Cannabis’ stigmatized name and reputation has been dusted off and set upright in recent years, with a wave of legalization and decriminalization spreading throughout the West. However, in many parts of the rest of the world, cannabis is still illegal, and every country likely has a different reason for banning the recreational use of the plant.
If cannabis is a beneficial, safe, useful, fun plant, why isn’t it legal everywhere? What are the barriers to legalization? There are numerous obstacles, but this article will dissect three of the major ones.
Possible Increased Adolescent Access
Cannabis is generally safe for anyone over the age of 25. However, the use of cannabis during adolescence may damage the developing brain. Studies have shown that use of cannabis during adolescence – especially prolonged or heavy use – can cause structural and functional changes to the hippocampus, the region of the brain that deals with memory formation, learning, and emotion. So while cannabis may be great, generally harmless fun for adults, it’s important to keep it away from kids.
Some people worry that when cannabis is legalized, adolescents will have more access to it. Intuitively, that seems to make sense. After all, alcohol is legal for anyone 21 and up, but it’s not difficult for adolescents to acquire. On the other hand, some people argue the exact opposite – by legalizing, we can eliminate cannabis black markets, which will eliminate kids’ suppliers. The issue is probably a lot more complex than either of these statements, but that’s what we have research for.
Studies on a handful of US states that legalized recreational cannabis show a roughly 8-9% decline in teen cannabis use following legalization. There’s some chance that this is a correlation, and not a causation, but the most likely explanation is the simplest one: that legalizing cannabis reduces adolescent use. As more research is conducted in more countries, we’ll know for certain.
Cannabis Advocates Are Not Convincing
There are lunatics everywhere, on both sides of every issue. Unfortunately, the people who make the least sense are often the ones who talk the loudest. People who circulate “positive” misinformation, half-truths, and exaggerations about cannabis – all of which are unfortunately quite common – are not doing their cause any favors.
As I said before, every argument has its loudmouthed idiots on both sides. With the issue of whether or not cannabis should be legal, though, the prohibitionists have a natural framing advantage. If there’s an uneducated idiot going around telling people that daily cannabis use can cure all ailments, open the mind, and unite the user with God, prohibitionists can use him as “proof” – “See? Pot really does lower your IQ and turn you into a raving lunatic. It’s a harmful drug that should remain illegal.” On the other hand, if there’s an uneducated idiot spewing Reefer Madness-type propaganda on the prohibitionist side… well, they can always claim he’s not their idiot.
We Fear What We Don’t Know
Cannabis has been shown to have a positive effect on several different medical conditions. For some, like a few types of childhood epilepsy, CBD has been shown to be beneficial while THC has been shown to be harmful. For other conditions, like anxiety, multiple sclerosis, chronic loss of appetite, or chronic pain, the entire plant can be useful.
Some of these benefits, like the fact that CBD reduces the number and severity of seizures in Dravet Syndrome sufferers, have been pretty well proven. Some of cannabis’ other positive health effects have been shown in small-scale studies, but more research is needed to prove them, and still other benefits are only indicated or assumed to exist. The research just hasn’t been done yet.
This lack of knowledge also applies to cannabis’ negative effects. The outrageous Reefer Madness-style propaganda of earlier decades eventually had the opposite effect of what was intended. People said that cannabis would rob users of all willpower and essentially ruin their lives, cause brain damage, or turn users into raping, murdering lunatics. Now that we all know that those things aren’t true, public opinion has swung to the far opposite side of the spectrum – maybe too far.
Most people now believe that cannabis is harmless. It’s safer than alcohol, at any rate. Of course, several decades ago, nobody knew that cigarettes caused lung cancer. We may be in the same boat now with cannabis. For example, there have been studies that show a correlation between long-term cannabis use and schizophrenia, and cannabis psychosis is a real condition that people have experienced. However, that correlation isn’t necessarily a causation, and there are a multitude of factors that can influence a person’s susceptibility to cannabis-induced psychosis.
Until long-term studies with large sample sizes have been conducted on the actual health effects of cannabis, we won’t have the information we need to definitely state how safe exactly cannabis is. If cannabis routinely caused serious health problems, the patterns would probably be easy to see, and the subject wouldn’t be so controversial. So, whatever “unknown dangers” cannabis may pose, they are likely very small, very uncommon, or both. However, a somewhat understandable reluctance to legalize an under-studied substance is one barrier to legalization.
The West is making fairly rapid progress in legalizing (or at least decriminalizing) cannabis, and this trend will likely continue. Fears of increased ease of access for kids, unconvincing cannabis advocates, and a fear of cannabis’ “unknown dangers” are three major barriers to legalization, and they aren’t the only ones. However, as cannabis prohibition lifts, we will see much, much more research being conducted into the plant’s benefits, harms, and effects on society. As myths are dispelled, we will likely see some of the barriers to legalization crumble as well.