I should start this off with the disclaimer that I support the legalisation of recreational marijuana use. In fact, I support the decriminalisation of all recreational drugs. However, this does not mean that I partake in drug use. I actually consider myself to be ‘straightedge’ in that I’ve spent my whole life avoiding alcohol and illicit drugs. Right, now with that out of the way, I can continue.
The reason I support the legalisation of recreational marijuana is not so I can partake it its consumption, but because there is very strong evidence that its legalisation is better for the community than its prohibition. Let’s start with taxes. A very good example of this comes from the States of Colorado and Washington which have legalised the sale and consumption of recreational marijuana (medicinal marijuana had been legal for several years beforehand). In Colorado, depending on how taxes are imposed on top of their existing state sales taxes, the actual amount of tax on marijuana can be as high as 21.12%, but it’s usually around 13%. In the first year of legalisation on Colorado, the state government made $44 million in tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales ($76 including medicinal marijuana), although this did fall short of the $70 million that was expected. In Washington State, legalisation took place in mid-2014 and by the end of the year, $14.6 million in tax revenue had been made. When Colorado voted to legalise marijuana, part of the bill was that the first $40 million in tax revenue raised would go directly to school construction projects. Though these numbers aren’t staggering, the fact is that by legalising and taxing recreational marijuana, the states of Colorado and Washington added millions of dollars to their coffers which has been re-invested in the community, millions of dollars that would not be there otherwise.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, legalising marijuana also has benefits for law enforcement. While the drug is illegal, its manufacture and distribution are major sources of income for crime gangs. Legalising marijuana means that these gangs loose their monopoly on the product. Another benefit for law enforcement is that the time and effort officers put into finding and dealing with those in possession of marijuana can be better spent on criminals who pose a genuine threat to the community. It should be noted that when Colorado voted to legalise recreational marijuana, opponents of the bill claimed that it would lead to increased rates of crime and drug-induced car accidents. However, this claim has been disproven. While the number of people involved in car accidents who have tested positive for THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana) increased after legalisation, this doesn’t mean that they were under the influence while driving. THC metabolites can stay in the body for days or even weeks after last using the drug meaning that the person was most likely not under the influence while giving a blood or urine sample. In fact, there is even some evidence that suggests that driving while under the influence of marijuana is safer than drink driving. As for crime rates, Denver actually experienced a drop in crime after legalisation passed, although this trend did begin before legalisation. So, not only do police officers have more time on their hands now that they’re not chasing recreational marijuana users, but the spike in crime that was predicted by legalisation’s opponents has not eventuated.
Outside the United States, Portugal is a commonly referred-to example of a much more liberal drug policy. After the Carnation Revolution of 1974 that peacefully overthrew the country’s military dictatorship, soldiers and colonists from Portugal’s colonies returned home and brought recreational drugs with them. This was coupled with a wave of liberalisation that swept post-dictatorship Portugal and over the next several years, rates of drug use increased dramatically. Despite the government’s heavy-handed efforts to stamp out drug use, in 1999 1% of the Portuguese population was addicted to heroin and the rates of AIDS-related drug deaths were the highest in the European Union. To deal with this problem, the Portuguese government decriminalised all recreational drugs and transferred responsibility for drug control from the Ministério da Justiça (Ministry of Justice) to the Ministério da Saúde (Ministry of Health). Changes were also made to the country’s welfare system. Despite a brief rise in the number of drug users, this number then fell to well below 2001 levels. So too did the levels of drug-induced deaths and the number of continuous drug users (those who used more than once). However, it is important to note that recreational drugs were decriminalised, not legalised. If somebody is caught by police with drugs on their person, they then have 72 hours to report to a ‘warning commission on drug addiction’ and will usually be encouraged to attend rehabilitation. From a social standpoint, it can be clearly seen that Portugal has had a huge amount of success with its experiment in decriminalising all recreational drugs.
