The Marijuana-Legalization Conundrum

Readers state their positions on the contentious national debate.

photo-illustration of fingers holding marijuana cigarette
Millennium Images / Gallery Stock

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Replies have been edited for length and clarity.

Last week, I asked readers for their views about marijuana legalization.

Laurie laments the knowledge lost as a result of prohibition:

It is terribly sad that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. Decades passed during which it was very difficult for scientists to study the benefits of pot.

I am a senior citizen. When my husband became terminally ill, I saw how much marijuana helped him cope with his cancer. I discovered that only a tiny bite of an indica-strain-cannabis edible helped me, too, and allowed me the soundest sleep I had experienced for many years. Since my husband’s death, I have used edibles and sublingual THC before bed with some regularity. My only regret is that I have developed a tolerance for it; I believe it is safer than Ambien and other sleep medications.

Sadly, there seems to be a dearth of studies to inform people how much, how often, and what variety of marijuana can safely be used for sleep and anxiety. We already know that CBD can help some people with epilepsy. We already know that poor sleep may increase the risk of developing dementia and memory problems. It is a shame that marijuana has been so poorly studied! Federal legalization would likely spur research!

Christina is torn about legal weed in New York City:

Suddenly the smell of pot is inescapable. My kids smell it; we see people on the street freely smoking (who are visibly high), and my dog has had several scary episodes after he, unbeknownst to me, ingested cannabis that was dropped on the street by someone who was casually smoking. While I have no issue with legal pot, much has to be done to regulate its public consumption.

Teresa wants pot to be illegal:

When I think in terms of jailing people for smoking, or being in possession of, marijuana, I think it probably should not be illegal. But there are ways in which the drug can become problematic, such as addiction. In decades past, it was said that there was no physical addiction to marijuana. Is this still true? I watched a documentary a few years back that said the plant often isn’t grown the same as it once was, and that it now contains higher levels of THC.

At the risk of sounding old, I also believe that marijuana use is a moral issue. I’m not sure what it says about us as a nation that we don’t care if young children must observe such behavior. I don’t like the idea of the government dictating people’s lives, but I don't necessarily want to smell marijuana smoke when I’m out and about, and I don’t want my grandchildren to either.

Since there is no middle of the road, I guess I’d rather that it not be legal.

Stephanie notes that “marijuana legalization has been a very difficult issue for me as a high-school teacher and as a mother.” She explains:

I am not against legalization per se, as I agree that it doesn’t seem right to jail a person for getting high. I find objectionable two major issues that come with legalization:

1) The lack of regulation for marijuana advertising. Despite the multiple studies that clearly show that marijuana adversely affects the developing teenage brain, huge billboards advertising the drug are rampant. The attempt to make marijuana appear normal, safe, and accepted is breathtakingly stupid to me. After the clampdown on cigarette and alcohol advertising, how could this not have been addressed before legalization? Why didn’t our lawmakers have any foresight? For a teacher like me, it’s become ever harder to try to help my high-school students understand that they are altering their brain.

2) The power that marijuana companies have acquired. I live in a small beach town. I do not want a marijuana shop at our beach. However, at a city-council meeting, after hearing multiple objections to a pot-shop location in our town, one of the councilmembers finally stood up. “People,” he said (and I am paraphrasing here), “you have to understand that it’s not if but where. If we try to refuse these companies a space in our town, they will take us to court. We are a small town with limited resources. They are large and well-funded. We cannot afford to go to court, where we may lose. This is the sad reality.”  

Now I drive past the fancy pot store down the street from my house every day.

C.C. has favored national marijuana legalization since the 1980s:

While I do not partake myself, I have known many people who use pot. They are upstanding and responsible citizens and follow the same rules as people who drink alcohol: They consume it safely in their homes during nonwork hours. National legalization would allow dispensaries to use more secure banking and states to collect taxes, as they do for alcohol and tobacco. People are partaking anyway. Why not make it safer and more profitable?

And if states can ban smoking cigarettes in public spaces and give tickets for driving under the influence of alcohol, what makes marijuana different?

Russell has been smoking marijuana for decades, resents prohibitionists, and has had just one negative thing of note happen to him as a result of his habit:

I am a firm believer in personal choice, so whenever I have passed a joint to someone and they declined, I simply passed to the next person with no commentary. But those who have tried to make it more difficult for me to blaze have ticked me off. Pot affects people differently. I have a side to my personality that is not pretty, and which I am not proud of. Cannabis indica (more than cannabis sativa, but both really) makes that side of my personality quite stunted. This is a good thing for me, and I guarantee that it is also good for society.

I have never been arrested or suffered any bad experiences because of marijuana. The worst thing that ever happened: When my mom first found out, I was grounded from going to see Pink Floyd in 1975. (I later saw them on the Delicate Sound of Thunder tour and it was the best event I have ever attended, so do not feel too sorry for me.)

