To date, cannabis has been legalized for medical use (in some form) in 30 U.S. states, while recreational adult use cannabis is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. Yet, in spite of the industry gaining a foothold in the majority of states across the country, cannabis prohibition rages at the federal level. The question is: what difference will federal legalization make? What will the United States look like when cannabis prohibition finally comes to an end?
Using successful weed states like Washington and Colorado as a model for this change, here are five significant effects of cannabis legalization and how they could impact the rest of the country.
One might debate the medical applications of cannabis but what one cannot argue is the plant’s ability to drive industry. Cannabis generates big money. According to a report by data analytics firm, New Frontier Data, if cannabis prohibition were brought to an end, it could generate a staggering $132 billion in tax revenue over the course of the next 10 years. It would also create 782,000 new jobs, from cultivators, farm hands, and budtenders to ancillary businesses that provide support and services to the cannabis industry. This number could easily top one million jobs by 2025.
The potential for economic growth and community development is enormous if this tax money were spent in the right places, as legal states like Colorado have done. Here, the legalization bill ensures that cannabis taxes are channeled straight back into the community to support underfunded programs, drug rehabilitation centers, and schools.
A significant effect of ending cannabis prohibition has been the much-needed decline in prescription drug use, most notably of addictive opioid painkillers. In 2014, the peer-reviewed JAMA Internal Medicine Journal found that states with legal cannabis had 25% lower opioid overdose rates. Read the full article here.
Considering the opioid crisis afflicting the United States, this is a crucial finding that is now gaining increasing support by a plethora of small-scale, follow-up studies. Scientific scrutiny is delivering the verdict that cannabis is a highly promising alternative to opioid pain medications for a variety of diseases and conditions, including the side effects of cancer therapy and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Cannabis has also been found to offer treatment for depression, trouble sleeping, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s, although much research is still needed to fully understand the plant’s pharmaceutical actions.
There has been much speculation as to whether ending cannabis prohibition will negatively impact alcohol sales. After all, used safely and in moderation, cannabis offers all the benefits of relaxation and recreation without the risk of a nasty hangover. Apparently, there are quite a few people who agree with this sentiment. A recent study by the University of Connecticut has found a 12.4% reduction in monthly alcohol sales over the period 2006 to 2015 in counties where cannabis is legal. Wine suffered the greatest blow, with a 16.2% reduction in monthly sales.
While cannabis might elbow alcohol out of the marketplace just a little, it is unlikely to deliver any fatal blows. America has had a long and tumultuous love affair with alcohol that has survived two world wars and a draconian period of prohibition.
Enforcing cannabis prohibition is a costly exercise. Even legal cannabis states have to channel a significant amount of resources into designing, implementing, and enforcing the severe restrictions and regulations that keep a tight rein on the burgeoning industry. In fact, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, the United States spends more than $50 billion a year upholding cannabis prohibition. The “War on Drugs” also drives a staggering number of arrests – 1,572,579 in 2016 to be precise – of which 574,641 were slammed in jail for nothing more than possessing cannabis.
Thankfully, there has been a decline in the number of drug-related arrests in states that have legalized cannabis. In 2016, the year California legalized recreational adult use cannabis, close to 14,000 people were arrested for possession of cannabis. One year later, in 2017, that number was down 56%.
In addition to a reduction in arrests, more and more people, who had previously been put in jail for cannabis offenses, which are now no longer illegal, are having their records expunged in states such as California and Massachusetts. This is actively returning perfectly harmless people to their lives, leaving them free to become productive members of society again.
The way Americans perceive cannabis is rapidly changing. A few decades ago, in 1969, only 12% of Americans supported cannabis legalization, according to a Gallup poll. In 2017, that number shot up to 64% and for the first time ever, the majority of Democrats and Republicans are on the same page with regards to ending cannabis prohibition. Stoner stigma is firmly on the way out and cannabis is increasingly being regarded as a medicinal herb and a lifestyle choice of highly functional people from all walks of life.
Yet, in spite of this change, there remains a lot of misconception and misinformation out there. The federal government’s refusal to change the Schedule 1 status of cannabis contributes enormously to this ignorance, holding back the much-needed research and scientific inquiry. There’s much to be gained from bringing cannabis prohibition to an end and states such as Washington, California, and Colorado have irrefutably demonstrated that.
It may just be a matter of time before the federal government finally shifts its stance but until then, billions of dollars in revenue and tax money is lost and hundreds of thousands of innocent people are ripped from their families and jailed. And all in the name of cannabis prohibition.