The Federal Government Should Decriminalize Marijuana

The Federal Government Should Decriminalize Marijuana

Editor’s Note (10/7/22): On October 6 President Joe Biden announced he would pardon “all prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana” and asked U.S. governors to do the same at the state level. He also demanded a review of marijuana’s federal classification.

The Marijuana Opportunity Expungement and Reinvestment (MORE) Act . was narrowly passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill would remove marijuana illegal substances from the federal government’s lists. This is just one step in decriminalizing the drug nationwide. The bill will not create a legal cannabis market nationwide (as some headlines suggest) or remove any state’s criminal penalties. Additional federal legislation would be needed to achieve those goals.

Public opinion has swung rapidly in favor of legalization, and there is growing discontent among the public and policy makers with the criminalization of low-level drug offenses. Legalization advocates and lawmakers will likely continue to advocate for legalization of marijuana at both the state and federal level. Public health researchers who have studied the regulation of marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco agree strongly with decriminalization. However, we are cautious about full legalization. People are hurt by continued criminalization of marijuana. However, the history of legal tobacco and alcohol shows that public health can be compromised when profits over public good. This is how we envision a federal cannabis policy. It takes into account three main considerations: a just and equitable criminal policy, individual freedom, and strong regulation.

Decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana are two different policy questions. Our research has shown that they can lead to different outcomes .. From 1970s into the 2000s, possession of cannabis was a misdemeanor in most states, carrying the possibility of large fines and criminal records for having even small amounts of the drug. These penalties are far too harsh for the crime, as we and others have believed for a long time.

In 2008, Massachusetts reduced penalties such that possession of small amounts of marijuana became akin to a traffic ticket. Many other states have followed. This is decriminalization: less or lower penalties, but not necessarily with laws and infrastructure supporting legal marijuana sales. People of color are much more likely to be arrested for possession than white people, and this disparity has worsened in states that have not decriminalized or legalized cannabis. Public health advocates are now more vocal in calling for cannabis decriminalization because of the health consequences of being arrested or having criminal records. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in 2015 calling for marijuana decriminalization in light of consequences such as lost job and educational opportunities, and trauma associated with arrest and detainment.

But legalization does not solve the problem of criminalization. People can still violate the law through illegal sales, underage possession and other violations. Our research has shown two interesting things: in states that have decriminalized marijuana and have age-restricted legal cannabis markets, there was no immediate reduction in arrests for people under the age of 21, but in states that decriminalized cannabis possession but did not fully legalize it, there was a reduction in arrest rates of minors and enforcement disparities.

We don’t know why, but in states where decriminalization was a primary goal, legislators were focused on criminal penalties and carefully drafted legislation that had maximum criminal consequences for all ages. In states where the primary goal was to create a legal market for cannabis, decriminalization didn’t get the same attention.

Despite not having an arrest record, minorities and poor people still face the brunt of civil and criminal penalties and fines. We believe that states should eliminate all penalties for possessing small amounts of cannabis. This would allow for legalization of personal use, but not for distribution. We believe that states should also expunge criminal records from people who have been convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana or for low-level sales.

Our current marijuana policy is very different from laws for tobacco and alcohol. Cannabis rarely ever kills someone, unlike alcohol and other drugs. The latter two are increasing in deaths. We believe that a more liberal cannabis policy can allow for individual choice and freedom, which can be a positive thing for the common good. Research from Uruguay, Canada and the United States suggests that the age-restricted legalization of marijuana sales does not lead to large increases in cannabis use among youth, a primary concern expressed by prohibition advocates. Some research has shown that marijuana is more popular among adults, but this is to be expected. The laws allow adults to legally consume the drug.

However, greater freedom for the cannabis sector is not always a good thing. Cannabis is an addictive substance. Laissez-faire legalization without any regulations can be dangerous. History is full of examples of the social harm that lax regulation can cause, such as the tobacco industry, the increasingly deregulated alcohol industry, and the lack of restrictions on the pharmaceutical marketing of opioids.

As is the case with alcohol and other drugs a small number of users consume the majority of the cannabis produced. These are the targets of the cannabis industry’s marketing campaigns to increase sales and profits. While heavy use is not known to lead to death or organ damage, there is little question that cannabis has acute effects on learning and memory, and therefore on overall functioning and productivity. These effects can have a negative impact on work and education, which can lead to a decrease in life expectancy and worsening health.

Our read of the current cannabis legalization research is that most study results are consistent with the “commercialization hypothesis” put forth by policy analysts Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter, and supported by their studies of the Dutch experience with partial legalization. They claim that while the removal of criminal penalties, strict regulated sales, and aggressive marketing are unlikely to result in large increases in problematic cannabis usage, conspicuous advertising will and aggressive marketing will.

As the U.S. Senate considers MORE, we urge policymakers to be as proactive and effective as possible in reducing the suffering caused by ineffective and unnecessary criminal penalties for marijuana offenses. We urge policy makers to consider how to limit the power and influence of an industry that will inevitably argue against taxes, restrictions on advertising and promotion, and a purchase age of 21. These are tools that can reduce the risks associated with addiction. Research has been done for decades. They are the foundation of a new addiction industry in America.


    Richard A. Grucza is a professor in the Departments of Family and Community Medicine and Health and Clinical Outcomes Research at Saint Louis University Medical School. He is currently researching addiction treatment and has published on alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis policy.

      Andrew D. Plunk is an associate professor in the Departme

      Read More