Legalizing Cannabis – Marijuana

Cannabis, commonly called as Marijuana, is used as a psychoactive drug prepared from the Cannabis plant (a genus of flowering plant in the family Cannabaceae). The major use of Cannabis is for its mental as well as physical effects which include “high” or “stoned” feeling which causes a general change in perception, euphoria (heightened mood) and an increase in appetite.[1] Marijuana is widely used for two main purposes – Recreational and Medicinal.

As we look through the historical window, the very first record of the medicinal use of Marijuana or Cannabis can be traced back to 4000 BC in China where Marijuana was used as an anesthetic during surgery. Evidence from India suggests that Marijuana was used to relieve anxiety as far as back in 1000 BC. In Medieval Times, the drug was widely used across the Europe from where it spread to the North and South America. In 20th Century, Marijuana was criminalized in USA. Though many believed that Marijuana was for the safety of the general public and to reduce health risk, the major reason for its criminalization was racial prejudice against immigrants from Mexico arriving in USA for using Cannabis.[2] Recently in the 21st Century, many states in USA have approved the use of medical marijuana or cannabis and some have even legalized the use of recreational marijuana. In 2012, Colorado and Washington DC became the first jurisdictions anywhere in the world to legalize marijuana. In 2014, Oregon and Alaska also legalized recreational marijuana and New York became 23rd State to legalize medical marijuana. Four additional states of USA namely California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Maine legalized the use of recreational marijuana in November 2016 and four more relaxed laws on medical marijuana.[3] If we look at the scenario outside USA, Uruguay became first country in the world to legalize marijuana in 2013. There is also a recent havoc in Canada on relaxing laws on marijuana. A recent survey conducted by NRG Research Group and Peak Communications, reveals that 51% of Canadians are in favor of outright legalization, while 33% are strictly against legalization of Marijuana, and a small 14% remain entirely unsure.[4] Even many lawsuits are being filed in the Canada on the issue as we consider the scenario of February 2017.

The instant question which strikes in mind by the aforementioned scenario is whether legalization of cannabis or marijuana was an appropriate measure taken by the US States. To answer this question, let’s look at the Drug Policy Alliance’s[5] reports on the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado.

Since the legalization of marijuana in December 2012 in Washington DC, retail marijuana sales have resulted in the generation of nearly $83 million of tax revenue as per the data provided by the Department of Revenue and the Liquor Control Board[6]. According to data from the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts, court filings for low-level marijuana offenses by adults 21 years of age and older have dropped 98% since voters approved I-502, the initiative that legalized marijuana for adult use in Washington.[7] This has resulted in saving millions of dollars by the state as there is no longer a need to arrest and prosecute low- level marijuana offenses. This has also resulted in the decline of violent crime rates with traffic fatalities remaining stable.

Similarly, in Colorado, arrests due to marijuana possession have declined by 84% since 2010.[8] As per the data released by Denver City, the violent crime rate has been declined by 2.2%.[9] In 2014, the state of Colorado had 436 traffic fatalities, a 3% drop when compared with the data of 2013 when the number of traffic fatalities was 449. The decline in fatalities in 2014 marks a continuation of a 12- year long downward trend in traffic fatalities in the state of Colorado.[10] Just like the data from Washington DC, data released by the state Department of Revenue revealed that tax revenue only from retail marijuana sales which does not include revenue generated from medical marijuana, licenses and fees amounted to $40.9 million between January 2014 and October 2014.[11]

From the data provided, it is clear that legalization of marijuana generally had positive impacts. Due to the positive impacts in Washington and Colorado, the model was implemented further in other States of USA which amounted to a revolutionary change in perspective of people towards marijuana. There is also strong support for marijuana legalization throughout USA and more than 50% of the people believe that marijuana legalization either had a positive impact or no impact at all in their lives. Recent researches and studies have also resulted in changing the perspective of the people as they discard the old theories on marijuana. The theory of marijuana as a ‘gateway drug’ to other drugs has been discarded. According to the recent studies marijuana rather acts as an ‘exit drug’. The medical use of marijuana is also on increase. All these factors have resulted and may further in the future result in the widespread legalization of marijuana across the world. Therefore, it’s easy to say that legalizing marijuana was a right step taken by US States.

The next question which arises from the environmental perspective is though Marijuana sales have resulted in an economic boom in U.S. states that have relaxed their cannabis laws, but is the increased cultivation and sale of this crop also resulting in escalating environmental damage?

