Last updated on: 2/1/2023 | Author:

History of Recreational Marijuana

More than half of US adults have tried marijuana, despite it being an illegal drug under federal law. Recreational marijuana, also known as adult-use marijuana, was first legalized in Colorado and Washington in 2012.

Pot. Weed. Ganja. Mary Jane. There are more than a thousand slang terms in the English language to refer to marijuana. A 1943 article in TIME magazine called it muggles, mooter, and bambalacha, and referred to marijuana cigarettes as goof-butts and giggle-smokes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, use of the word “marijuana” (also written as “marihuana” in older references) came to popularity in the United States in the 1930s as an alternative to the more familiar terms “cannabis” and “hemp. Read more history…


Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1

Legalizing recreational marijuana results in helpful regulation of a safe drug, without increasing potential negative consequences.

People buying marijuana on the street have no way of knowing if what they’re ingesting is covered with mold, fungus, pesticides, or other harmful substances. Once marijuana is legalized, the government is able to enforce laboratory testing and regulations to ensure that marijuana is free of toxins. For example, Washington law requires health warnings, quality assurance, labeling for the concentration of THC, and other important regulations for consumers. [9] [10] [11]

Further, legalization comes with regulations to prevent kids’ exposure to marijuana, including child-resistant packaging, such as the regulations implemented in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. Legalization allows the government to set age restrictions on buyers and to license and regulate the entire supply chain of marijuana, including growers, distributors, retailers, and testing laboratories. California regulations include limitations on the serving sizes for edible marijuana products, seed-to-sale testing and tracking, and 24-hour video surveillance at retail stores. [12] [13] [14]

Due in part to these regulations, “the rates of marijuana use by young people are falling despite the fact more US states are legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana use and the number of adults using the drug has increased.” Marijuana use among 8th graders in Washington state decreased following legalization in 2012, from 9.8 percent to 7.3 percent in 2014/2016, according to a Dec. 2018 report from RAND. A study from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that past-year marijuana use decreased by 17%, from 15.8% in 2002 to 13.1% in 2014, among US kids ages 12 to 17. Colorado teens between 12 and 17 years old reported a nearly 12% drop in marijuana use just two years after adult use was legalized, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The Marijuana Policy Project, an organization that leads marijuana legalization campaigns, said, “Study after study has confirmed that marijuana policy reforms do not cause rates of youth marijuana use to increase…. The most in-depth state surveys suggest modest decreases in rates of youth marijuana use in Colorado and Washington.” [37] [38] [39] [40] [41] [42] [254]

Additionally, traffic deaths dropped 11% on average in states that legalized medical marijuana. In fact, studies show that drivers under the influence of marijuana tend to be more cautious and take fewer risks than drunk drivers, such as making fewer lane changes and reducing speed. A fact sheet about marijuana’s effects on drivers posted on the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration website stated that “Some drivers may actually be able to improve performance for brief periods by overcompensating for self-perceived impairment.” Benjamin Hansen, an economics professor at the University of Oregon at Eugene who studied traffic deaths post-medical marijuana legalization, concludes, “Public safety doesn’t decrease with increased access to marijuana, rather it improves.” [25] [65] [66] [74]

The fact of the matter is that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, which are already legal. Alcohol and tobacco are known to cause cancer, heart failure, liver damage, and more. According to the CDC, six people die from alcohol poisoning every day and 88,000 people die annually due to excessive alcohol use in the United States. There are no recorded cases of death from marijuana overdose. [46] [47] [168]

Three to four times as many Americans are dependent on alcohol as on marijuana. A study in the Lancet ranking the harmfulness of drugs put alcohol first as the most harmful, tobacco as sixth, and cannabis eighth. A national poll found that people view tobacco as a greater threat to health than marijuana by a margin of four to one (76% vs. 18%), and 72% of people surveyed believed that regular use of alcohol was more dangerous than marijuana use. “In several respects, even sugar poses more of a threat to our nation’s health than pot,” said Dr. David L. Nathan, a clinical psychiatrist and president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. [33] [43] [44] [48]

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Pro 2

Legalizing recreational marijuana would end the costly, and frequently racist, enforcement of marijuana laws and debilitate the illegal marijuana market.

