With the recent legalization of marijuana in several states, including Colorado and Washington, United States marijuana advocacy groups have taken steps to legalize recreational use of marijuana in other states—specifically California—by 2016.
The Marijuana Policy Project is currently working to develop a measure similar to the one passed in Colorado three years ago, allowing marijuana to be legally sold to all adults over 21 years old. Currently, marijuana is permitted in California through a largely unregulated medical marijuana industry; however, the drug is still illegal under federal law. While there have been efforts in the past to legalize marijuana, such as a proposed (and rejected) ballot initiative in 2010, advocates believe that the increased acceptance in other states may make voters less resistant to the legalization of the drug.
Decriminalization of Marijuana versus Legalization
One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the movement for recreational use of marijuana is the difference between decriminalization and legalization. While the terms appear similar, there are stark differences between the two. Decriminalization refers to changes to the repercussions associated with specific instances of possession. More specifically, state laws are either repealed or amended, making certain acts criminal but not subject to prosecution. For example, an individual who is caught with a small amount of marijuana intended for personal use may be subjected to a fine, but they will not receive a jail sentence or a criminal record. Approximately one-third of states have already decriminalized marijuana including Alaska, California, Oregon and New York. Although possession of small amounts of marijuana carries with it no significant legal consequence, possession of copious amounts of marijuana or engaging in the selling of marijuana comes with significant penalties.
Legalization of marijuana means that individuals cannot be arrested, fined, or convicted for using marijuana as long as it is in accordance with state laws (e.g. the individual is of the legal age, in a legal place, and consumes the legal amount). The legalization of marijuana in states such as Colorado and Washington has allowed for the implementation of legal retail stores; however, individuals who sell or traffic marijuana outside of the bounds of a licensed business are breaking the law.
Still, the legalization of marijuana by state law does not make it legal under federal law. In instances where legalization has been permitted by state law, marijuana businesses are required to keep the growth, purchase, sale, use, and taxation of the drug within the state’s boundaries. Since marijuana is illegal under federal law through the Controlled Substances Act, these boundaries prevent businesses from using federally-regulated banks and claiming deductions on federal income taxes.
Medical Marijuana Legalization
In 1996, California became one of the first states to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. Since then, nearly half of the states, including Washington DC, have legalized medical marijuana. Legalization of medical marijuana is clearly outlined as for “qualifying patients with terminal or debilitating medical conditions who, in the judgment of their health care professionals, may benefit from the medical use of cannabis, shall not be arrested, prosecuted, or subject to other criminal sanctions or civil consequences under state law based solely on their medical use of cannabis, notwithstanding any other provision of law”. Medical marijuana is generally controlled via state regulations that may limit the number of plants that can be grown or the number of ounces that can be possessed. Some states allow patients specific supply limits that may last anywhere between 30 to 60 days, depending on the needs of the individual. In states that have legalized medical marijuana, there are some exceptions for growing the plant, which offers patients a way to easily access the drug they would otherwise have difficulty obtaining.
How Decriminalization Affects Acceptance
The decriminalization of marijuana creates the perception that the drug is not problematic. As legal repercussions are minimized, young adults are more likely to possess marijuana with little concern for the potential consequences. With movements to legalize marijuana, it will become even more accessible, especially due to the fact that the drug is now being manufactured in edible form. This makes using marijuana easier than ever before and more readily available in many households. As with prescription drug abuse, the ease of accessibility in households will contribute to a rising number of young adults abusing illicit substances.
It is estimated that over 104 million people in the United States have used marijuana at least once in their lifetime, and its legalization will cause this number to soar. As marijuana use continues to be portrayed as more socially acceptable, it is more likely to be used by impressionable teens and young adults. Legalizing marijuana will contribute to the perception that marijuana is not dangerous and does not serve as a gateway drug in many cases. Contrary to this belief, many studies show that the younger an individual is when they begin using marijuana, the more likely they are to become dependent and begin experimenting with other substances. Click here to learn more about a college rehab program for young adults struggling with marijuana abuse or addiction.