With 9 states legalizing marijuana for recreational use, it’s time for Illinois to start considering the option of legalization as well. Over the past few years, in spite of marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 Drug, the rate of marijuana use has remained constant among teenagers, indicating that the current policies have done little to deter marijuana consumption. In the state of Illinois, Governor Bruce Rauner has implemented multiple policies to create more lenient sentencing for individuals caught possessing small amounts of marijuana, but the Democratic gubernatorial candidate running against him, JB Pritzker, has strongly proclaimed that full-on legalization is the correct path forward. An analysis of the studies surrounding marijuana legalization support Pritzker’s policy because of its monetary benefits, positive effects on the criminal justice system, and the precedent set forth by the legalization of smoking and alcohol.

Why Legalization?

There are monetary incentives to this policy. The Marijuana Policy Project estimates that Illinois could reap anywhere from 350 to 700 million dollars simply by legalizing marijuana. The money could be used to support the Illinois budget which has repeatedly encountered financial issues in the past few years.

But one of the main benefits to legalizing marijuana is its effects on the criminal justice system. Statistics from the ACLU indicate that even though black people and white people use marijuana at similar rates, black people in Illinois are 7.5 times likelier to be arrested than white people. Considering that going to prison for marijuana use decreases one’s employment opportunities, decriminalizing marijuana corrects for an inequality that results in unfair incarceration and denial of opportunity to black people.

Isn’t Marijuana Unsafe?

But in response to these arguments, many politicians will point out that marijuana has many negative health effects such as intense nausea, impaired memory and cognitive function, and psychosis. However, this isn’t a strong enough justification to block marijuana’s legalization for two main reasons. The first is that marijuana has significantly less adverse health effects than already-legalized substances such as tobacco and alcohol. A study done published in the scientific journal Nature showed that, out of ten substances (including tobacco and alcohol), marijuana was found to be the safest substance.

But more importantly, criminalizing marijuana actually makes marijuana more lethal. Criminalization encouraged marijuana growers to increase the levels of THC, a harmful chemical, in marijuana because growers have an economic incentive to make their consumers as high as possible, so that they can return to buy even more marijuana. The result is that those who want a lower concentration of THC in their marijuana are forced to choose between highly-concentrated marijuana or none at all. On the other hand, if marijuana is legalized, regulation will allow for safe consumption of marijuana because people will be allowed to purchase marijuana in safer amounts with lower concentrations of THC.

Isn’t Marijuana a Gateway Drug?

Another commonly-used argument against marijuana legalization is the concept that marijuana is a “gateway drug”, causing people to use other drugs. They often cite a study done by the National Institute of Health, which showed that 44.7% of marijuana users often go on to try other illicit substances.

However, what this argument lacks is a proven causal relationship establishing that using marijuana persuades someone to use other more harmful drugs. It could be the case that the socioeconomic and social factors more strongly influence one’s propensity to use stronger drugs. Additionally, a study done by the RAND Corporation in 2002 suggested that people use marijuana before other drugs because it is cheaper and more accessible than other drugs.

The “gateway drug” argument also ignores the fact that use of tobacco – an already legalized substance – significantly correlates with use of more potent drugs. A study done by the National Institute of Health found that nicotine actually primed the brain to respond more sensitively to cocaine consumption, showing the biological association between smoking and drug usage. The same study also stated that 90% of cocaine users tried smoking before they used cocaine, proving that tobacco correlates even more strongly with the use of potent drugs.

The Path Forward

Understanding the clear benefits of marijuana legalization combined with facts that counter the most frequently used arguments against marijuana legalization leads to the fact that JB Pritzker’s policy is right. There are certainly negative health effects of marijuana, but sensible regulatory measures such as limiting the amount of THC present in marijuana or creating laws for individuals smoking marijuana while driving will allow marijuana to enter the public market while still maintaining public safety.

As ironic as it may sound, legalizing marijuana is a win for public health and safety because it will allow the government to regulate marijuana use while eliminating the endless cycle of recidivism that plagues our criminal justice system today.

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