Should Marijuana Be Decriminalized?

Two readings and discussion questions help students weigh arguments for and against marijuana legalization and consider whether marijuana laws are enforced in a racially discriminatory way.  

To The Teacher:

Over the past several years, more and more states have passed laws legalizing the medical use of marijuana or reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of the substance. More recently, support for full legalization of marijuana has been spreading, with citizens in Colorado and Washington state voting overwhelming to legalize marijuana. In 2014, voters in Washington, D.C., also moved to legalize, although congressional Republicans have tried to block implementation.

This lesson consists of two readings to help students think critically about U.S. marijuana policy and the debates surrounding it. The first reading weighs arguments for and against marijuana legalization, looking at some of the practical impacts in states that have changed their policies. The second reading considers whether marijuana laws are enforced in a racially discriminatory way.

Questions for discussion follow each reading.

Reading 1:
Marijuana—Regulation or Criminalization?

Over the past several years, more and more states have passed laws legalizing the medical use of marijuana or reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of the substance. More recently, support for full legalization of marijuana has been spreading, with citizens in Colorado and Washington State voting overwhelming to legalize marijuana as of 2012. In 2014, voters in Washington, D.C., also moved to legalize, although congressional Republicans have tried to block implementation.

Many remain opposed to legalizing pot.  In 2014, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry issued a statement opposing legalization because of the drug’s impact on young people:

Marijuana use is not benign, and adolescents are especially vulnerable to its many known adverse effects. One in six adolescent marijuana users develop cannabis use disorder, a well characterized syndrome involving tolerance, withdrawal, and continued use despite significant associated impairments. Heavy use during adolescence is associated with increased incidence and worsened course of psychotic, mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders across the lifespan.

Like many other opponents of legalization, former Drug Enforcement Administration director Asa Hutchinson argues that "legalizing the drug will swell societal ills, and this outweighs the monetary benefits that might be achieved from its lawful sale." He wrote in an April 20, 2015 editorial for

This is not the first time legalization has come to the fore. In the 1970s, Alaska legalized the drug—only to recriminalize it in 1990 after Alaskan teen marijuana use jumped to twice the national average. This is clear evidence that if legalized, marijuana use will increase (even among children).

There are significant cost burdens that come along with increased marijuana use. For example, there will be a greater social cost from decline in worker productivity and school performance. Legalization will also lead to a greater need for drug education, rehabilitation and treatment. And there will be costs associated with selling the drug.

However, other experts contend that these concerns are overblown.  Proponents of legalization argue that marijuana is no more dangerous or addictive than alcohol. As Christopher Ingraham reports in a February 23, 2015, article for the Washington Post:

Compared with other recreational drugs — including alcohol — marijuana may be even safer than previously thought. And researchers may be systematically underestimating risks associated with alcohol use.

Those are the top-line findings of recent research published in the journal Scientific Reports, a subsidiary of Nature. Researchers sought to quantify the risk of death associated with the use of a variety of commonly used substances. They found that at the level of individual use, alcohol was the deadliest substance, followed by heroin and cocaine.

And all the way at the bottom of the list? Weed — roughly 114 times less deadly than booze, according to the authors, who ran calculations that compared lethal doses of a given substance with the amount that a typical person uses....

What is unique is how these substances are treated under the law, and particularly the way in which alcohol and nicotine essentially get a free pass under the Controlled Substances Act, the cornerstone of the nation's drug policy.

Proponents also argue that legalizing marijuana allows it to be regulated and taxed, just as we regulate and tax cigarettes and alcohol - and this will bring in significant tax revenue. A portion of this new revenue can be used to fund public health initiatives for drug users and education aimed at preventing irresponsible use. In a December 30, 2014 article for the Huffington Post, Art Way of the Drug Policy Alliance described how revenue from taxes on marijuana has been used in Colorado:

The bulk of [marijuana] revenue will go towards youth prevention efforts focused on marijuana and overall mental health. Already, we're seeing dividends. The early returns after a year of decriminalization in 2013 are favorable showing a slight decline in youth use rates....

Also, traffic fatalities are near historic lows, and slightly lower than what we saw in 2013. I'm not claiming a direct causation to marijuana legalization, but marijuana legalization certainly has not hurt Colorado.

Indeed, many of the grim predictions from legalization opponents have not come to pass in Colorado and Washington after a year of the substance being legal. As Phillip Smith reports in a July 8, 2015 article for

Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of retail marijuana sales in Washington, and, amazingly enough, the state seems to not only have survived legalization, but to have actually benefited from it...

To mark the date, the Drug Policy Alliance has issued a report on what has happened since legalization arrived, and it likes what it sees: "Since adult possession of marijuana became legal eighteen months ago, the state has benefitted from a dramatic decrease in marijuana arrests and convictions, as well as increased tax revenues. During the same period, the state has experienced a decrease in violent crime rates. In addition, rates of youth marijuana use and traffic fatalities have remained stable." ...

It's not just Washington. Similar results have been reported from Colorado. It is becoming increasingly clear that the dire warnings of crime, delinquency, car wrecks, moral decay, and social collapse heard from legalization foes have not happened. In fact, life seems to pretty much go on as before, except with fewer pot busts and criminal justice system costs, more jobs and economic growth, and more tax revenues.

