollars (ACLU, 2013).
The federal government has altered the sentencing and enforcement policies since the 1970’s making and even under the Schedule I laws the government treats marijuana differently (less severely). The amount of money spent on marijuana enforcement could benefit society in many ways such as job creation, education, and many other programs which would directly benefit society.
Despite the fact that American attitudes towards marijuana continue to soften and become more accepting, the number of arrests pertaining to marijuana increased between 2001 and 2010.
Marijuana arrests have risen over the past two decades. Between 2001 and 2010 alone, there were 8,244,943 marijuana arrests, more than 7 million of which,
(7,295,880) were for marijuana possession. There were 100,000 more marijuana possession arrests in 2010 than in 2001 (an 18% increase); 200,000 more than in 1995 (a 51% increase); and over 500,000 more than in 1990 (a 193% increase) (ACLU, 2013).
This enforcement seems to be without reason. Since there are no real dangers associated with the drug and decriminalization would save the country billions of dollars; this begs the question as to why these policies continue to be enforced. It would seem obvious that the continued criminalization of marijuana is counterproductive financially.
The lack of danger and the tremendous cost to the United States brings into focus the third reason that marijuana should be legalized. The reason is social responsibility. From the examples mentioned prior in this report it is clear that marijuana does not fit the description of being a Class I drug. This is especially true when one looks at other drugs and substances such as nicotine and alcohol which are not even included in the schedule. At the minimum, this situation reflects a lack of consistency in policy making. At the maximum, this situation provides the means for social injustice.
One might question this idea of marijuana criminalization being a matter of social justice, but when one looks at arrest statistics and other factors the injustice becomes evident. Looking first at the arrest statistics, the facts of the matter are that marijuana users are nearly the same in number across racial lines. However, African Americans are four to five times more likely to be arrested and convicted of possession of marijuana (ACLU, 2013). This is a social justice issue because it means that the criminalization of marijuana is creating outcomes and a far more significant rate amongst African Americans than amongst white Americans. The UCLA reported that many of the African Americans who are being arrested are of low income brackets and as a result of their arrest and or incarceration these individuals are now limited in job opportunities and in their ability to earn (ACLU, 2013).
Individuals who are arrested for possession of marijuana are also limited financially by the fact that they are no longer eligible for financial aid for college. In contrast, a person who is convicted of fraud or murder can apply for student aid without impunity. Since the largest numbers of arrests for marijuana are in the minority communities, this further limits the ability of these communities to fight poverty (ACLU, 2013).
There are other social justice issues involved in marijuana criminalization. The criminalization of marijuana continues to hamper research into possible cures for diseases and other uses. Jon Gettman, marijuana advocate and head of the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, submitted a petition to the DEA in 1999, asking for a review of cannabis under the Schedule I. Gettman’s argument hinged on the idea that cannabis is not a Schedule I drug because it has medicinal value. The DEA turned the matter over to the Department of Health and Human Services which responded:
Congress established only one schedule — schedule I — for drugs of abuse with ``no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States’’ and ``lack of accepted safety for use * * * under medical supervision.’’ 21 USC 812(b). To be classified in schedules II through V, a drug of abuse [[Page 20039]] must have a ``currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.’’ \3\ Id. This is why the CSA allows practitioners to prescribe only those controlled substances that are listed in schedules II through V. 21 USC 829. Drugs listed in schedule I, by contrast, may not be prescribed for patient use; they may only be dispensed by practitioners who are conducting FDA-approved research and have obtained a schedule I research registration from DEA. 21 USC 823(f); 21 CFR 5.10(a)(9), 1301.18, 1301.32 (Federal Register, 2001).
The petition was denied due to the fact that there is no current accepted medical use in treatment in the United States with marijuana. This is clearly a case of circular logic, in the fact that because the drug is a Schedule I drug it cannot be prescribed or used legally in any form of treatment. Furthermore, marijuana research is also limited severely by this schedule. This would be acceptable if there were no medicinal purpose in marijuana as the government would have one believe, but this is not true. The evidence of marijuana’s medicinal value lies in the US Patent office. US Patent 6630507 Cannabinoids as Antioxidants and Neuroprotectants is a patent held by the US Health and Human Services Agency since 2001. Here is the number one claim that allowed this agency to obtain the patent: “A method of treating diseases caused by oxidative stress, comprising administering a therapeutically effective amount of a cannabinoid that has substantially no binding to the NMDA receptor to a subject who has a disease caused by oxidative stress.” (US PATENT 6630507) Thus any stress related disease could be treated using cannabis.
This is a clear social justice issue in that the US government penalizes citizens and researchers for marijuana use and study claiming that it has no medicinal value, while at the same time holding a patent for medicinal use of cannabis. This situation undermines the health and safety of Americans in the same way that holding back research in cancer treatment would if the government were to suddenly declare that chemotherapy was illegal. This hypocritical stance which the US government has taken reveals the importance of decriminalizing marijuana such that it can be researched by firms and scientist to determine the substance’s true value medicinally and commercially.
The controversy surrounding legalization of marijuana for recreational and medicinal use has subsided since 2010 as many states have begun decriminalizing cannabis. This trend continues as many lawmakers and policy makers have begun realizing that the drug is relatively safe. As well, the savings incurred from decriminalization and the realization of social injustice issues spurs on this trend. Still, the federal government seems no closer to changing the laws pertaining to marijuana. This disparity in the legal system will no doubt lead to a supreme court ruling or multiple rulings in order to alter the federal government’s policies and laws pertaining to marijuana.
ACLU (2013) The War on Marijuana in Black and White. (2013). Retrieved from ACLU website: https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/aclu-thewaronmarijuana-rel2.pdf
CDC (2012) Health Effects of Cigarette Smoking Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/effects_cig_smokin g/
CDC (2013). CDC — ARDI — Report — Alcohol-Attributable Deaths, US, By Sex, Excessive Use. Retrieved from http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/DACH_ARDI/Default/Report.aspx?T=AAM&P=f6d7eda7- 036e-4553–9968–9b17ffad620e&R=d7a9b303–48e9–4440-bf47- 070a4827e1fd&M=AD96A9C1–285A-44D2-B76D- BA2AE037FC56&F=AAMCauseGenderNew&D=H
DEA / Drug Scheduling. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.justice.gov/dea/druginfo/ds.shtml
Federal Register, Volume 66 Issue 75 (Wednesday, April 18, 2001). (2001, April 18). Retrieved December 30, 2013, from http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2001-04- 18/html/01–9306.htm
GPO (1970). Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Retrieved 2013, from http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/STATUTE-84/pdf/STATUTE-84-Pg1236.pdf
Procon.org (2009) Deaths from Marijuana v. 17 FDA-Approved Drugs (Jan. 1, 1997 to June 30, 2005) http://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000145
Sidney, S. The British Medical Journal, Sept. 20, 2003; vol 327: pp 635–636.
US PATENT 6630507. (2003, October 7). Retrieved from http://uspatent6630507.com/