Cannabis has been a staple of humanity throughout history. Ancient cultures used the cannabis plant to make clothing and tools from the hemp stalk as well as use its properties in religious events and ceremonies. The early days of the United States has cannabis literally woven into its foundation. Starting in 1619 in Virginia, America’s first law regarding marijuana was a requisite on the farmers that they had to grow and produce hemp to be used in sails, rigging, caulking, food and fuel. The state of Maryland used hemp as legal tender, Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag out of hemp fabrics, and it is most likely that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. Indeed, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson all grew hemp as a cash crop on their lands and used it for medicinal purposes. Further, from 1850 to 1942 in the United States Pharmacopoeia, marijuana was on America’s official list of accepted drugs, as well as small packs of marijuana were sold in pharmacies for migraines, insomnia and other maladies.
Then in the early 1900’s, there was an influx of migrants to America from the Mexican Revolution as well as from the West Indies. These groups used cannabis regularly, and due to intolerant racist views towards these and other minority groups, a hatred towards the cannabis they used and sold was developed, and by the 1920’s law enforcement was focusing on foreigners, minority races, sex workers, and social miscreants as the main users of marijuana. It is during this time that the stigma against cannabis began, with reports that the drug caused the immigrating Mexicans to develop blood lust, a penchant for violence and violent crime, and superhuman strength. At the same time a conflicting report from the government stated that cannabis caused “reefer madness”, and still others said that it cause amotivational syndrome, or the lack of motivation. It is here that the debate on the legalisation of cannabis should look; the negative societal views towards the drug stemmed not from a medical reason or background, but from that of an intolerant racial one, which then spread out to other Westernised nations.
Even with the negative stigma associated with cannabis use and the legal repercussions that go with it, there is still a high usage rate for the drug. In Australia, the statistics for 2004 were that one in every four young people had used marijuana in the pervious twelve month period. In Europe this statistic increases to one of every two young people that have used marijuana. With such a large proportion of the populace using cannabis, why then is there still laws making it illegal?
Most people when arguing for or against the decriminalization or legalisation of cannabis use comparisons with other commonly accepted drugs such as alcohol and tobacco. Again using statistical analysis from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in 1998 there were estimated 19,000 deaths from tobacco use, which made up eighty percent of all drug and alcohol related deaths. Further, there were 2000 deaths attributed to alcohol, and 1000 deaths due to illicit drugs. Making up the illicit drug category are all other drugs that are not alcohol or tobacco. These include substances such as methamphetamines, cocaine, barbiturates, LSD, and cannabis. It is possible to derive from these statistics then that illicit drugs make up the smallest category of the drug related fatalities, and of that small percentage, marijuana is only a small percentage again, thus making it many times safer and overall healthier than the widely used and legal tobacco and alcohol. This opinion can be substantiated by the findings of the UK Police Foundation in 2000 which stated that when cannabis is systematically compared with other drugs against the main criteria of harm, namely mortality, morbidity, toxicity, addictiveness and relation to crime, it is less harmful to the individual and society than any of the other illicit drugs or than alcohol or tobacco. This would appear to be a strong piece of evidence from very reliable sources for the advocation of the legalisation of marijuana.
Opponents to the legalisation of cannabis have argued that there are many problems with the drug on the other hand. Some of these arguments are sound and genuine, such as concerns for the health of the lungs and brain, some are held-over social misinformation such as marijuana causes homicidal tendencies, while others are just strange such as using marijuana causes the growth of male breasts. The theory that marijuana is a ‘gateway’ drug that leads to the use of other more dangerous and harder drugs is also put forward by opponents to its legalisation. Fergusson and Horwood stated that it is possible that when a cannabis user discovers that cannabis is pleasurable and non-harmful, they may think that it is okay to experiment with other drugs. They go on to say that this possible experimentation with other drugs could be due to the social surroundings of the individual user and where they have to source their cannabis from.
This stance in opposition to legalising marijuana could also lend itself very easily to being a reason for legalization. The concern and view that the reason that a cannabis user will try other harder drugs due to where they have to source the cannabis from, such as irreputable dealers and unclean or unsafe sources, could be addressed easily with the legalization of marijuana. This would provide authorised dealers to the public that would have to meet standards in the quality of their product, (thus eliminating “dirty” or laced marijuana) and the user then would not be confronted with a social setting that potentially had dangerous or illicit drugs around them and be able to curb that eventuality from happening.
