4 Burning Questions on the Science of Decriminalizing Drugs

112015_4 Burning Questions on the Science of Decriminalizing Drugs 

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It is obvious that legal public views are shifting in favor of marijuana legalization. Oregon has been the latest state to join Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and the District of Columbia in legalizing recreational weed, while as many as 23 states have also allowed pot to be used for medicinal purposes.

But aside from marijuana legalization, advocates are also talking about decriminalizing pot. Often overshadowed by legalization efforts, here are 4 answers to the top questions on the science of decriminalizing weed, courtesy of Popular Science:

What’s the difference between legalization and decriminalization?

Legalization means allowing people to consume and sell bulk amounts of marijuana, with the state setting up a system for regulating and taxing drug sales.

On the other hand, decriminalization means creating laws that decrease or eliminate punishments associated with possessing small amounts of recreational weed. However, selling bulk amounts of pot is still a crime.

Since decriminalization laws are more common than legalization laws, researchers know more about the former than the latter. According to economist Rosalie Pacula, the outcomes on decriminalized states will not help predict the outcomes in legalized states because they have different effects. But thanks to the pioneering efforts of Colorado and Washington in legalizing weed, researchers are now starting to see the consequences of legalization to the society in general.

What are the effects of decriminalizing marijuana in general?

For one, the criminal justice system saves money and resources as drug-related arrests and prison sentences decrease. However, the exact amount of prosecution costs saved is still up for debate, with various studies in California showing a savings range of a million dollars to more than a billion dollars.

Studies also show that decriminalization generally has very little effect on usage, with the American Academy of Pediatrics finding out that the number of kids under 18 who reported smoking weed did not significantly change after their states decriminalized medical marijuana. According to Pacula, this can be because people don’t actually seem to be aware that they live in a decriminalized state.

What are the effects of decriminalization on people’s health?

Many researchers think that decriminalization does not have a significant effect on health. “Since it hasn’t led to increases in use, it’s hard to think of why it would lead to increases in harms,” said Peter Reuter, a public policy researcher at the University of Maryland.

However, there are also studies that counter this argument. In 1992, a study found out that marijuana-related emergency room check-ins increased in states that decriminalized weed in the 1970s. Furthermore, emergency visits related to other drugs decreased, which may mean that people were replacing other drugs with pot since it has been decriminalized.

Another study on decriminalized states in Australia showed that though there was no significant changes in the overall number of marijuana users, people started smoking pot at a young age. And with findings still blurry on the effects of marijuana on the young brain, this can have health consequences in the future.

Is general drug decriminalization a good idea?

For this we can turn the spotlight on Portugal, which has decriminalized possession of every recreational drug in the last 12 years. Those against general drug decriminalization have pointed to higher lifetime drug use, while those in favor of it insist that problematic drug use has decreased because of it.

According to Alex Stevens, a criminal justice researcher at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, the most important numbers show improvement, since lifetime drug use could also include people who only tried a drug but did not get addicted to it. Even reports from the Boston Globe and the New Yorker showed that Portugal’s drug situation became better after drug reform, although the country’s comprehensive program on addiction treatment might have also played a factor.

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