marijuana legalization in the U.S.

Marijuana has always been a much-talked-about topic that has sparked fiery debates among authorities and lawmakers as well as an endless discussion among family and colleagues. This is primarily due to the fact that people are still divided on whether or not marijuana should be legalized or not.

While many people are aware of the dangers of marijuana for recreational purposes, many states are pushing for the legalization of medical marijuana. Several studies of cannabinoid compounds have revealed its medicinal qualities, which have further fueled the call for legalizing medical marijuana.

Marijuana DEA Drug Class

Marijuana is still a Schedule I drug. Schedule I substances, drugs or chemicals have a high potential for abuse with no current medical use. Examples of other drugs in this class are:

There is a current debate about possibly rescheduling marijuana to Schedule II or de-scheduling it altogether in light of marijuana legalization in 29 states. The problem here is that the terms “medical marijuana”, “low-THC” and “high CBD” are indiscriminately and interchangeably used. The legalization of medical marijuana has many pros and cons. A “medical marijuana” product may contain a wide combination of cannabinoids, THC included. “High-CBD” products may perhaps simply contain more CBD than a “medical marijuana” product, but still contain THC.5 Unless and until these complicated details are resolved, this scheduling debate will continue to rage.

Marijuana Legalization in U.S. States

The legalization of marijuana has caused confusion as to how it could work best in the workplace setup. Marijuana legalization may have brought a sense of relief to both medical and recreational marijuana users. However, despite its legalization, employers are now facing issues regarding the policies of drug testing in the workplace.

The conundrum of legalizing cannabis and maintaining workplace safety has put business owners in a bind, finding themselves between crossroads on how to implement the workplace drug policies without having to deal with right-to-privacy issues regarding medical conditions of their employees.

On the other side of the fence, job applicants are now confused whether to submit themselves to the company’s drug testing policy or to decline the job. Should they agree to undergo drug testing and potentially be singled out as a drug user in case of a positive result?

As of 2017, the following U.S. states and territories have legalized marijuana:

  • Recreational and medical use: Alaska, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington
  • Medical use only: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin
  • Decriminalized possession: Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont

California was the very first state that legalized medical marijuana in 1996. From the list of 24 states above, Pennsylvania was the latest state that legalized medical marijuana. Meanwhile, New York legalized the vaporized form of medical marijuana in 2014.

States that allow medical marijuana use requires the approval of a doctor. These states require an identification card to be shown at the dispensary in a patient registry. In most of the states where medical marijuana is legal, there is an online application process.

In the majority of the states, patients are required to fill up an application form, pay the necessary fee, and provide identification information. In order to receive an identification card, the patients are required to get a signed statement from a doctor who diagnosed the condition and proof that medical marijuana was the recommended form of treatment for the patient’s particular condition and situation.

In states where medical marijuana is legal, laws permit dispensaries and outline certain conditions for medical marijuana prescription. The restrictions on the format and amount of medical cannabis allowed for personal use in every visit may vary from one state to another.

In New York, medical marijuana is highly regulated and legalized for just a few medical conditions, such as epilepsy and cancer. In California, the law applies only for conditions such as arthritis, migraine, and other conditions for which marijuana can offer relief. As such, California legalizes medical marijuana for a wide range of conditions, ranging from insomnia to substance abuse.

The expensive nature of incarceration is one factor that is stopping states from decriminalizing cannabis. In an interview with Vice News, President Obama said that it would require a huge amount of money.

What is Medical Marijuana?

Medical marijuana refers to the treatment of a disease or symptom using the whole unprocessed plant of marijuana or its basic extracts. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet given its stamp of approval or recognition to the use of the marijuana plant as medicine.

However, scientific studies of marijuana chemicals called cannabinoids resulted in a couple of FDA-approved medications that contain cannabinoid chemicals in the form of a pill. Because the marijuana plant contains chemicals used for the treatment of a wide range of illnesses or symptoms, many people are calling for the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. In some states, medical marijuana has already been legalized.

Health Benefits of Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana comes in a variety of forms. It can be smoked, vaporized, or taken as a pill. It may also be prepared as edible foods such as brownies, cookies, and chocolate bars.

The Federal Drug Enforcement Administration classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, which means that it has a high potential for abuse and with no legitimate medical uses. However, the idea that marijuana may have therapeutic uses is based on solid science. The body has the natural ability to manufacture its own cannabinoids designed for modulating pain.

The main psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. It targets the CB1 receptor, a cannabinoid receptor located in the brain as well as in the nervous system, liver, kidney, and lungs. This receptor is activated to silence the body’s response to pain and noxious chemicals.

