There are several advantages to legalizing marijuana. Legalization removes criminal sanctions for marijuana use and the collateral consequences that accompany arrest and conviction, including limited housing, employment, and educational opportunities. This would be especially beneficial to minority communities, which are disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition. Legalization also redirects law enforcement efforts to pursue more serious crimes, and taxpayer dollars spent on arrest, prosecution, and detention of marijuana defendants can go toward needs in other areas such as education, transportation, and public health.
Legalization takes profits away from the black market and imposes regulations on sales, bringing tax revenues to governments. One study estimates that legalization of marijuana across all 50 states would result in $3 billion in tax revenue from sales. Legalization also imposes quality control standards on marijuana products, ensuring safer consumption for users.
Another advantage of legalization is that it expands access to and research on marijuana’s therapeutic benefits. Marijuana may also help address the current opioid epidemic; one study found that deaths from opioid overdose were 25 percent lower than the national average in states with legal medical marijuana.
Opponents of marijuana legalization argue that these benefits do not outweigh the risk that legalization harms teens and increases marijuana-related traffic accidents. Data indicate that teen use rates in Colorado have increased very slightly post-legalization. However, it will take several more years before we can say with certainty whether marijuana legalization causes increased teen use. The claim that marijuana use is a gateway to harder drug use, while an understandable concern, is not backed up by research. Several studies have shown that marijuana impairs driving, but this is an issue that can be addressed through laws regulating marijuana use and driving, similar to DUI laws.
Another potential disadvantage of legalizing marijuana is that the creation of a for-profit industry will result in the marketing of marijuana products similar to what we see with alcohol and tobacco. Though marijuana is less harmful than these substances, large increases in use, particularly heavy use, are a valid public health concern. But there are other options for legalization, such as permitting adults to grow marijuana for personal use only and restricting the supply of marijuana to nonprofit organizations or government entities. While the most popular alternative to prohibition in the US so far is the commercial model, states would do well to consider some of these other options that bring the benefits of legalization without creating an industry incentive to increase use.