Eight states have now made recreational marijuana legal, and many other states are moving in that direction by making medical marijuana more easily accessible. Advocates of marijuana legalization consider this a positive thing because it leads to more personal freedom, hurts the profits of drug cartels, allows police to spend their time on better things than busting people for marijuana possession, and adds millions to state coffers. However, critics are concerned that legalizing marijuana sends the signal that drug use is acceptable and that the greater availability of marijuana will lead to more substance abuse, especially among teens. It’s still early days for legal marijuana and it’s impossible to know what the long-term effects will be. However, there have been some studies on what happens in states after marijuana becomes legal. One study found that more liberal marijuana laws have had “minimal impact” on marijuana use, other substance use, alcohol use, and crime. The authors of the study speculate that in states where marijuana has been legalized, enforcement of laws prohibiting marijuana had already been lax for years, meaning people’s use patterns didn’t change much when marijuana became legal. The study also found a slight reduction of cocaine and heroin use among teens. On the downside, they also discovered a greater availability of psychedelics, barbiturates, and amphetamines. Traffic fatalities also increased in Washington after marijuana was legalized. Advocates of medical marijuana have long argued that it is a safer alternative to opioid painkiller and there does appear to be some evidence for that. A study, published in the JAMA Internal Medicine, found that states that allowed medical marijuana had 25 percent fewer fatal overdoses from opioids, and that the trend was growing. Critics of marijuana legalization can also point to some evidence that legalization has led to more misuse. One study found that between 2001 and 2013, past-year use has more than doubled, from 4.1 percent to 9.5 percent, and marijuana use disorders have nearly doubled, from 1.5 percent to 2.9 percent, with the increases more or less even across age groups. They also point out that marijuana and its derivatives are legally sold in increasingly potent forms. And some forms of cannabis, such as THC candy, are likely more appealing to teens and even children, much like Four Loko before it was banned by many states. The increased availability of marijuana is certainly one part of the addiction equation, but it’s not the only part or even the most important part. Addiction is driven by many factors, including genetic predisposition, mental health issues, childhood environment, trauma, and health issues. Making sure people have economic opportunity, access to mental healthcare, and a positive social environment is probably more protective against addiction than restricting access to marijuana.
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