ARTICLE BY JACOB AUSUBEL, PENN 2019
Just one year ago, I was opposed to marijuana legalization. Just to give one example, I voted against Initiative 71, a Washington, DC voter-approved ballot initiative legalizing the recreational use of cannabis. I was in the minority; a around 70 percent of voters voted in favor of the initiative. I must have been one of the few 18-year-olds and liberal Democrats to vote against the initiative. In contrast, my views on pot legalization are now more progressive and much more nuanced. What happened? How could my opinion “evolve” so dramatically in the course of a couple of months?
My perspective did not change instantaneously. In the days that followed the November 4th, 2014 election, I remained adamantly opposed to marijuana legalization. I remember talking to one of my high school teachers about Initiative 71. I told her that I voted against the initiative while she confided that she voted in favor. While I appreciated this conversation, my teacher’s stance on Initiative 71 was not enough to sway me to the pro-legalization side. However, my views would soon start to change.
In mid-December 2014, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill. This bill included a legislative rider barring the use of funds to enact marijuana legalization in DC. Almost immediately, DC officials expressed their dissatisfaction with the cromibus bill. “Residents spoke loud and clear when they voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana in the District of Columbia,” City Mayor Muriel Bowser said. “It is disheartening and frustrating to learn that once again the District of Columbia is being used as a political pawn by the Congress,” DC Council Member David Grosso (I-At Large) concurred.
Like the officials, I felt outraged. A torrent of thoughts spiraled through my head. How dare the Republicans, so-called advocates of limited government, infringe upon DC Home Rule in such a blatant manner! How dare the Democrats sit back and do virtually nothing to help their supporters (a staggering 91% of DC voters supported the Democratic Party in the 2012 presidential election)! The hypocrisy of politicians was sickening.
I never felt more proud of my local officials than when Mayor Bowser’s administration stood up to Congress. Despite facing opposition from Congress, Bowser remained a steadfast supporter of marijuana legalization. “Our government is prepared to implement and enforce Initiative 71 in the District of Columbia,” Bowser proclaimed during a February 25th press conference. On the next day, Initiative 71 went into effect. The House Committee on Oversight and Government reform expressed deep disapproval and yet ultimately did not step in. Bowser’s power play was not easy. It took guts and a lot of conviction, and I admired her for her resolute leadership.
I was elated when the District of Columbia officially legalized recreational and medicinal marijuana. The passage of Initiative 71 affirmed DC Home Rule and demonstrated that the votes of city residents mattered.
In the months that followed, I became more informed about marijuana use. In the process, I came to a couple of conclusions. First, marijuana is safer than both alcohol and tobacco. As Nick Wing correctly points out in a 2013 Huffington Post article, not a single person has ever died from a marijuana overdose. In fact, a marijuana smoker would need to consume 20,000 to 40,000 times the amount of THC in a joint in order to be at risk of dying. True, marijuana is by no means a safe substance. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 9 percent of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it. However, the dangers posed by marijuana are often overstated.
Second, we should study the states where recreational marijuana use is currently legal. These states are “laboratories of democracy” whose drug policies can be emulated. One of these states is Colorado. After the enactment of Colorado Amendment 64 in November 2012, the state’s marijuana policies changed drastically. Colorado residents aged 21 or older can now grow up to six cannabis plants, legally possess up to one ounce of cannabis when travelling, and distribute one ounce of marijuana to other citizens. Marijuana legalization in Colorado has had several positive effects since 2010. Marijuana possession arrests have gone down by 84% since 2010. Instead, law enforcement is focusing on more serious concerns. The state raised $40.9 million between January 2014 and October 2014 as a result of retail marijuana. The Colorado joint budget committee allocated $2.5 million of that tax revenue toward increasing the number of health professionals in public school. In addition, the committee allocated $2 million to fund community-based youth outreach programs focused on drug prevention and school retention. Legislators spent over $4.3 million to fund school-based outreach programs. Thus, much of the money raised via the retail marijuana industry is used to directly benefit citizens. In summary, marijuana legalization has been shown to have both economic and social benefits.
This is a salient issue that deserves more attention. Even if you feel ambivalent about the health benefits of cannabis, as I still do, I urge you to reconsider your stance on marijuana legalization. As a disclaimer, I never plan to consume marijuana. In addition, I remain adamantly opposed to the legalization of more lethal drugs. Nevertheless, I consider marijuana legalization to be a humane and pragmatic policy. If I ever vote in another referendum on marijuana legalization, I will take the pro-legalization position.
In the years to come, I expect marijuana legalization to become a more popular position. Although only 54%, a slim majority, of Americans currently support legalization, this number will likely grow. According to a Pew Research study, 68% of Millenials support the legalization of marijuana. Most likely, large numbers of Generation Z, the cohort of people born after the Millennial Generation, will share this view. This is because young people tend to embrace socially liberal positions more quickly than older people do. As Generation Z becomes larger and larger, the number of Americans supporting legalization will rise. In short, change is just around the corner.