In the Declaration of Independence, the words “pursuit of Happiness” appear. What are drugs if not the pursuit of happiness? Happiness is never guaranteed, and drugs are unlikely to provide it. But still, they should all be made legal and—except for marijuana and psilocybin, by virtue of being natural—be regulated by the FDA for quality assurance.

Any mind-altering substance, alcohol included, is no excuse for any kind of illegal behavior. It is not the drugs that should be illegal, but the illegal actions that one might commit while using them, or to maintain one’s addiction. I have never in my life used drugs or alcohol as an excuse for my actions. I have never accepted that excuse from others. Enjoy responsibly.

Anne believes that marijuana was bad for her stepson:

When my stepson was in college and living with us, my husband liked to joke that he “majored in pot.” He was lazy and disrespectful, typical qualities of a 19-year-old perhaps, but magnified by the lethargy and general dim-wittedness brought on by a daily smoking habit.

We finally gave him the option of moving out (to where, we didn’t care) or joining the military.

It took him four months of abstinence to get to the point where he could pass the Navy’s drug test, and in those four months, his personality and sense of humor returned. That was 20 years ago. He retired as a Navy “lifer” last week, and is starting a new career. He’s happily married with a 16-year-old daughter.

Most of my friends and I have experimented with recreational drugs, so I’m not knocking occasional use. But it was difficult to watch a smart, clever, promising young man drive himself into the ditch, and equally difficult to pull out the parental “tough love” card. Could we put a 25-year-old minimum-age restriction on any future legislation?

Bob is skeptical that marijuana is especially harmful:

Like many of my peers, I smoked a lot of weed in college. I mean a lot. While a few of my friends dabbled in stronger drugs, most of my friends and I had no desire to go there. So much for that “gateway” nonsense. I went on to a successful career that is funding a comfortable retirement. None of my pot-smoking acquaintances evidenced any negative aftereffects. At least one, a very successful physician, still enjoys his weekly “blow.” Anecdotal evidence may not be probative, but this former weed hound says let it blow.

Neal is against marijuana use:

I see marijuana use as escapism—a retreat, or avoidance of reality. I don’t think you have much of a life if you need a brain-altering chemical to enhance it, but I never thought it should be criminalized. The health benefits it provides to some cannot be denied, but I have seen it create a dependence that has led to a variety of other problems.  

The problem is that I don’t see where escapism helps anyone.   

Tim does see how escapism helps people:

George Carlin once joked that when man emerged from the primordial soup, he looked around and said, “This can’t be it,” and has been trying to get high ever since. He stood in a corner for a week, and that didn’t work. He watched the animals eat a plant and frolic, so he tried that plant too.

Carlin also thought of the War on Drugs as a great gotcha perpetrated upon man. From birth we are told, Oh, you don’t feel well—here, take this to feel better. Then along comes the War on Drugs, which says, Although you are so well trained in taking drugs, you can’t take these seven, because they really do make you feel goood! Gotcha! Mankind is uncomfortable in their own skin and will always seek ways to get relief from reality.  

Anonymous shares a painful personal experience:

I’m a high-school teacher and parent of two teenagers, one who had a “marijuana-use disorder” that resulted in cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome—some 15 trips to the ER due to unstoppable vomiting and abdominal pain (“It’s not the weed!!!”). So I’m writing from the perspective of someone on the extreme end of cannabis impact. What concerns me the most is the aggressive marketing of weed as “healthy” to all of us, but especially to teenagers. They honestly think it’s not just “less bad than drinking” but actually healthy. We found advertisements on her computer with nice color codes indicating how different strains of weed could help anxiety, depression, etc. And the potency! My God.  

I went to a support group for parents of kids dealing with addiction. I was embarrassed to go—my kid smokes weed, and there are people dying of opioid use! Of the 18 parents in the room, all but one were there because of weed. I don’t have the broad vantage point or statistics to really assess the trade-offs of legalization, but the message that weed is healthy and natural and therefore harmless is bad. Few teens would take a shot of vodka before school or between periods, but getting high at those times doesn’t feel like a comparable level of dysfunction to them. The barrier to entry is too low, and that is bad.

Andrew shares a personal experience of pain reduction:

In Victoria, British Columbia, there are now numerous dispensaries that sell weed, oils, tinctures, and all sorts of apparati for their consumption. People come and go: young men and women, the middle-aged, and a good number of seniors. The staff know way more than did Myron on the corner, from whom I used to buy my weed. I buy an oil that is 50 percent THC and 50 percent CBD. I live in chronic pain. Having this oil offers me a good night’s sleep and reduces my reliance on opioids.

I don’t see any effects in my community from the legalization of cannabis, good or bad. We have a debate on safe-injection sites for people with addictions, and pot offers some hope for this unfortunate community. Pot may be a gateway drug, after all—a gateway to less reliance on the killer fentanyl.