The views that people, the medical community, and governments have toward marijuana continue to shift and in the United States represent a conflict between federal and many state laws. Read the overview below to gain a balanced understanding of the issues and explore the previews of opinion articles that highlight many perspectives on marijuana.

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Marijuana Topic Overview

"Marijuana." Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2018.

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In common usage, marijuana refers to the dried flowers of the cannabis plant. These flowers are typically smoked to produce a psychoactive high. In addition, the flowers and other parts of the plant can be processed into hashish, oils, extracts, and other refined products that can be smoked, eaten, and vaporized. The effects of the high can be subjective and often vary depending on whether the user consumed a Cannabis sativa strain, a Cannabis indica strain, or a hybrid strain.

Beyond its popularity as a recreational drug, marijuana also has medicinal applications, and its increasing use as a holistic therapy has helped bring about the development of novel delivery methods. These include tinctures, balms, transdermal patches, and micro-dosing preparations. Biopharmaceutical companies working with cannabis are also in the process of creating a new generation of controlled delivery methods, including regular and time-release capsules with standardized dosages.

Recent statistics indicate that recreational marijuana use is common in the United States. According to data published in the Washington Post in 2017, 55 million American adults, about 22 percent of the population, are current marijuana users, while 56 percent of Americans believe marijuana use is “socially acceptable.” Though federal law has prohibited the sale and possession of marijuana since 1937, public opinion surveys consistently indicate that about 60 percent of the American population favors some legalization of marijuana. Allowing marijuana use for medical purposes enjoys more popular support than legalizing its recreational use.

Psychoactive Effects

The psychoactive substance that produces the “high” associated with marijuana is known as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The drug’s effects can differ, depending on factors including the strain of marijuana consumed by the user, the level of THC content, and the consumption method. General effects of a marijuana high include altered sensory perception, with particularly profound impacts on sight, sound, and taste. It can also induce temporal distortions, making time seem to pass more slowly. Mood changes can occur; these effects tend to be highly subjective and dependent on the user’s mental and emotional state. Many users report that the high causes difficulty with sequential reasoning and problem-solving, but stimulates creativity and free-associative thought. At very high doses, marijuana can also induce delusions and hallucinations.

Sativa strains are said to induce a more energetic high suitable for socializing and creative thinking, while indica strains produce a heavier, more sedating effect. Hybrid strains of the plant, which are typically cultivated to contain a certain percentage of sativa parentage and a certain percentage of indica parentage, can result in particular combinations of these effects. Smoked or vaporized marijuana enters the bloodstream quickly and produces a near-instantaneous high, while edible preparations and tinctures are absorbed at a slower rate and usually take at least thirty to sixty minutes to produce any noticeable effects.

Physical and Mental Health Risks

The physical and mental effects of marijuana use are often described over short-term and long-term time frames. Short-term physical effects include decreased blood pressure and increased heart rate. If the drug is smoked, it also constricts blood vessels. The increase in heart rate associated with marijuana is considered risky for people with heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions, as it is believed to present an increased risk of heart attack. The short-term mental effects of marijuana use include confusion, sedation, impaired memory, inattentiveness, and diminished concentration. Users may also experience psychological side effects including anxiety, paranoia, panic, and delusional or psychotic behavior. More extreme psychological reactions are typically associated with higher dosages.

With regular long-term use, the physical effects of marijuana can include bronchitis, lung infections, and a chronic cough. The mental faculties that can be negatively affected include concentration, memory, and decision-making abilities. There is some evidence that long-term use can lower a person’s intelligence quotient (IQ) score. Research also suggests links between marijuana use and serious mental illnesses, such as psychosis and schizophrenia. These links are strongest in people who began using the drug at a young age, use the drug heavily and frequently, and have a family history of psychosis and schizophrenia. In general, negative marijuana-related long-term physical and mental health outcomes are more likely to occur in heavy, regular users and users who begin taking the drug at a young age, particularly during adolescence and early adulthood when the brain is still developing.

There is a common popular belief that marijuana does not cause physical addiction, and that psychological dependence is the greatest risk it presents in this regard. The distinction between physical addiction and psychological dependence is that addiction causes physical withdrawal symptoms when the drug is discontinued, while dependence causes withdrawal symptoms that are purely emotional and psychological in nature. However, experts stress that characterizing marijuana in this way is inaccurate and misleading because physical addiction can occur in rare cases, primarily in very heavy chronic users.

