What Happens Long-Term If We Legalize Marijuana?
But just what are the effects of marijuana legalization on society in the long-term? The truth is, we don’t know. In Colorado and other states, the experiment is still too new to judge if its fruits are sweet or sour. Preliminary results are inconclusive. Unintended consequences are a given, but as with any major shift in cultural norms, we can only speculate on the future.
So let me speculate. I wouldn’t anticipate a quick and dramatic impact, but rather changes more tectonic in nature—subtle at first, profound over time. Initially, patterns of use may not change that much. Former pot enthusiasts were already using, and those averse to it won’t change their minds right away.
Kids will raid their fathers’ marijuana jars just as they used to do their liquor cabinets.
But with legalization comes increased availability and reduced stigma. Those with no previous ties to the drug market will now have casual cannabis access. Law-abiding but curious types will try it out. Social circles will mingle. Usage will surely spread as habits tend to do. Workplaces will eventually relax their drug policies to adapt to a newly THC-infused labor force. So even within professional settings, pot may be normalized.
As adult use increases, teens will follow suit, spurred by both greater exposure and access. Kids will raid their fathers’ marijuana jars just as they used to do their liquor cabinets. Those who like what they find will only be a fake ID away from fueling their habits at will. Underage dealing will persist, and patterns of substance abuse will solidify still earlier in life. Because the effects of marijuana are less pronounced than those of other drugs, and given the proliferation of “edible” THC products that can be consumed inconspicuously, in-school stoners will multiply.
With overall growth in marijuana use will come an increase in its aggregate negative effects on the population. We probably won’t see crime waves, spikes in traffic accidents, or junkies roaming the streets, as some have speculated, because that’s not what pot does. Rather, we can expect the results of a collective decrease in motivation and ambition.
There may be higher dropout rates and lower average levels of professional and academic achievement. Civic engagement will likely drop, both because that takes effort and because cannabis doesn’t tend to foster attachment to social institutions. Habitual smokers are too content in their own worlds to involve themselves with the larger one around them.
Physical and mental health will suffer. Despite legalization, marijuana won’t entirely lose its countercultural associations, and therefore, the “gateway drug” effect will still be an issue.
That’s Not To Say the Status Quo Rocks
To be sure, most of these problems won’t be new, and may not reach epidemic proportions. But they will be strengthened and, perhaps worst of all, entrenched. Legalization preemptively thwarts any serious effort to curtail the harms cannabis causes. Hapless potheads will now be operating entirely within their legal rights, and their dealers will never run dry. The primary victims, as ever, will be minors and those prone to addiction and mental illness.
Legalization preemptively thwarts any serious effort to curtail the harms cannabis causes.
None of this should be interpreted as defense of the status quo. The state-federal tug of war over drug policy creates a “Who’s in charge here?” situation that’s not good for anybody. Fighting illegal substances with purely punitive measures has been less than successful.
The “medical marijuana” system has been a joke, although I don’t rule out the drug’s potential medicinal value if properly applied. Addictions treatment nationwide leaves much to be desired. The pot issue is complex, and I hope to see the states keep experimenting with different combinations of law enforcement, treatment, diversion programs, education, and other strategies to combat the marijuana market.
But wholesale legalization won’t make our problems go away. It will only deepen their roots.
Joseph Turner is a pseudonym for a social worker who provides mental health treatment for children and families in a Midwestern urban area.