Arresting people for marijuana possession costs the United States between $1.19 billion and $6.03 billion annually. These costs include police, judicial, legal, and corrections expenses. Incarcerating marijuana offenders costs the United States an estimated $600 million per year. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron has estimated that marijuana legalization would save between $7.7 billion and $13.7 billion annually. [21] [24] [60] [61] [63]

Instead of arresting people for marijuana, police officers could focus on serious crimes including rape, assault, and homicide. For example, marijuana legalization in Washington significantly freed up law enforcement resources; marijuana possession arrests dropped from 5,531 the year before legalization to 120 the year after. Howard Wooldridge, a former police detective from Michigan who co-founded LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), said, “Marijuana prohibition is a horrible waste of good police time. Every hour spent looking for pot reduces public safety.” [62] [64] [169]

Further, statistics show a significant racial disparity in the enforcement of marijuana laws: even though white and black people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, a black person in the United States is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession on average. In Iowa, the state with the highest inequity, black people are 8.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. In New York City, 15.8% of marijuana possession cases involving white people result in conviction, compared to 32.3% involving black people and 30% involving Hispanic people. Marijuana possession convictions can impact people’s ability to get public housing, financial aid for school, loans, and jobs. Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, Criminal Justice and Drug Policy director for the ACLU of California, stated, “Racial disparities in marijuana enforcement are widespread and longstanding.” [26] Legalizing marijuana would help correct the disparity. [21] [24] [27] [28]

Legalizing recreational marijuana would also subvert the illegal marijuana market. Data from the U.S. Border Patrol shows that marijuana seizures have decreased by millions of pounds and are at their lowest levels in over a decade, indicating that legal domestic production is decreasing demand for marijuana smuggled in from Mexico. A Mexican cannabis farmer told NPR, “If the US continues to legalize pot, they’ll run us into the ground.” Legalization in Colorado and Washington alone has cost Mexican drug cartels an estimated $2.7 billion in profits. [17] [18] [19] [21]

Finally, studies show that medical marijuana dispensaries decreased crime in their neighborhoods because of an increased security presence and more people walking around the area. Research also indicates that people drink less and alcohol sales drop in places where marijuana is legalized, which in turn decreases crime because the amount of crime and violence caused by alcohol use is ten times higher than by marijuana use and alcohol is a factor in around 40% of violent crimes, including domestic violence and assault. According to FBI crime statistics, violent crime in Washington decreased in the years after legalization (295.6 violent offenses reported per 100,000 Washington residents in 2011 vs. 284.4 violent offenses per 100,000 people in 2015). [30] [31] [32] [33] [35] [36]

Taylor West, former deputy director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said, “We’re not seeing any increase in crime rates through marijuana — we’re seeing lower crime rates, and there are good rational reasons for that: We’re really beginning to cripple the criminal market, which is where violence actually occurs.” [71]

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Pro 3

Legalizing recreational marijuana boosts the economy by creating new tax revenue and jobs.

For every $1.00 spent in the marijuana industry, between $2.13 and $2.40 in economic activity is generated for other industries, including but not limited to: tourism, banking, real estate, construction, and transportation. While 2017 estimates suggested the marijuana industry (adult-use and medical) in the United States could exceed $24 billion in revenue by 2025, the industry hit $24.6 billion in revenue in 2021, exceeding the market for energy drinks, milk, and orange juice. [1] [2] [3] [7] [278]

In Colorado, marijuana brings in three times more tax revenue than alcohol. The state raised $78 million in the first fiscal year after starting retail sales, and $129 million the second fiscal year. Washington collected a total of $220 million in tax revenues in its second fiscal year of sales. [15] [52] [53]

The legal marijuana industry generated $7.2 billion in economic activity in 2016, and added millions of dollars in federal taxes paid by cannabis businesses. A study on adult-use marijuana in Nevada projected $7.5 billion in economic activity over the first seven years of legalization in that state, including $1.7 billion in labor income. A study by the University of California Agricultural Issues Center estimated that the legal marijuana market in California could generate $5 billion annually. [4] [5] [6] [20]

In addition to creating tax revenue, legalizing marijuana creates jobs. As of Jan. 2022, the legal marijuana industry had created 428,059 American jobs, with 107,000 new jobs in 2021 alone, according to the Leafly Jobs Report. The report noted that jobs increased 33% from 2020 to 2021, or approximately 280 new jobs per day. 2021 was the fifth consecutive years jobs increased by more than 27%. [278]