In a placebo-controlled study published in the journal Neurology, Abrams and his colleagues discovered that marijuana is effective at lowering neuropathic pain caused by damaged nerves. Opiates, such as morphine, is not effective in treating neuropathic pain.

Another study revealed that marijuana, aside from opiates, caused dramatic levels of pain relief. Researchers at the American Academy of Neurology revealed that medical marijuana in the form of pills or oral sprays had the ability to reduce stiffness and muscle spasm.

In addition, the medications also reduced certain symptoms of pain associated with spasms, painful burning and numbness, as well as overactive bladder, according to another study.

One of the well-known effects of using marijuana is the munchies, which is used to stimulate appetite among HIV/AIDS patients and others with a suppressed appetite after a medical condition or treatment. Medical marijuana is also frequently used for the treatment of nausea induced by chemotherapy, although scientific studies of smoked marijuana are limited.

Two FDA-approved chemically altered forms of THC, namely dronabinol and nabilone, have been proven to lower reduce chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting in cancer patients.

Medical marijuana may also be used for treating glaucoma, an elevated pressure in the eyeball that can result in blindness. The American Cancer Society revealed that while marijuana can decrease intra-ocular pressure, it must be taken several times during the day in order to produce the desired effect.

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a non-psychoactive component of marijuana that contains medicinal benefits. However, since it does not target the CB1 receptor, it does not leave people feeling stoned.

In a 2012 study published in the Journal Translational Psychiatry, it was revealed that cannabidiol can be effective as a treatment for schizophrenia. In a study conducted at the University of Cologne, 42 patients randomly received either cannabidiol or amisulpride, an effective drug used for treating schizophrenia for 28 days. When compared, clinical effects revealed a no relevant difference between the two treatments.

Studies on Medicinal Marijuana in the U.S.

A number of studies have shown that marijuana is effective in controlling and treating various medical conditions. For instance, a 2007 study published in the journal Neurology and conducted by Donald Abrams and colleagues among HIV patients revealed that marijuana is more efficient at reducing neuropathic pain as compared to morphine or other opiates.

Another research which was conducted at the University of Cologne and published in the journal Translational Psychiatry in 2012 found that medical cannabis may be effective for the treatment of schizophrenia.

Also related to mental health was an investigation published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in March 2014. The findings of the study conducted by Dr. George Greer and other physicians revealed that cannabis reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorders among patients diagnosed with the illness.

Other studies have found cannabinoids to be effectual in managing nausea and vomiting among patients undergoing chemotherapy. Moreover, a cancer study conducted by Sean McAllister, Ph.D. in 2011 suggested that the drug could be helpful in controlling metastasis and tumor progression in breast cancer cases.

Other investigations disclosed that marijuana is useful in the treatment of other ailments including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, glaucoma, Parkinson’s Disease, Chron’s Disease, and ALS. In addition, several published studies showed that medical cannabis provides substantial appetite stimulation among HIV and AIDS patients.

Despite numerous findings, the American Medical Association, and other medical organizations stand firm in their opposition to the use of cannabis, arguing that the clinical samples are too small to render the results conclusive and that the reported therapeutic benefits do not outweigh the adverse side effects.

Side Effects of Marijuana

The active compound in marijuana binds itself to cannabinoid receptors, located in the areas of the brain associated with thinking, memory, pleasure, coordination, and time perception. Its effects can disrupt attention, judgment, and balance.

Meanwhile, studies have produced different results on whether smoking marijuana can have a significant cancer risk.

Short-Term Effects of Marijuana

When smoking marijuana, THC can quickly pass from the lungs into the bloodstream. The blood transfers the chemical to the brain and other organs in the body. When eating or drinking it, the body absorbs THC more slowly with the user generally feeling the effects within 30 minutes to 1 hour.

THC acts on specific brain cell receptors that naturally respond to natural THC-like chemicals in the brain. These natural chemicals play a role in the normal functioning and development of the brain.

Marijuana over-activates that area of the brain that contains the biggest number of receptors. It is responsible for causing the “high” that marijuana users experience. It can bring about other effects such as:

  • Difficulty with thinking and problem-solving
  • Impaired body movement
  • Impaired memory
  • Impaired sense of time
  • Impaired senses (for example, seeing brighter colors)
  • Mood changes

Long-Term Effects of Marijuana

Marijuana may have adverse effects on brain development. When used as early as teenage years, it can reduce thinking, memory, and learning functions and may affect how the brain connects between the areas needed for these functions. The effects on these areas of the brain can be long-term or even permanent.

