October 29, 2018

Thinking About Marijuana Legalization

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

On October 17, recreational marijuana became legal in Canada. There are rules about purchasing marijuana depending on where people live. In the province of Ontario, the legal age is 19, the possession limit is 30 grams in public, and it is not yet legal to purchase edible products. In Quebec, the legal age is 18, there are online and retail sales, and one can possess 30 grams in public, and no more than 150 grams at home. Alberta’s government offers a short video to inform citizens about the rules, including being allowed to grow up to four cannabis plants at home for personal use. The company Shopify was chosen to design and manage online sales in four provinces. According to this New York Times article, there will be lower levels of THC in legal marijuana than products available in the illegal market. Motorists will be fined if caught driving while high. And Canadians may face restrictions from using marijuana depending on their job (for instance, working as a pilot or police officer).

This short BBC video poses an important question: should those who’ve been convicted for marijuana offenses get amnesty? The video reports that 500,000 Canadians have criminal records for marijuana possession. In the video, politician Murray Rankin points out that black people in Toronto and Halifax were much more likely to be arrested than white people for cannabis possession. In an op-ed for The Globe and Mail, André Picard says that criminal records for marijuana possession should be expunged. As he mentions, having a criminal record makes it difficult to get a job and obtain bank loans. “Racialized and low-income Canadians have been disproportionately prosecuted and harmed,” he writes, linking to an article that talks about the especially negative impact on segments of the Canadian population during the era of cannabis prohibition, and concludes his article by saying the war on drugs has failed.

Picard’s reference to racial inequality and the failed war on drugs immediately made me think of Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. When I teach Introduction to Sociology, I show an interview with Alexander in which she argues the war on drugs in the U.S. has focused on poor communities of color, even though people of color and white people use and sell drugs at similar rates (she provides evidence of this in her book). As she explains in the interview, millions of Americans are felons because of convictions for nonviolent drug offenses, and they face consequences such as housing discrimination and being denied the right to vote. Toward the end of the interview she asserts:

The drug war waged in these poor communities of color has created generations of black and brown people who’ve been branded felons and relegated to a permanent second-class status for life. And the reason for their excommunication from our mainstream society is for engaging in precisely the same kind of drug activity that is largely ignored in middle-class and upper middle class white communities.”

Alexander is disturbed to see how the main beneficiaries of a profitable legal marijuana market in the U.S. are white men, while communities of color have been devastated by the decades long war on drugs. An article by George Joseph provides an example of black people being disproportionately hurt by the U.S. war on drugs. He shares details of a report indicating black people in Alabama are four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession. In addition to jail time, arrests for marijuana possession can result in loss of student loans, driver’s license suspension, and expensive court fees. The article includes the story of Wesley Shelton, a black man who spent 15 months in jail after being arrested for having $10 worth of marijuana.

Public opinion has strongly moved in the direction of support for legalizing marijuana in the U.S. Pew Research Center data show that 62% of Americans believe marijuana use should be legal. You can see how much support has increased since 1990, when only 16% believed it should be legal, and in 2000, when 31% said it should be legal.

Millennials express strongest support for marijuana legalization. In terms of political affiliation, support for marijuana legalization is higher among Democrats than Republicans. Gallup poll data show support for legalizing marijuana has steadily increased for both Democrats and Republicans over time (Independents express support at similar levels to Democrats).

There are nine states where marijuana is legal for recreational use, plus the District of Columbia: Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Alaska, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont. Voters in Michigan will soon decide whether marijuana will be legalized in their state. There are 30 states permitting the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

One way I try to gauge the opinions of my students is to say to the class, “Raise your hand if you wouldn’t date somebody who smokes cigarettes.” Usually, almost everyone in the class will raise their hand. After they put their hands down, I then say “Raise your hand if you wouldn’t date somebody who smokes marijuana.” Typically, only a few students raise their hands. Granted, it’s an unscientific exercise, but I think it’s a simple way of revealing how socially acceptable marijuana use is among college students. Notably, in a recent national study, 21% of college students reported using marijuana at least once in the prior 30 days.

I conclude this piece with several questions to consider: Do you think marijuana should be legal for recreational purposes? In places where marijuana is legal, what occupations should face restrictions? Do you think professional athletes should still be tested for marijuana use? (I take interest in stories about athletes who use marijuana for pain relief, and stories with informal estimates of marijuana use among players). Do you think the criminal records of people with marijuana offenses should be expunged in places where marijuana has become legal? Finally, to borrow two questions from an article by Reihan Salam: Will America’s legal marijuana markets be dominated by for-profit businesses with an interest in encouraging consumption? Will wide scale legalization of marijuana lead to a significant increase in the number of Americans dependent on it?

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