Currently, no Australian states have legalised the personal use of cannabis, however South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, and the Northern Territory have all decriminalised the possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use by replacing penal sanctions with standard fines up to $250. Compare this to the high cost in resources, paid by the taxpayers (which as mentioned previously one in four use cannabis) to police cannabis estimated at a cost of $329 million in 1991-92 in Australia, and there would appear to be a large gap between outgoing expenditures and incoming capitol generated from the fines. Further, in those states which have not legislated to reduce criminal penalties…it is estimated that there are up to 476 people serving up to 15 months in prison with a simple personal cannabis offence as their most serious offence. This is also a drain on the taxpayers that are paying for someone to be imprisoned for doing something that had no impact or caused harm on anyone but themselves.
A solution to the monetary problems generated by the policing and regulation of cannabis resides in the legalisation of it as well. In 1988, it was estimated that the monetary turnover for the cannabis crop in Australia alone was a surplus of $1.09 billion. Given the global financial crisis and the fact that every nation in the world, including Australia, is searching for ways to bolster their coffers, legalising cannabis and using it as a cash crop would be an economical boon to the country.
Another argument against the legalisation of cannabis is that it is harmful to a person’s health. There have been reports made on the negative side effects of marijuana use, and list the side effects as: a possibility to make you see and hear things that are not there, feel separated from reality, and in the long term increase the risk of getting bronchitis and other diseases of the respiratory system, a decrease in motivation, decrease in concentration and ability to learn new things, and a lowered libido. The counter-side to this argument is the highly successful use of cannabis in the medical profession for the treatment of many different maladies. Examples of this include Jacki Rickert of Wisconsin, who in March of 2000 police raided her home. She was forty-nine years old, ninety pounds (40.9kg) and wheelchair-bound. Rickert had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome which had her in constant pain and made eating very difficult. She smoked marijuana to manage her pain and increase her appetite. Rickert was one of eight patients in the Investigative New Drug Program who was allowed therapeutic distribution of 300 prerolled marijuana cigarettes per month. When the police found a small amount of marijuana in her home, they pressed charges against her, even though she only used it to gain some quality of life from her illness. Another case is that of Deborah Lynn Quinn of Arizona. She was thirty-nine years old and born without legs or arms and sentenced to eighteen months in prison for illegally using marijuana to manage her physical pain. The State Corrections director Terry Stewart who is known for his hard stance on drugs stated “I simply cannot understand how a judge can sentence a disabled woman to prison who presents absolutely no escape risk, no physical danger to the public, and who will be an extremely difficult and expensive person to care for at $345[US] per day, without exploring any alternative sentence measures…”.
In conclusion, the legalisation or decriminalisation of cannabis would be beneficial to Australia in the areas of finance, freeing up of police resources, medical treatments, and prison population decreases. This would show a marked benefit in the populace at large as it would decrease black market drug trafficking, and stop being a problem for the youth trying to hide from over-regulation. As Dr. Lester Grinspoon of the Harvard Medical School stated, “While marijuana is, in fact, remarkably free of toxicity, the consequences of annually arresting 300,000 mostly young people is not”.
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Cohen, P. (2009). ANTH106 Cannabis Background – powerpoint presentation. Macquarie University
Dennis, M. and White, W. (1999). "The Marijuana legalization debate: Is there a middle ground?" in The Drug Legalization Debate , Inciardi, James A. pp. 75-100
Dubner, S. (2007). On The Legalization – or not – of Marijuana. http://www.freakonomics.com/2007/10/30/on-the-legalization-or-not-of-marijuana/?scp=1&sq=marijuana%2520legalization&st=cse (Accessed 27 Oct 2011).
Fergusson, D. and Horwood, L. (2000). "Does cannabis use encourage other forms of illicit drug use?" Addiction. 95:4, pp. 505-520
Gerber, R. (2004). "History of demonizing drugs" in Legalizing Marijuana: Drug Policy Reform and Prohibition Politics. pp. 1-16
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New South Wales Health. (2006). Marijuana Factsheet. http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/factsheets/drugAndAlcohol/marijuana.html (Accessed 27 Oct 2011).
 Cohen, Cannabis Background Power Point, 2009
 Gerber, History of Demonizing Drugs, p. 2
 Ibid, p.3
 Dennis & White, The Marijuana Debate, p. 75-76
 Australian Inst. Health & Welfare, http://www.aihw.gov.au/publications/phe/sdua04/sdua04-c01.pdf
 Iverson, Cannabis and the Law, p520
 Dennis & White, The Marijuana Debate, p. 84
 Fergusson & Horwood, Does Cannabis Use Encourage…, p. 506
 Hall, Debate About Prohibition, p. 1110
 Ibid, p. 1111
 Ibid, p. 1110
 Ibid, p. 1110
 New South Wales Health, http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/factsheets/drugAndAlcohol/marijuana.html
 Gerber, History of Demonizing Drugs, p. 1