Marijuana policy changes over the last few decades across many states point to greater societal awareness of this drug’s decriminalization process and medical use. However, despite the intentions to create a solid understanding of legalization, there are still many factors driving the prohibitionist approach to the cannabis issue, at least at the federal level. Marijuana or cannabis is the official name of a psychoactive drug that is derived from hemp.
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Legalization is the removal of criminal penalties for possessing, smoking, and selling recreational or medical marijuana. Historically, this drug, along with cocaine, heroin, and opium, was prescribed for pain, rheumatism, and motion sickness, but following the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act, it was designated as a controlled substance at the federal level. However, some states, including Oregon and Washington, have moved to legalize cannabis for therapeutic or recreational use in recent decades.
Many researchers and public organizations supporting its prohibition cite many adverse effects, including crime rate surges, fatal car accidents, and health issues, especially for high-risk users such as adolescents. Due to the lack of a coherent national policy, strong legalization debate claims have emerged, with agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or political parties analyzing and giving different perspectives on this issue. Evaluating their claims and research findings can inform further policy reform. This paper aims at evaluating arguments and counterarguments to marijuana legalization and scientific and anecdotal evidence supporting both claims.
Arguments and Counterarguments
Pro-cannabis groups support marijuana legalization, and they have gained traction as demonstrated by state-level policies and public opinion polls. The main argument for the widespread legalization of cannabis is that it helps treat specified serious conditions, especially when symptoms do not respond to other treatments. Beneficial cannabinoids or their derivatives, such as cannabidiol, have been shown to be safe, effective, and inexpensive therapies for chronic pain and neurodegenerative disorders compared to other agents (Bridgeman & Abazia, 2017). Thus, proponents support a legal prescription of medicinal cannabis therapy for specific conditions.
In light of the anecdotal evidence, pro-cannabis groups further argue that marijuana treatment can ameliorate severe disease symptoms. Specifically, improved outcomes for patients with severe epilepsy, sclerosis, and cancer chemotherapy side effects can be achieved from marijuana prescriptions (Denham, 2019). The increasing acceptance of cannabis use for therapeutic purposes across the nation is another basis for pro-arguments. Opinion polls have revealed that about 90% of the people support legalizing marijuana for medical use (Denham, 2019). Further, many states that initially decriminalized medicinal cannabis have already officially legalized it through policy and ballot initiatives.
Those that have allowed legal access to prescription marijuana include Colorado, California, Nevada, Maine, and Alaska, and 47 of the 50 states consider its medical derivatives (Zvonarev et al., 2019). The reduced legal risks suggest greater social acceptance of medical marijuana.
Another argument is that the federal prohibition has prevented the establishment of clear guidelines for legal access to medical cannabis. As such, legalization should respect equal access to effective treatment, including hemp-based medicines, by those who need it (Pacula & Smart, 2017). Well-designed regulations will enhance the safe use of these products, reduce black market activity, and allow legal availability of cannabis for medicine and science, including drug development and clinical research. They will also ensure more control of the medical-cannabis system, sealing gaps that promote recreational use.
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The main counterarguments to legalization are conservative and stem from concerns that the legal availability of cannabis would raise dependence and have adverse health effects. Opponents argue that marijuana use has negative health consequences, including impaired cognitive functioning and dependence after long-term heavy use (Bridgeman & Abazia, 2017). Their main argument is that cannabis is a soft drug as it includes a psychoactive agent, tetrahydrocannabinol (Pacula & Smart, 2017). They also worry that legalization will promote a transition to heavier drugs, such as heroin. Once legalized, marijuana would be likely advertised like alcohol or tobacco to serve a segment of heavy users. The opponents are also concerned that profit-maximizing cannabis companies can portray it as an object of desire to create a market of heavy users.
Evaluation of Critical Thinking
Strength of Arguments
There are merits of arguments and counterarguments to the legalization of medical cannabis. Proponents generally argue that cannabinoid products have many significant health benefits, including treating symptoms that do not respond to other pharmaceutical agents. A key strength of all these arguments is their appeal to logic or reason, especially the claim that marijuana contains cannabidiol, a cannabinoid with a therapeutic value as an analgesic and appetite stimulant.
The pro-legalization side maintains that medical cannabis has many scientifically proven curative and palliative effects and may help treat Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and other neurodegenerative diseases. It may also be an effective treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (Sarvet et al., 2018). Specific applications of medical cannabis have risen in chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, glaucoma, as well as cancer treatment, and nausea after chemotherapy. Therefore, these arguments use logos to support the legalization of marijuana for use in specific medical indications.
On the other hand, counterarguments to legalization use pathos since they involve tactics that appeal to emotions, such as increased availability of cannabis will lead to dependence and adverse health risks for heavy users. However, the plant’s potential therapeutic merits and application in scientific research are used to prove or refute claims about medicinal marijuana therapy (Bridgeman & Abazia, 2017).