Some public health officials, addiction experts, and researchers believe that marijuana may act as a gateway drug, meaning that using it creates an increased chance that a person will go on to take other drugs, including alcohol, psilocybin mushrooms, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), cocaine, and opioid drugs such as heroin. While the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) acknowledges marijuana’s potential as a gateway drug, it also concedes that the majority of marijuana users do not go on to experiment with or use other, more dangerous substances.

Medical Applications and Legal Status

Marijuana has potential or recognized therapeutic value for a wide range of symptoms and conditions, including chronic pain, seizures, inflammation, nausea, and insomnia. Research suggests that cannabis can also ease symptoms like the muscle spasms and stiffness of progressive neurological disorders, such as multiple sclerosis (MS). Additionally, marijuana has been shown to help treat nausea and vomiting in some cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and to counteract loss of appetite among people with HIV/AIDS. When combined with other therapies, it may also help individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Marijuana also has been cited as a possible solution for the abuse of harder drugs, particularly opioids. The products of cannabis plants have noted analgesic properties and are being investigated as possible alternatives to the powerful narcotic painkillers that have contributed to high rates of opioid addiction in the United States and other countries. In the United States, numerous studies have shown that states with legal access to medical marijuana have fewer opioid-related deaths. To date, there has not been a single recorded death caused by a marijuana overdose.

Proven and potential medical applications have helped marijuana regain legal status after a decades-long prohibition on all uses of the drug. At the state level, marijuana was first outlawed in 1915 in California; federal prohibition followed in 1937 with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act. California became the first state to relegalize marijuana in 1996, approving it only for medical purposes. As of 2018, medical marijuana has been legalized in twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico.

As medical marijuana gained widespread acceptance, activists turned to advocating for the legalization of the drug for recreational purposes. As of 2018, nine states and the District of Columbia have endorsed its recreational use by adults; Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Nevada, Vermont, and Washington all recognize the legality of recreational marijuana. Federal law considers marijuana an illegal substance and makes no distinction between medical and recreational use.

Impact of Legalization

The legalization of recreational marijuana has had positive as well as negative impacts. On the positive side, states with legal recreational marijuana have enjoyed a major increase in tax revenues. Colorado, which was the first state to legalize the drug for adult recreational use, took in a reported $506 million in revenue from marijuana sales between January 2014 and July 2017, including over $200 million in 2016 alone. A 2017 study also showed that if marijuana were legalized in the United States at the federal level, it would generate $132 billion in tax revenue and create over one million jobs over the ten-year period spanning 2017–2026. In addition, legalization would disrupt the criminal networks that control the production and distribution of the drug in areas where it is prohibited, denying them a major source of revenue. A reduction in the illegal distribution of marijuana would also theoretically make it more difficult for minors to access the drug.

On the negative side, marijuana is a major contributor to the recent sharp rise in so-called “drugged driving” fatalities. In Colorado, the number of traffic fatalities in which marijuana was ruled to be a factor has more than doubled since 2013; recreational sales of the drug began in 2014. On a national level, the number of drugged driving fatalities surpassed the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in 2015 and has continued to outpace them ever since. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), marijuana accounts for approximately 35 percent of all positive drug tests involving motorists who died in car accidents. Another emerging problem is the lack of a reliable, universally accepted roadside screening test for marijuana impairment. While such tests are actively being developed, law enforcement officials are currently reliant on controversial screening processes, including swab tests that are said to yield inaccurate and inconsistent results, as well as field sobriety tests that involve the application of police officers’ own judgment. Many police agencies have also indicated that officers frequently lack the knowledge and training to spot the telltale signs of marijuana impairment, which can allow drug-impaired drivers to escape undetected even if they are stopped by police.

Changing marijuana laws have also introduced some complex legal issues with no clear answers. There is a growing advocacy movement for marijuana amnesty, which would erase previous convictions from the criminal records of people found guilty of marijuana possession for personal use. However, with marijuana remaining prohibited at the federal level, there is no obvious path forward for such a policy at the national level, even though it enjoys strong and growing public support. Another contentious aspect involves the transportation of recreational marijuana from a state where it is legal to a state where it is not legal. While existing legal guidelines plainly prohibit this, the recent rise of novel consumption methods such as marijuana-infused beverages, chocolates, and candies has presented law enforcement officials with significant detection and enforcement challenges.

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