One study revealed that people who were heavy marijuana smokers during their teens and currently has cannabis use disorder lost an average of eight IQ points between 13 and 38 years old. The lost mental skills did not completely return even after they stopped smoking marijuana as an adult. On the other hand, those who began smoking marijuana as adults did not show a notable decline in their IQ.

Pros and Cons of Marijuana Legalization

The dangers and advantages of legalizing marijuana to be able to come up with a clearer picture of how marijuana should stand in our society. By laying out all the pros and cons, it may help people make informed decisions about using (or not using) marijuana.

Pros of Marijuana Legalization

Possible boost in revenue

While the black market has earned much from selling this type of drug, the government is seeking for ways on how they can increase their revenue in order to fund projects such as building parks and road repairs. Legalizing marijuana redirects the profit from the black market to government funding to support future projects, with taxes imposed on selling marijuana used for the benefit of the general public

More effective law enforcement

Legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana use allows police authorities to focus on other crimes. Although implementation of the marijuana law stipulations will be monitored by police and key government agencies, law enforcement personnel can now shift their priorities towards other pressing policing matters.

Reduction of drug-related organized crime

Legalizing marijuana will decrease the amount of money used to support organized crime. It is believed that legalizing marijuana will prevent illegal traders from selling and cut down crimes that are related to drug trades.

Wider access to medical use

This may be the second reason why pro-marijuana users are trying to push for legalization of marijuana. Medical marijuana has become popular to have significant positive effects on patients suffering from chronic pain, especially those who have cancer.

While there may be health professionals who choose to prescribe this, it has been difficult for patients to find a store that can provide them with cannabis. By legalizing marijuana, stores can be put up for as long as they abide by the rules imposed under the law. The availability of cannabis in approved medical marijuana dispensaries allows patients to have access to the drug.

So much emphasis has been put on the medical benefits of legalizing marijuana, as it can help manage pain felt by patients experiencing nerve damage, trauma, and cancer. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the active ingredient of cannabis – makes it possible for patients to be relieved of pain. Apart from pain management, marijuana is also known to prevent health conditions associated with Alzheimer’s disease among the elderly. THC is also believed to stop the formation of plaques in the brain.

Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy tend to throw up during the process. Giving marijuana helps them keep their food down. It is also believed to help in the treatment of insomnia, glaucoma, asthma, lung cancer and breast cancer.

Better substance control

Illicit drugs have become all the rage in public scenes, most especially at rave parties, clubs, and concerts. Unfortunately, the lack of regulations for these substances lead some people with malicious intent to sell a different substance to mimic the effect of the purported drug, without the buyer knowing about it.

By legalizing marijuana, the user knows exactly what he is buying and the exact quantity that is given to him. Most street drugs – and especially those of the dangerous kind – do not comply with this kind of standard.

Freedom of choice

People have the right to their own choices, drugs included. Whether something can be good or bad for us, it is our own discretion on whether to use it or not. The legalization of marijuana allows people to get enough information to make their own decisions, without the stigma of being prosecuted.

Reduction of drug-related disputes

Illegal drug trade may sometimes get into serious situations such as personal conflicts or life-threatening crimes. In the case of illicit drugs, you cannot run to the police to complain about product disputes with a trader. In contrast, any dispute with regards to trade, use, manufacture and distribution of marijuana can be settled legally in the court of law.

Loss of business among drug dealers

Drug dealers take advantage by selling drugs at a very high price. By standardizing the cost of marijuana, it will prevent drug dealers from selling it at exorbitant prices. Making marijuana available anytime and anywhere would mean a decrease in revenue for drug dealers.

Cons of Marijuana Legalization

Addictive property

This is the most popular reason why many anti-marijuana advocates are opposing the legalization of the substance. Marijuana is composed of more than 400 chemicals, with THC being responsible for producing the “high” effect that makes an individual yearn for more. Constant use of marijuana may develop tolerance to the drug, and eventually dependence and addiction.

Altered perception

The effect of marijuana takes place within 15 minutes. One of the effects is having a distorted perception, which may lead to serious situations such as vehicular accidents or machine equipment injuries. Marijuana use is reported to be the most commonly used drug, especially in the workplace.

Gateway to more dangerous drugs

Marijuana may become the stepping stone for drug users to get a higher “high”. This situation leads them to use cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, and other highly potent drugs.

One study showed that an individual who used weed with alcohol and cigarette is 2-3 times more likely to abuse prescription drugs. Marijuana legalization may become an open avenue for people to use cannabis for recreational purposes, thus increasing societal and financial costs for the treatment of those who shifted to much heavier drugs.