There is a slippery slope logical fallacy in the opposing arguments, especially on the claim that the legal availability of this drug is a shift from freedom of choice to a permissive environment that will have adverse health and social outcomes. The argument that marijuana can be the gateway to abuse of harder drugs lacks evidence and scientific support. The only defensible strength of this anti-legalization claim is cannabis and tobacco are often used as complements, but their use has no proven impact on opioid-related outcomes.
Weaknesses in Critical Thinking
The arguments around the legalization have some apparent weaknesses and biases. Rhetoric and fallacies are used to support the claims, with three misconceptions dominating this debate. The first one is that most people still believe that marijuana legalization would certainly lead to substance use disorder and other dangerous behavioral changes and health-related problems that are not easy to control. However, according to Zvonarev et al. (2019), marijuana is the third most common drug for treatment in many public and private health care organizations after such dangerous substances as methamphetamine and heroin.
Further, data from Colorado indicate that marijuana is the least harmful drug in terms of patient numbers and risk factors for health problems, compared to alcohol and tobacco. Thus, the view that legalization will lead to poor mental health outcomes is fallacious, as cannabis is not the leading cause of admissions for severe addictions.
On the contrary, consistent with the pro-legalization claims, scientific findings suggest that medical cannabis has significant health benefits. Over 85% of patient-reported qualifying conditions based on cannabis are associated with therapeutic efficacy and pain relief, behavioral control, and mood improvement has been observed in patients (Denham, 2019). Another rhetoric or fallacy related to the legalization issue is that the level of education determines people’s attitudes toward marijuana and the necessity of its decriminalization. As such, the more people know, the less they want to support these ideas.
On the contrary, broader social acceptance is likely to result from increased awareness of marijuana products and their potency. Opinion polls have revealed that about 90% of Americans support legalizing marijuana for medical use (Denham, 2019). There is also an opinion that as soon as cannabis is legalized, other illegal drugs would be offered for evaluation. This scenario would lead to many public health organizations, human rights communities, and individual researchers initiating new debates on these illicit substances.
Quality of Evidence
Although scientific literature associates cannabis use with chronic health risks, especially for heavy users, the causal relationship is largely weak and anecdotal. The evidence is inadequate to determine the degree to which it is causally linked to dependence, cognitive impairment, or psychotic symptoms (Bridgeman & Abazia, 2017). Indeed, some studies have found adverse effects associated with cannabis use, but they have limitations. Notably, it is difficult to establish if marijuana consumption alone causes adverse outcomes, and the specific levels that cause impairment are poorly understood.
To date, research findings have been based on observational data to inform generalizations about the safety and health consequences – inductive reasoning. Therefore, it is difficult to conclude that associations identified in the literature reflect are causal. Further, the evidence that legalizing marijuana would increase alcohol abuse is inconclusive since the two drugs are not complements (Bridgeman & Abazia, 2017). Policymakers acknowledge the medical benefits of legal cannabis use. Suggestive evidence medical marijuana can improve patient outcomes, but more research is needed to establish dose-response relationships for safe administration.
Marijuana legalization is a matter of time because of increasing awareness of its benefits for relieving chronic pain, controlling seizures, and improving patients’ quality of life. Although negative and positive medical marijuana-related outcomes have some support in the literature, it is not clear if the benefits outweigh the harms. My position is that the focus should be on the net gain or loss for society. Marijuana legalization benefits, especially medical use, may easily outweigh its harmful effects, which are difficult to quantify under the current systems. From the analysis, more data on dosage and consumption levels are needed to help ascertain or refute the causal links with adverse outcomes.
Bridgeman, M. B. (2017). Medicinal cannabis: History, pharmacology, and implications for the acute care setting. Pharmacy and Therapeutics, 42(3), 180-188. Web.
Denham, B. E. (2019). Attitudes toward legalization of marijuana in the United States, 1986-2016: Changes in determinants of public opinion. International Journal of Drug Policy, 71, 78–90. Web.
Pacula, R. L., & Smart, R. (2017). Medical marijuana and marijuana legalization. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 13, 397-419. Web.
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Sarvet, A. L., Wall, M. M., Fink, D. S., Greene, E., Le, A., Boustead, A. E., Pacula, R. L., Keyes, K. M., Cerda, M., Galea, S., & Hasin, D. S. (2018). Medical marijuana laws and adolescent marijuana use in the United States: a systematic review and meta‐analysis. Addiction, 113(6), 1003-1016. Web.
Zvonarev, V., Fatuki, T. A., & Tregubenko, P. (2019). The public health concerns of marijuana legalization: An overview of current trends. Cureus, 11(9). Web.