The arguments that I have given here for the legalisation of marijuana and decriminalisation of all recreational drugs are ones that are commonly used to by pro-marijuana lobbyists. However, there is another that is often used. This is the argument that use of marijuana and other cannabis-related products can cure cancer. This is not an isolated claim. Alternative news website Collective Evolution states that THC and cannabidiol (CBD) weaken the ferocity of cancer cells and make them more susceptible to radiation therapy. The site also claims that “Cannabinoids may very well be one of the best disease and cancer fighting treatments out there.” On his website, alternative medical practitioner Dr. Mark Sircus claims that “Medical marijuana is chemotherapy, natural style, for all cancer patients.” and that it can cure many types of cancer including lung, pancreatic, prostate and ovarian. Indeed, these claims are not limited to alternative media outlets. In April 2015, the Daily Mail reported that the National Institute of Drug Abuse in the U.S. claimed that cannabis not only kills cancer cells but also shrinks brain tumours. However, despite the large amount of information that is available, claims that cannabis cures cancer are either the result of gross misunderstandings of medical science or incredibly sketchy anecdotes.
Referring directly to the Collective Evolution article entitled ’20 Medical Studies That Prove Cannabis Can Be A Potential Cure For Cancer’, David Gorsky writing for Science Based Medicine has debunked those. The majority of the studies listed by Collective Evolution were either in vitro or based on animal tests. Only one of the 20 medical studies was based on human testing and the THC used in the experiment was injected. According to Gorsky
…[injection] is very different from smoking marijuana or ingesting hash oil. It involves directly infusing THC solution at a high concentration directly into the brain cavity where the tumor had been, in the hope of killing off any remaining tumor cells surrounding the cavity. Let’s just put it this way. There’s a reason why direct intratumoral [directly into the tumour] injection of any drug is generally frowned upon, and that’s because it’s invasive and rarely works…. this was not simply ingesting, smoking, or being injected with cannabinoids. The study involved having catheters sticking out of the subjects’s heads and having THC infused directly into the brain.
Injecting THC directly into a tumour is a far cry from smoking marijuana or ingesting hemp oil. Indeed, the levels of THC that are attained from smoking marijuana are a mere fraction of what was present during those trials. Even with direct THC injections, the actual effectiveness of killing cancerous cells has been so low that there is little reason to continue clinical trials. With a lack of hard scientific evidence, proponents of the theory that marijuana cures cancer often point out to cases of people who have had cancer which has then been cured by taking marijuana-related products. One of the most well-known proponents of this is Rick Simpson. Simpson owns the hemp oil business Phoenix Tears and markets his products to cancer patients as an effective alternative to conventional treatments. As proof of his products’ effectiveness, he includes many testimonials from his customers. However, as the saying goes, anecdotes are not evidence and many anecdotes are not data. Even medical marijuana pioneer Dr. Lester Grinspoon warns against using anecdotes of cancer-curing marijuana as evidence of its effectiveness. The patients who have taken hemp oil for their cancer have not undergone clinical or laboratory tests to prove that their cancer is actually in remission. They simply claim that they feel better, therefore they are being cured. It should also be noted that patients who take marijuana-based products for their cancer have often undergone several years of chemotherapy before starting their alternative treatment, meaning that there is a good chance it was actually the chemotherapy that sent their cancer into remission. There is even evidence to say that smoking marijuana actually increases the risk of cancer. Hearing stories about patients who have managed to cure their cancer with natural marijuana-based products after years of failed ‘conventional’ treatments may sound like convincing evidence but unfortunately, science does not support these claims.
The fact that marijuana-based products do not cure cancer doesn’t mean that their consumption should be avoided by cancer patients. In fact, the American Cancer Society states that smoking marijuana is effective at negating the side-effects of chemotherapy such as nausea, vomiting and neuropathic pain (even though it can have negative side-effects such as increased heart rate, dizziness and fainting). Again, it should be stated that negating the side-effects of chemotherapy is a far cry from the claim that “marijuana cures cancer”.
If the pro-legalisation movement wants to make serious political headway, the facts have to be clearly stated for all to see. This can easily be proven by the case studies of Colorado, Washington State and Portugal. Not only have the U.S. states made millions of dollars in tax revenue from the sale of recreational marijuana, but the predicted rise in crime that legalisation’s opponents claimed would happen, did not. The drug addiction epidemic that Portugal faced in 2001 was turned around by decriminalising all recreational drugs. These points have been proven by facts and evidence, namely tax revenue and crime and healthcare statistics. This is in contrast to claims that marijuana cures cancer, which are based on gross misinterpretations of clinical trials and unreliable anecdotes. Those who oppose the legalisation of recreational marijuana love to point out the flaws in their opponents’ evidence. Far from making a convincing case, claiming that marijuana cures cancer only serves to discredit the pro-legalisation movement.