Increase in accidents and risk to public safety

There has been an increase in the number of vehicular accidents due to driving under the influence of alcohol, and the same number can be said of marijuana use. Smoking weed while driving can cause lapses in judgment and other harder crimes such as robbery and rape.

High possibility of child exposure

Alcohol and cigarettes are prohibited from being sold to children. This is mainly because their bodies may be incapable of taking in such substances. Children are naturally curious, and they may be tempted to try these substances.

Having said this, making marijuana legal would make it more accessible to children. We definitely would not want our children to be caught up with drugs, and legalizing marijuana may increase the risk of their exposure to such substances.

Secondhand smoke

Exposure to secondhand smoke from cigarettes has long been known to be dangerous to human health. The legalization of marijuana increases exposure of people to cannabis smoke, which may not be any safer than cigarette smoke.

Adverse effects on the brain

It’s a frightening fact to imagine how much damage marijuana use can do to the human brain. It is believed that even after a month of abstinence, marijuana use can have a serious impact on the flow of blood in the brain. Not having enough oxygen in the brain can lead to serious conditions such as coma or death.

Serious lung condition

Similar to smoking tobacco cigarettes, the impact of marijuana intake on the lungs can be significant. In fact, marijuana magnifies the adverse effect to at least 10 times more. A user tends to inhale and hold the smoke longer than he would with an ordinary cigarette, making him more prone to cancer-causing chemicals.

Increased risk of heart disease

The overall health condition of a marijuana user may be impaired. Apart from the possibility of contracting lung disease, there is also a greater possibility of acquiring heart diseases because of the chemicals that can cause obstruction in the natural blood flow throughout the body as well as the exchange of oxygen in and out of the body.

Smoking marijuana may increase heart rate up to 100 percent, thereby increasing the risk of cardiac arrest or heart attack.

Decreased mental function and health

The main target of any kind of drug is the central nervous system, in which the brain is the main organ. Researchers have noted a possible link between marijuana use and mental illness. Cannabis use may interfere with a person’s capacity to use stimuli, organize information, focus or concentrate, and make proper decisions.

The effect can last for several weeks after use, which can really affect one’s judgment. This is extremely dangerous most especially to young individuals who are still at the stage of brain development. Some of the mental disorders associated with marijuana use are depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

Statistics on Marijuana Abuse

According to the 2010 World Drug Report, marijuana remains the most widely used illicit substance in the world. Globally, the number of people who had used cannabis at least once in 2008 is estimated between 129 and 191 million, or 2.9% to 4.3% of the world population aged 15 to 64.

North America

In North America, there are an estimated 29.5 million people who had used cannabis at least once in 2008, a decrease from the 31.2 million estimated in 2007. This decrease reflects the availability of new data for Canada, which in 2008 showed a considerably lower number of cannabis users compared to their previous 2004 survey estimates.

However, despite the declining or stabilizing state of cannabis use in the United States and Canada, a slight increase was observed in the United States in 2008 - from 12.3% of the population aged 15-64 in 2007 to 12.5% in 2008).

In the United States - between 2002-2007 - there was a significant decrease in the annual prevalence of cannabis use within the population aged 12 and older, from 11% to 10.1%. In 2008, the annual prevalence of cannabis use increased for the first time after 2002, reaching the level observed in 2006 (10.3% of the population aged 12 and older). A similar trend has been observed among secondary school students.

South America

Although the annual prevalence of cannabis use in South America remains considerably lower than in North America, a perceived increase in cannabis use has been reported from almost all national experts, wherein 3%, or an estimated 7.3 -7.5 million people among the population aged 15 to 64, had used cannabis at least once in the past year in 2008, which is a decrease from the 8.5 million estimated for 2007. The highest prevalence of cannabis use is found in Argentina (7.2%), Chile (6.7%) and Uruguay (6%). However, compared to the general population, the highest cannabis use prevalence among school students was reported among those in Chile (15.6%), Uruguay (14.8%) and Colombia (8.4%).

Most of the countries in the Caribbean also have higher than world average prevalence of cannabis use, with rates such as 11.7% in Saint Kitts and Nevis and 10.8% in Dominica and Grenada. Haiti (1.4%) and the Dominican Republic (0.3%) are the two countries with low prevalence of cannabis use.

An increasing trend in prevalence of cannabis use among the general population is registered in the Bahamas (from 4.7% in 2003 to 5.5% in 2008), Grenada (from 6.7% in 2003 to 10.8% in 2005), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (from 6.2% in 2002 to 7.1% in 2006), Trinidad and Tobago (from 3.7% in 2002 to 4.7% in 2006).