As per the investigation done by few agencies, there is potentially significant impact on the environment due to marijuana cultivation, the major reason being excessive demand for water and energy as well as contamination of water, air, and soil. The cultivation of Cannabis for indoor operations requires highly fertile soil, high temperatures, strong light and large volumes of water. In order to maintain the indoor growing environment, considerable energy inputs are also required. Further, the carbon footprint of indoor growing facilities is heavily dependent on the power source.[12] As we go through the studies of outdoor cannabis cultivation in Northern California, we found that a large amount of water has been extracted for cannabis cultivation which has resulted in a threat to aquatic life. The water effluent also contained high levels of growth nutrients along with high level of fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides which are further damaging the aquatic life.[13]

As we look at the scenario more closely, there is significant potential to reduce energy consumption in cannabis cultivation through more informed and rational decisions regarding growing conditions, the equipment used and the power source. The uneven legal status of cannabis in the U.S. has made it historically very difficult for agencies to actively fund research in the field of cannabis cultivation. Previous studies have been hampered by a lack of reliable data[14] on which to base assessments of the likely consequences of large-scale cultivation and production of marijuana. The impacts were predicated on conditions and practices prevalent in illegal grow operations. Since methods employed in illegal cultivation operation of marijuana are driven by the need for secrecy, these methods have are not optimized to minimize environmental damage. Therefore, there is an urgent need for rigorous scientific research and evaluation to aid the new industry and relevant regulatory bodies to assess the current threats to environment due to marijuana cultivation, identify the opportunities to mitigate such environmental impacts and develop a framework of stewardship worthy of a modern progressive industry.

Since one by one many states are legalizing marijuana in USA, there are significant opportunities for the US Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Institutes of Health (NIH, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to fund research into legal cannabis cultivation to protect the environment.[15] With the spread of legal marijuana, there is high pressure on the Drug Enforcement Administration to reclassify cannabis from a tightly controlled substance i.e. Schedule I drug to a less dangerous one. The people who support this change say that it would make it feasible for researchers to have access to marijuana for studying and understanding its therapeutic effects. It would also enable the Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate and examine the safety of pesticides used on legal marijuana crops and pave the way for the Food & Drug Administration to regulate facilities that would make edible marijuana products.[16]

[1]“DrugFacts: Marijuana”. National Institute on Drug Abuse. March 2016. Retrieved 19 April 2016

[2] http://www.drugpolicy.org/sites/default/files/DPA_Marijuana_Facts_Booklet.pdf

[3] High Time to Assess the Environmental Impacts of Cannabis Cultivation, K. Ashworth and W. Vizuete Environmental Science & Technology (2017)

[4] http://ca.complex.com/life/2017/03/survey-half-canadians-support-marijuana-legalization

[5] The Drug Policy Alliance is a New York City-based non-profit organization, led by executive director Ethan Nadelmann, with the principal goal of ending the American “War on Drugs”

[6]Washington State Department of Revenue, Recreational Marijuana Tax Table,

http://dor.wa.gov/Content/AboutUs/StatisticsAndReports/stats_RMJTaxes.aspx; Washington State Liquor Control Board, Weekly Marijuana Report, June 24, 2015 (2015), http://liq.wa.gov/marijuana/dashboard.

[7] ACLU of Washington State, Court Filings for Adult Marijuana Possession Plummet (2014), https://aclu-wa.org/news/courtfilings-adult-marijuana-possession-plummet.

[8] http://www.drugpolicy.org/sites/default/files/Colorado_Marijuana_Legalization_One_Year_Status_Report.pdf

[9]http://www.denvergov.org/Portals/720/documents/statistics/2014/UCR_Citywide_Reported%20_Offenses_2014.pdf

[10] http://www.coloradodot.info/library/traffic/traffic-manualsguidelines/ safety-crash-data/fatal-crash-data-citycounty/Colorado_Historical_Fatalities_Graphs.pdf/view

[11] https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/revenue/coloradomarijuana-tax-data

[12] High Time to Assess the Environmental Impacts of Cannabis Cultivation, K. Ashworth and W. Vizuete Environmental Science & Technology (2017)

[13] Bauer, S.; Olson, J.; Cockrill, A.; van Hattem, M.; Miller, L.; Tauzer, M.; Leppig, G. Impacts of Surface Water Diversions for Marijuana Cultivation on Aquatic Habitat in Four Northwestern California Watersheds. PLoS One 2015, 10 (2), e0120016

[14] Stith, S. S.; Vigil, J. M. Federal barriers to Cannabis research. Science 2016, 352 (6290), 1182

[15] https://phys.org/news/2017-02-legal-marijuana-sales-escalating-environment.html#jCp

[16] http://cen.acs.org/articles/94/i25/Pressure-US-relax-marijuanas-legal.html

Image- http://cdn1.medicalnewstoday.com/content/images/articles/246/246392/fingers-holding-a-marijuana-leaf.jpg

This Article is written by Chirag Jindal, a student of National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi.

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