An economic impact estimate from the Marijuana Policy Group forecast the creation of more than 130,000 jobs in California following legalization. Within a few years of legalization, approximately 18,000 additional full-time jobs were created in Colorado annually, both in the actual marijuana business as well as in related fields such as security and real estate. U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) stated that the cannabis industry in the United States “is expected to produce nearly 300,000 jobs by 2020 and grow to $24 billion by 2025.” [15] [20] [59]

Further, all of the tax revenue in legal marijuana states provide funding to the police, drug treatment and mental health centers, and housing programs, along with school programs such as anti-bullying campaigns, youth mentoring, and public school grants. “The impact is really felt at the local level. Some counties have done 20 years of infrastructure work in just one year’s time. They’ve provided lunch for kids who need it,” says Brian Vicente, partner at Vicente Sederberg LLC, a law firm specializing in the marijuana industry. [40] [50] [73]

In Colorado, $40 million of marijuana tax revenue went to public school construction, while $105 million went to housing programs, mental health programs in jails, and health programs in middle schools in 2016-2017. [51] [52]

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Pro 4

Most Americans agree recreational marijuana should be legal.

A 2022 Gallup poll found 59% support for legalizing marijuana among American adults, up from 12% in 1969, the first year the polling company asked about marijuana. The poll first surpassed 50% support in 2011. [249] [276]

According to Gallup, “the transformation in public attitudes about marijuana over the past half-century has mirrored the liberalization of public attitudes about gay rights and the same-sex-marriage movement.” While Democrats (73%) have been more likely to back legalization historically, 45% of Republicans overall agree with legalization. However, 62% of younger Republicans (18 to 29) support legalization for recreational use. [67] [276]

NORML, which lobbies for marijuana legalization, states, “Most Americans agree with NORML that responsible marijuana consumers should not be treated like criminals. Eight in ten Americans support the medical use of marijuana, and two-thirds of adults favor legalizing marijuana for adults.” As evidence, 40 states took some action to relax their drug laws (such as decriminalizing or lowering penalties for possession) between 2009 and 2013. And, as of Jan. 31, 2023, DC and 21 states had legalized recreational marijuana, while DC and 37 states had legalized medical marijuana. [69] [70] [277]

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Con 1

Legalizing recreational marijuana comes with serious societal costs.

Marijuana use harms more than just the person using the drug. Societal costs of marijuana use include paying for increased emergency room visits, medical care, and addiction treatment for the uninsured; more victims of drugged driving accidents; and workplace accidents. Legalizing marijuana would put one more harmful substance in our society that costs more than the revenue it generates. [78] [102] [129] [130] [133]

After retail marijuana stores opened in Colorado, emergency room (ER) visits related to marijuana shot up nearly 30% and hospitalizations related to marijuana rose 200%.“The emergency department has seen increased visits for primary care needs, breathing problems related to inhalation of marijuana, including asthma, bronchitis, upper respiratory tract infections, as well as psychiatric needs, accidental or intentional overdoses and, unfortunately, increased pediatric patients with issues related to marijuana,” said Karen Randall, an ER physician in Colorado. Further, people end up in the ER with anxiety attacks or psychotic-like symptoms from eating sweets infused with more marijuana than they were expecting–or, in some cases, not expecting at all. People are used to the idea that a candy bar is a single serving size, but a candy bar with marijuana could have four or more times the recommended dose of THC, depending on the state’s regulations. As a result, poison-control marijuana exposure cases for kids ages 9 and under increased more than five-fold in Colorado after legalization. [12] [78] [100] [102] [104] [105] [161] [171] [255]

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, as many as four million Americans meet the diagnostic criteria for a marijuana use disorder, such as abuse, dependence, or addiction. Dr. Drew Pinsky, a board-certified internist and addiction medicine specialist, said, “I’ve been treating cannabis addiction for 20 years. When people are addicted to cannabis, cocaine and alcohol the drug they have the most difficult time giving up is the cannabis.” [93] A study in the Journal of Drug Issues found that the number of US daily marijuana users has risen dramatically since 2002 and now 68% of users report daily or near-daily use. [98] Kevin Sabet, director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, wrote, “The scientific verdict is that marijuana can be addictive and dangerous… Many baby boomers have a hard time understanding this simply because today’s marijuana can be so much stronger than the marijuana of the past.” [93] [95] [96] [97] [160]