In Europe, an estimated 29.5 million people, or around 5.4% of the general population aged 15 to 64, used cannabis in the previous year. Cannabis use is largely concentrated among young people (15 - 34 years old).

Cannabis use is largely concentrated among young people (15 - 34 years old). Within Europe, cannabis use differs considerably among the general population, with higher prevalence (7.7%) reported in West and Central Europe, compared to East and South-East Europe (3%). The Czech Republic (15.2% - 2008), Italy (14.6% - 2008) and Spain (10.1% - 2007) are the three countries with the highest cannabis use prevalence rates, accounting for about one-third of all cannabis users in Europe (5 million only in Italy).

England and Wales (the third largest European market of cannabis users after Italy and the Russian Federation) had shown a strong decline between 2003 and 2008 (from 10.8% to 7.4% of the general population), however, in 2009, the prevalence increased to 7.9%. New data for Scotland, Finland, Romania and Bosnia and Herzegovina show a decrease. However, the majority of countries with new data in 2008 reported an increase in cannabis use from previous estimates. These are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia and Lithuania.


In the Oceania region, between 2.1 and 3.4 million people are estimated to have used cannabis in the past year (9.3% - 14.8% of the general population aged 15 - 64). Except for Australia, Fiji and New Zealand, there are no recent or reliable estimates available of cannabis use in the remaining parts of the region.

In Australia, the annual prevalence of cannabis use has been declining since 1998, with an almost one-fifth decline between 2004 and 2007. The major decline in cannabis use has been observed in the younger population (aged 14 to 19) from a prevalence of 34.6% in 1998 to 12.9% in 2007. In New Zealand, the annual prevalence of cannabis use fell from 20.4% in 2003 to 13.3% in 2006, to increase again in 2008 to 14.6%.

Concerns with Marijuana Legalization

In this scenario, two major questions may be raised in relation to marijuana legalization:

Should there be a need to totally eradicate drug policies within the workplace?

How can employees be protected from potential termination or lawsuits?

Despite the advantages of marijuana legalization, this issue has become a burden on most employers. They need to come up with a solution about who to test, when to do the test, and if they should even implement drug testing in the workplace.

Lawmakers may have only focused on making marijuana legal to avoid prosecution of the users. However, it’s possible that they missed out on the aspect where the protection of the employers and employees should be considered. For employers, their main goal is to be able to sustain their respective businesses where their employees are able to work comfortably and safely, with high productivity.

No employer would tolerate drug use while working even if an employee is taking marijuana for medical purposes. Drug policies in the workplace were created to ensure that every employee is able to do his job and not to report to work under the influence of either drugs or alcohol.

More than 70 percent of illicit drug users belong to the workforce. This is quite an alarming number considering that drug use while on the job would affect more than just lost productivity, but also increased health insurance claims and even death.

“It costs a huge amount of money to states,” Obama said, speaking to Vice’s Shane Smith. “What I’m encouraged by is you’re starting to see not just liberal democrats but also some very conservative Republicans recognize that this doesn’t make sense, including the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. They see the money and how costly it is to incarcerate. At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, Congress may then reschedule marijuana.”

On the other hand, legalizing recreational marijuana has paved the way for a whole new economy involving the sale of cannabis, oils, lotions, edibles, and other paraphernalia. Efforts to promote new related businesses have started to emerge supporting these industries despite the regulations state by state. The states that have set the pace in the cannabis market are starting to reap the fruits in the form of tax revenues.

In Colorado, marijuana-specific tax revenue has reached $70 million during the last fiscal year. This was two times higher than what the state earned from alcohol tax revenues.

Throughout the U.S., sales of legal marijuana reached $2.7 billion in 2014, an increase from $1.5 billion the previous year, as reported by cannabis investment and research company ArcView Group. If all 50 states, as well as District of Columbia, were to legalize marijuana, the U.S. marijuana retail market could exceed the $35 billion plateau by 2020, based on estimates by independent research firm GreenWave Advisers.

The clamor for legalizing marijuana is growing, according to a new survey conducted by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research published in The Washington Post. The study revealed that a record 61 percent of Americans support legalization of marijuana. A similar survey conducted by Gallup reflected a 58 percent support for legalization.


Several other states are looking forward to belonging to the list of U.S. territories that legalize marijuana use. This could prove to be a never-ending battle between those who are in favor and those who oppose its legalization.

It may be highly improbable for the complete withdrawal of U.S. states that have already legalized marijuana use. What should be made important is focusing on the implementation of the rules governing marijuana legalization. This also requires the concerted efforts of lawmakers, authorities, treatment specialists and the local government to work hand in hand to maintain a community free from marijuana addiction and all its other undesirable effects.