In the coming year, a large number of states are expected to hold their own votes on the legal status of marijuana, ensuring that the debate will continue.


For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what are some of the key reasons given by opponents of marijuana legalization? Which of these reasons is most convincing to you? Can you think of any other potential problems that legalizing marijuana might pose?
  3. What do you think of the idea of taxing sales of intoxicating substances such as alcohol and marijuana? Is this a convincing argument for legalizing marijuana, or do you think it is a morally problematic way of raising revenue for public programs?
  4. If a measure to legalize marijuana similar to the ones passed in Colorado or Washington came up for a vote in your state, would you be likely to support or oppose it? Explain your reasoning.


Reading 2:
Marijuana Criminalization & the Justice System

Another controversy swirls around marijuana: racial discrimination in the way marijuana laws are enforced. While Blacks and whites are believed to use marijuana in roughly equal numbers, African-Americans are much more likely to face criminal charges for possessing the drug.

In a November 18, 2013 article for the Nation, Sociologist Harry Levine argued that when it comes to low-level marijuana offenses, the U.S. has two unequal justice systems. Levine writes:

?"Whites Smoke Pot, but Blacks Are Arrested." That was the headline of a column by Jim Dwyer, the great Metro desk reporter for The New York Times, in December 2009. Although Dwyer was writing about New York City, he summed up perfectly two central and enduring facts about marijuana use and arrests across the country: whites and blacks use marijuana equally, but the police do not arrest them equally. A third important fact: the vast majority (76 percent) of those arrested and charged with the crime of marijuana possession are young people in their teens and 20s.

?Over the last fifteen years, police departments in the United States made 10 million arrests for marijuana possession—an average of almost 700,000 arrests a year. Police arrest blacks for marijuana possession at higher rates than whites in every state and nearly every city and county —as FBI Uniform Crime Reports and state databases indisputably show.... For years, police in New York and Chicago have arrested more young blacks and Latinos for simple marijuana possession than for any other criminal offense whatsoever....

[A]cross the United States, one-third of marijuana arrestees are teenagers; 62 percent are age 24 or younger; and most of them are ordinary high school or college students and young workers....

Police officers patrolling in middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods typically do not search the vehicles and pockets of white people, so most well-off whites enjoy a de facto legalization of marijuana possession. Free from the intense surveillance and frequent searches that occur in other neighborhoods, they have little reason to fear a humiliating arrest and incarceration. This produces patterns, as in Chicago, where whites constitute 45 percent of the population but only 5 percent of those arrested for possession.

Many criminal justice experts also argue that prosecuting people for marijuana possession is an inefficient use of police officers’ time and public resources. As reporter Kristen Gwynne writes in a June 27, 2013, article in Rolling Stone, police officers feel that every arrest they make for possession of marijuana costs valuable time they could be spending on more serious crimes:

In the past decade, police made more than 7 million marijuana arrests, 88 percent of them for possession alone. In 2010, states spent $3.6 billion enforcing the war on pot, with blacks nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested. That's a lot of police time and resources wasted, says former Seattle Chief of Police Norm Stamper, who had an "aha moment" about marijuana policy while working for the San Diego Police Department in the late 1960s.

"I had arrested a 19-year-old in his parents' home for the possession of a very small quantity of marijuana, and put him in the backseat of a caged police car, after having kicked down his door," recalls Stamper. While driving the prisoner to jail, he says, "I realized, mainly, that I could have been doing real police work, but instead I'm going to be out of service for several hours impounding the weed, impounding him, and writing arrest, impound, and narcotics reports. I was away from the people I had been hired to serve and in no position to stop a reckless drunk driver swerving all over the road, or to respond to a burglary in progress, or intervene in domestic violence situation."

Cops have limited resources, and spending them on marijuana arrests will inevitably divert them from other policing. Adds Stamper, "In short, making a marijuana arrest for a simple possession case was no longer, for me, real police work."

In a March 2015 interview, President Obama rejected legalization as a blanket solution for all drugs, but expressed support for efforts to decriminalize marijuana. Ben Kamisar quoted the Obama interview in a report for The Hill:

"Legalization or decriminalization is not a panacea. Do you feel the same way about meth? Do we feel the same way about coke? How about crack? How about heroin?" Obama said during an interview with Vice News released Monday.

"There is a legitimate, I think, concern about the overall effects this has on society and particularly vulnerable parts of society. Substance abuse generally, legal and illegal substances, is a problem."

Obama added that "locking somebody up for 20 years probably isn't the best strategy" to combat drug abuse. He said that he supports efforts to decriminalize marijuana, lessening legal penalties associated with it, in order to cut down on the disproportionate amount of poor and minority adults in prison for drug violations.

"I’d separate out the issue of the criminalization of marijuana to encouraging its use," he said.


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. African-Americans are far more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than whites. According to the reading, what are some of the reasons for this?
  3. Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper argues that if marijuana was legal, police resources could be better used to prevent more serious crimes. Do you find his argument persuasive? Do you think you would feel more or less safe in a state when marijuana was legal? Explain your reasoning.

  4. What do you think of President Obama's position on drug legalization? If you support decriminalizing marijuana, how do you feel about regulating other addictive substances?