Marijuana-related traffic deaths rose 62% following the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. Jim Leal, former Chief of Police of Newark, California, said of legalizing marijuana, “You are commercializing a product that is just going to put more impaired drivers on the road, worsening a problem that we already have. What officers are seeing with THC levels being very high is they are seeing impairment being far worse than they have ever seen in the past.” The Highway Loss Data Institute found an increased crash risk in legal marijuana states and said collision claims in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington increased 6% as compared to states that don’t have legal marijuana. A meta-study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) concluded that “Cannabis use prior to driving increases the risk of being involved in a motor vehicle accident.” [78] [83] [84] [85] [158] [252] [255]

Workplace incidents involving employees under the influence of marijuana increased from 6% to 20% the year after legalization in Colorado. Employees who screened positive for marijuana use had 55% more industrial accidents, 85% more injuries, and absenteeism rates 75% higher than those who tested negative, according to a study done on postal workers. Paul L. Bittner, partner and vice chair of the Labor and Employment Group at Ice Miller law firm, said, “You not only lose productivity, but the bigger concern for employers is potential liability if there’s an accident and someone gets hurt or killed.” [122] [124] [125] [126] [134]

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Con 2

Legalizing recreational marijuana dramatically increases growth of the plant, which is bad for the environment.

According to a 2021 review, “Results show that both indoor and outdoor cannabis growing is water-intensive. The high water demand leads to water pollution and diversion, which could negatively affect the ecosystem. Studies found out that cannabis plants emit a significant amount of biogenic volatile organic compounds, which could cause indoor air quality issues. Indoor cannabis cultivation is energy-consuming, mainly due to heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and lighting. Energy consumption leads to greenhouse gas emissions. Cannabis cultivation could directly contribute to soil erosion. Meanwhile, cannabis plants have the ability to absorb and store heavy metals. [279]

Additionally marijuana cultivation results in deforestation, habitat destruction, and river diversion. [140] [142]

Cannabis plants require nearly double the amount of water needed to grow grapes or tomatoes. Rosamond Naylor, Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, said, “Taking water directly from rivers and streams in the summer [to grow marijuana] not only reduces the water available for agriculture but also threatens wildlife species… Regardless of the legal status of marijuana, the way we are currently managing its impacts on water and wildlife in California just doesn’t work.” [142] [144] [145] [142] [144] [145]

Because remains an illegal drug at the federal level, “the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not approved any pesticides for use on the plant.” This lack of guidance has resulted in some growers using “banned pesticides and blood thinners/rat poisons against crop-eating mammals” and not properly disposing of chemicals and waste. Further, growing marijuana results in a number of waste streams, including waste similar to food manufacturers, agricultural waste, mercury-containing waste (as a result of UV light use), toxic and flammable waste from THC extraction chemicals. Uneducated growers, or those without state-supported guidelines may be destroying their local environments. [280]

Legal indoor growing also requires a lot of electricity for lighting, heating, and ventilation. These “heavy-load electric devices” include UV lights that are powered on 16 or more hours daily, irrigation systems, HVAC (air conditioning and heating) systems, and air filter systems. In just three years after legalization, Denver growers doubled their electric use, accounting for almost 5% of the 2.8 million city residents’ power use. [280]

Derek Smith, executive director of the non-profit Resource Innovation Institute, explains, “The reality is this industry has been in the shadows for a long time [and thus, many newly legal growers are]… using, in some cases, the same technology that was used in basements in the black market days just blown up to 50,000 square feet – very hot lights, very inefficient HVAC, very little ventilation.” [181]

Not only do old and new technologies seriously strain an already stuggling power grid, but the energy consumption from growing marijuana also produces an amount of greenhouse gas emissions equal to that of 3.3 million cars each year. As a Jan. 2022 Mother Jones article jabs, “Dude, your cannabis habit has an epic carbon footprint.” The article notes, “Studying more than 1,000 locations across the United States, researchers from Colorado State University calculated the median emissions of growing one kilogram of cannabis to be about 3,600 kilograms of CO2 equivalent emissions. The amount varies from roughly 2,300 to 5,200 kilograms of emissions per kilogram grown depending on location. To put that in perspective, a kilogram of tomatoes grown in a British Columbia [Canada] greenhouse heated with natural gas emits roughly two kilograms.” [141] [282]

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Con 3

Legalizing recreational marijuana creates a “Big Marijuana” industry, while boosting illegal marijuana sales and use.

