Since the beginnings of civilization, we have been faced with a dilemma: how best to balance the needs of the collective with the freedom of the individual. As early as 1930, in his “Society and its Discontents,” Sigmund Freud proposed a theory that essentially said that, in order to exist in a stable state, society must place certain limits on the individual freedom, which causes the individual unhappiness. Throughout much of history, the power has decisively been with the collective. With the founding of America, it shifted towards the individual.
The argument over whether marijuana should be legal is just the one of the latest manifestations of this very old tug-of-war. Those who advocate for legalization feel that individuals should have power over their own body, including what goes into it. Opponents point out the problems that individual drug use could create for the wider community in terms of increased health problems and crime. In order to resolve this issue, we must properly assess the threat and decide whether it is justifiable in the name of liberty.
The History of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado
The legalization of pot in Colorado may be getting attention in recent news, but it is nothing surprising; the state has been working its way towards total legalization of the drug for the over forty years.
Marijuana was first decriminalized in Colorado in 1975. This essentially means that, though it was still illegal, no jailtime was involved for being caught with it; punishments were issued in terms of fines.
In 2000, Colorado made marijuana legal for medical purposes in the 20th amendment to the state’s constitution. This meant that people with one of a specified number of health problems could legally possess up to six marijuana plants and carry up to 2 ounces of the drug, provided that they could get a prescription from a doctor.
In 2014, Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in the 64th amendment to its constitution. Since then, any adult over 21 has been able to legally smoke or ingest marijuana, provided that they don’t do it in public. People can grow up to six marijuana plants, as long as they stay locked up. Additionally, people can travel with up to ounce of marijuana and give up to one ounce away as a gift.
The Pros of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado
The Impact of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado so Far
Marijuana use has, in fact, gone up in Colorado since its legalization. Marijuana is now 12.7% among adults in Colorado, compared to a national average of 12.4%. That means that about one in eight Coloradans—or 350,000 people—now use marijuana on a monthly basis. See this page for a full list of the statistics.
The real question is that of whether this increased marijuana use has had a negative impact on the common good. There is some evidence of that.
In 2014, 12% of DWI’s that were issued by Colorado police were for marijuana. Contrary to the argument that legalizing marijuana would allow law enforcement to turn their attention to more serious matters, marijuana legalization seems to have made the job of the police officer more complicated. So-called “drugged driving” is harder to determine because there are no tests for it analogous to breathalyzer tests for alcohol.
Another issue is that of marijuana-laced treats. In Colorado, anything from gummy bears to brownies can be found with the drug infused within them, and they look exactly the same as the non-drug-infused counterparts. As a police officer, if you pull someone over and see a beer can in the cup holder, that’s an obvious violation, but there’s just no way of knowing if the candy bar sitting on the dashboard has marijuana in it or not.
Marijuana-laced candy and other treats are also causing another, perhaps more alarming problem. Kids are getting a hold of the treats and eating them. Since legalization, there has been an uptick in children admitted to the emergency room after having accidently ingested such products.
Marijuana use among teenagers has remained the same since before legalization, though it is still higher than the national average. Yet, some experts worry that increased use of marijuana among adults will inevitably trickle down to the children. These experts worry that marijuana usage will become normalized to kids, and that that, combined with the advertising for marijuana, in the same manner as that for cigarettes, and increased availability of the drug, will eventually lead more and more young people to use it.
Despite all of these relatively minor complications, the legalization of marijuana has so far failed to produce the widespread crime and health crisis that was predicted; most of the adult hospitalizations for the drug have been out-of-staters who are not as used to handling it and the overall crime rates have actually decreased by 2.5%.
Cons of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado
A Look into the Future – The Potential Long-Term Effect of Legalizing Marijuana in Colorado
There are examples of how marijuana legalization can be made to work, and how, despite the initial spike of drug use just after legalization, in the long run it may actually decrease.
In the country of Portugal, for instance, all drugs were decriminalized in 2001; see full story here. Since then, overall usage of drugs has decreased dramatically. We can speculate as to why that is. For one thing, it could be that, once the realities of addiction become more socially visible, more people who have never done drugs choose not to begin in the first place.
On the other side of the issue, it is a well-known fact in all 12-step circles that addicts don’t get help until they hit “rock bottom.” It could be that loosening the reigns allows people to go even deeper into their addiction, causing them to experience the full consequences sooner and, thus, find the motivation to change.
Also, loosening the legal consequences for drug use may make people feel more free to seek out help when they do decide that they’ve had enough. This seems to be the case in Portugal, which saw a wave of people seeking medical treatment for addiction just after decriminalization. Drug-related deaths have also decreased, since people are freer to seek out the help of a doctor for problems like overdose.
Drug-related crime has gone down as well. With at least the customer side of the drug market being free to seek out law enforcement when they have a problem, the government has more control over it than when it criminalized. This is similar to the reasons why the prohibition of alcohol in the United States actually lead to organized crime gaining a foothold: making it illegal didn’t get rid of the market, it simply forced it underground.
Portugal’s model is far from perfect. The country could very well go bankrupt due to the financial burden of giving ongoing medical care to those who are still in active addiction. Indeed, you could say that this is enabling, since it shields people from some of the repercussions of ongoing drug use. That being said, the spirit of their approach is to recognize addiction as a disease rather than a moral failing. Rather than punishing sick people for being sick, they have opted to make it safer and easier to get help.
In the argument between individual rights versus the collective good, it would seem that the threat that individual marijuana use poses to society as a whole is not as large as one might assume, and can be handled by means other than criminalizing it. Though there are some negative consequences to the approach, the better solution may be compassion rather than punishment.