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Top Issue Tuesday - Decriminalizing Marijuana

Contributed by Victoria Dinov, New Voters Communications Intern

Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States. State and federal lawmakers have debated how best to regulate its consumption for decades. Marijuana legalization has largely been determined by overarching public attitudes. In the 1980s, marijuana was seen as a dangerous drug. In line with these views, it was classified as a Schedule I illegal substance under federal law, meaning that it was not currently accepted for medical use and has a high potential for abuse. As former President Ronald Reagan unveiled his War on Drugs policy, marijuana usage was even more stigmatized. Drug hysteria fostered action on a national level, and the “Just Say No” campaign spearheaded by Nancy Reagan garnered the public’s attention. Despite the many successes of this campaign in curbing marijuana use, rising drug arrests began to highlight the consequences of the criminalization of marijuana: According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Black Americans are nearly 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana usage than White Americans (despite roughly equal usage). 

As the years have gone by, Americans have come to see marijuana as a more and more acceptable drug, and many states have advocated for the decriminalization of the drug. Based on the heavy racial bias in marijuana laws’ enforcement, many activists have determined legalization to be a civil rights issue. In response, 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized small amounts of marijuana for adult recreational use. In addition, 26 states and the District of Columbia took the smaller step and small amounts of marijuana. Although penalties still exist for possession and use, the criminal penalty has been removed and been replaced by small fines and smaller penalties.

However, the federal government still defines marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the most dangerous type of controlled substance. Under states’ decriminalization laws, possession of small amounts of marijuana have become civil and/or local infractions (rather than state crimes), resulting in little to no jail time. This change, however, has put national and state agencies at odds over the decriminalization of pot and possession still remains a federal crime. As the conflict has worn on, the National Conference on State Legislatures has maintained that the federal government should defer to state decisions regarding the regulation of marijuana. This deference to state law coincides with a wave of marijuana supporters, who view marijuana as medically beneficial (ie. pain and stress relief) and highlight the economic and social costs of marijuana-related incarceration. With all of these state actions taking the scene, advocates have set their sights on national decriminalization of weed, calling for a federal marijuana decriminalization bill.


  1. In 2018, 40% of all drug arrests were for marijuana-related offenses.

  2. Reported statistics from the ACLU show that cops made one marijuana bust every 37 seconds in 2010.

  3. Current reports show that 1 in 5 incarcerated people are serving time for drug offenses.

  4. Despite equal marijuana usage among White and Black Americans, Black Americans are 3.73 times more likely than White Americans to be arrested on marijuana-related charges.

  5. Of more than 8.2 million marijuana-related arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for possession of marijuana.

  6. Youth marijuana usage has decreased in states where marijuana was legalized.

  7. Data from both Colorado and Washington demonstrated a decline in arrest rates for possession post-marijuana legalization. 

  8. More than $47 billion is spent on the United States’ war on drugs each year.

  9. Projected annual tax statistics show that a $106.7 billion budgetary increase could be generated by the legalization of all currently illegal drugs.

  10. Medical marijuana sales amounted to $3.8 billion in 2018, while recreational sales topped nearly $6.2 billion that same year. 

Public Opinion An all-time high in U.S. public support for marijuana legalization occurred in 2018, with nearly 66% of people stating they were in favor of it. Of that group, 86% cite medicinal benefits as an important reason for their support. In addition, 70% of supporters say the change would free up law enforcement officers to focus on other crimes, and 47% think government regulation will make the duse of the drug safer. In contrast, 79% of those who oppose marijuana legalization cite the risk of increased car accidents as a major factor underlying their opposition.

Support for marijuana legalization is even greater among young Americans. In 2015, millennials (ages 18-34 in 2015) were found to support the shift more strongly than any other generation, with 68% favoring legalization. In addition, reported marijuana usage among millennials reached 52% in 2015, with 23% of millennials saying they have used the drug in the past year. As the stigma around marijuana is slowly being eroded by the youth, many American adults (59%) believe that the federal government should not enforce its marijuana laws in states that permit the drug’s use. The prevalence of this position has led to tension over the bounds of state and federal rights. 

Debate The subject of marijuana decriminalization continues to spark passionate debate. Many supporters see marijuana as no more harmful than other drugs, arguing it is in fact helpful for people with many medical conditions and can serve as a positive substitute to pharmaceuticals. Support for marijuana is also based on its potential contributions to the economy. In the 2015 research study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 27% of legalization supporters said their position was based on the many benefits of regulation, including tax revenue.  Many opponents state that their objection is due to the harmful effects of marijuana. The possibility of abuse and addiction is another major concern for many who oppose marijuana decriminalization, fearing that usage will skyrocket as the drug becomes more accessible and acceptable. According to another Pew Research Center study in 2015, 19% of opponents of marijuana decriminalization cited the opinion that drugs, including marijuana, need to be policed. Furthermore, 11% of those who opposed marijuana decriminalization claimed they saw marijuana as a gateway drug to many other, more dangerous illegal substances. 

What Youth Can Do As seen in the statistics above, the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana has become an increasingly hot topic in politics. With higher rates of reported marjuana usage and increased acceptance of the decriminalization of the drug, many youth have become champions for not only decriminalizing marijuana but also increasing education surrounding marijuana usage. Youth today can evoke change regarding marijuana usage educating themselves on the topic of marijuana usage and deciding for themselves whether legalization and decriminalization of weed is something that they support or oppose. 

Examples of Legislation

  1. Controlled Substances Act: The CSA allocates regulated substances into one of five schedules. Placements are determined by factors including medical use, potential for abuse, and safety. Currently, marijuana is placed in Schedule I, which is meant to house the drugs with highest abuse potential, no accepted and credible medical use, and no methods for prescription. 

  2. California Proposition 64: This California law legalized marijuana use for adults 21 and older. It also designated licensing for state agencies to regulate the marijuana industry. Proposition 64 also imposed a state tax of 15% on retail sales of marijuana and an increased allowance for regulation on the local level. The act explicitly prohibits any form of marketing of marijuana to minors and places strict restrictions on its advertisement to the 18- to 20-year-old community. 

  3. Hawaii House Bill 1383: This bill, passed in 2019, decriminalized marijuana on the state level. According to the provisions of the bill, anyone in Hawaii found in possession of 3 grams or less of marijuana will be punished by a $130 fine. In addition, the bill established a marijuana evaluation task force that assesses marijuana use penalties and outcomes in the state.

  4. Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act: The MORE Act was introduced to deschedule (thus, essentially legalize) marijuana at the federal level and address damage caused by the marijuana prohibition. This bill would tax marijuana products at 5% and establish a fund to provide grants, employment programs, and youth resources to communities negatively impacted by the drug war. This bill also aims to increase accessibility for substance abuse treatments, prevent discrimination in obtaining student financial aid or federal benefits on the basis of marijuana use, and provide opportunities for those convicted of marijuana possession to petition for expungement. 

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