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Will cannabis be legalized in the United States?

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There is a sense of inevitability as public opinion changes in its attitude to cannabis across the US.  Some 18 states plus the District of Columbia have made cannabis use legal for medicinal purposes, with 7 others possibly preparing to do so.  It seems to be the active agent THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, that has thereapeutic effects on a number of medical conditions.  These include glaucoma, neurogenic pain, motor disorders, multiple sclerosis and asthma, among others.

In ground-breaking moves, Colorado and Washington State citizens have voted to legalize the use of cannabis for recreational purposes.  There were clear majorities in favour in both states.  The difficulty is that cannabis use, even for medical purposes, is still illegal under Federal law.  The Drug Enforcement Agency classifies cannabis as a Schedule-1 drug.  There is thus, as so often, a conflict between the right of states to make their own decisions on such matters and the determination of the federal government to impose its will.  It looks as though the states are winning at the moment, given federal reluctance to enforce its law against the clearly expressed opinion of the voters.

Afterward, Obama said the federal government has a lot of crime to prosecute and so “it does not make sense from a prioritization point of view for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has already said that, under state law, that is legal.”


Given the voting record and a recent opinion poll that put over two-thirds of Americans in favour of legalization, it looks as though it is going to happen.  If states that legalize it do not see a sudden explosion of adverse consequences, other states will probably follow.  Legal marijuana will be subject to quality controls and probably strength limits, pushing tainted or dangerous versions to the illegal periphery where ordinary users will be less likely to encounter them.

Is cannabis itself damaging?  Some studies have linked persistent heavy use to a widening of the synaptic cleft in messenger nerves, lowering speed of response and possibly IQ.  Others have pointed to the ‘amotivational syndrome’ in which heavy users become apathetic with impaired social involvement, though these findings remain controversial.  The majority of users are not persistent heavy users, however, and it is possible that the damaging effects of cannabis might be less than those of established legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.  It looks as though cannabis will be widely legalized in the US, and as tourists return from there having seen such laws in action, there might well be mounting pressure for countries like the UK to follow suit.  In the process a large slice of criminal activity will disappear, including the imprisonment of large numbers of people for involvement in its use or supply.

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