Nov 19, 2021

Should we really legalize marijuana?

Photo: Wikicommons / My 420 Tours
Photo: Wikicommons / My 420 Tours

A public consensus is forming. But we may not be ready.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.” Today is a special Friday edition for subscribers only. First time reading? Sign up here.

Of all the things that are illegal in the United States, few enjoy as much public support as marijuana.

In fact, the latest Pew data show that 91% of Americans say marijuana should be legal in some form. 60% support legalization for both recreational and medicinal use. The other 31% support it for medicinal use only. The share of Americans who support legalizing recreational marijuana has doubled in the last 20 years. And only 8% of Americans say marijuana should not be legal at all.

Among Democrats and liberals, legalizing marijuana is now a near-consensus issue. Even among Republicans, 47% support legalizing recreational marijuana and 40% support legalizing medicinal marijuana, with just a little over 12% who want to keep it illegal in all forms. Interestingly, 18 states have now legalized recreational marijuana, along with Washington D.C., which means we should have some pretty good real-world data and information to consider.

Before we do, a little housekeeping: Because "marijuana" has become a loaded term, and I don't want to lose anyone on semantics, and because the scientific and in many states the legal term is cannabis, we're going to refer to it as the latter for the purposes of this newsletter. There are at least 1,200 names for cannabis, many of which I find a lot more fun to write and say than “cannabis,” but this is the one we’re going with.

Second, it’s worth distinguishing “legalization” and “decriminalization.” Legalization means allowing cannabis to be used recreationally, though regulated by the government, in basically all forms. States like Washington and Colorado pioneered legal cannabis, so we’ll focus largely on them for this newsletter, since that’s where the most real world data can be found. Decriminalization, on the other hand, is typically when a state doesn’t arrest users, issue jail time, or create a criminal record for first-time possession of cannabis for personal use. 27 states and Washington D.C. have decriminalized cannabis.

The debate about decriminalizing cannabis is, in my mind, largely settled. Though the legalization movement is also founded in large part on reducing the punishments for cannabis use (which we’ll touch on), I think there is a strong enough consensus among Americans — and in my belief, an obvious enough case — that possession or use of cannabis should not result in anyone being arrested and going to jail. The more interesting question, in my opinion, is whether the answer is full legalization and government regulation.