“Big Marijuana” is already using similar tactics to “Big Tobacco,” which marketed cigarettes using ads that appealed to kids, including the Joe Camel cartoon character. Marijuana food products are frequently colorful, sweet, or branded with cartoons to attract children. Marijuana is available in kid-friendly forms such as gummy bears and lollipops, and products sometimes resemble familiar brands, such as “Buddahfinger” or “KeefKat” in wrappers that look like a Butterfinger or KitKat candy bar. [103] [129] [134] [149] [167]

Mark A. R. Kleiman, a drug policy expert, said, “[I]f you’re in the [for-profit] cannabis business, casual users aren’t much use to you while heavy users are your best customers, accounting for the bulk of your sales…. [T]he commercial interest demands maximizing problem use.” Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, senior economist at RAND Corporation, agrees, noting heavy marijuana users account for the “vast majority of the total amount sold and/or consumed.” [147] [148]

The percentage of 12- to 17-year-olds using marijuana is higher in every legal marijuana state than the national average. For example, 16.21% of Colorado teens and 18.86% of teens in Alaska reported marijuana use in the past year, compared to an average of 12.29% for the United States overall in 2015-2016. Colorado past-month teen marijuana use jumped 20% in the two-year average after marijuana was legalized for adults. [39] [78]

Further, creating a commercialized, legal market has actually enhanced opportunities for the illegal market, because prices charged by state-licensed sellers can easily be undercut by cartels. A drug dealer told Vice News, “Right now with the way the tax structure is in Washington, the black market is going to thrive.” [134] [135] [173]

In Colorado, a sharp increase in marijuana-related charges filed under the state’s Organized Crime Control Act coincided with the legalization of marijuana, indicating a rise in organized crime. The Colorado Attorney General’s office stated that legalization “has inadvertently helped fuel the business of Mexican drug cartels… cartels are now trading drugs like heroin for marijuana, and the trade has since opened the door to drug and human trafficking.” Local officials said that Mexican cartels were growing marijuana under the cover of legal operations in Colorado and using that to fuel the black market in other states. [102] [134] [174]

Additionally three United Nations treaties set worldwide drug controls. As a party to the treaties, the United States has agreed to limit the use of marijuana “exclusively to medical and scientific purposes.” The move by some U.S. states to legalize adult-use marijuana has upset the U.N. monitoring organization, which stated that legalization “cannot be reconciled with the legal obligation” to uphold the Single Convention treaty. Legalizing marijuana puts the United States in a position of weakness when we need to hold other nations accountable to legal agreements. [136] [137] [138] [139]

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Con 4

Health experts do not believe recreational marijuana should be legal.

Smoking marijuana can damage lung tissues and cause respiratory problems; secondhand marijuana smoke is also dangerous. Research shows that smoking one marijuana joint is as damaging to the lungs as five tobacco cigarettes. Marijuana may contain five times as much carbon monoxide concentration and three times as much tar as tobacco. There is a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes in the hours immediately after smoking cannabis. And vaping is also dangerous and “likely leads to enhanced ingestion of toxic ammonia known to result in neurobehavioral impairment.” Ammonia ingested while vaping can result in lung irritation, nervous system effects, and asthma attacks. [114] [115] [116] [118] [119] [120] [134] [162] [164][114] [115] [116] [118] [119] [120] [134] [162] [164]

Some of the public health associations that oppose legalizing marijuana for recreational use include the American Medical Association, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. [94] [151] [152] [153] [154]

The American Medical Association “continues to oppose legalization of cannabis. Legalization of cannabis for adult use is associated with increased traffic fatalities, exposures reported to poison control (including infants and children), emergency department visits, and cannabis-related hospitalizations.” [275]

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Did You Know?
1. The English language has more than one thousand slang words for marijuana, including pot, weed, ganja, and Mary Jane. A 1943 article in TIME magazine called it muggles, mooter, and bambalacha, and referred to marijuana cigarettes as goof-butts and giggle-smokes. [88] [90]
2. A 2018 Gallup poll found a record-high 66% support for legalizing marijuana, up from 12% in 1969, the first year the polling company asked about marijuana. [249]
3. Smoking one marijuana joint is as damaging to the lungs as five tobacco cigarettes, and marijuana may contain five times as much carbon monoxide concentration and three times as much tar as tobacco. [116] [164]
4. Marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington has cost Mexican drug cartels an estimated $2.7 billion in profits. [21]
5. 68% of marijuana users report daily or near-daily use. [98]


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