Does Marijuana Legalization Lead To Increased Use?
Federal-level drug laws in the U.S. prohibit the sale or use of the plant-based, mind-altering drug marijuana. Despite this fact, as of 2014, the drug has been decriminalized or legalized in roughly a third of all U.S. states, and the trend toward decriminalization and/or legalization may continue in future years. In a study published in 2012 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from Columbia University investigated the question of whether decriminalization or legalization in all 50 U.S. states would lead to a rise in the diagnosis of cannabis use disorder (the combined term for cannabis abuse and cannabis addiction).
The Laws Of Marijuana
The federal status of marijuana is mandated by a law called the Controlled Substances Act, which categorizes drugs and medications according to both their medical usefulness and their potential to trigger cases of substance abuse or substance addiction. Marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 substance; substances with this designation officially have no verified usefulness in a medical context and come with substantial risks for abuse and addiction in all users. It’s important to note that federal law distinguishes marijuana from its main active ingredient, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). In limited circumstances, doctors can use standardized THC products for such purposes as nausea control, pain relief and appetite encouragement. However, since the THC content of marijuana can vary widely, the allowance for THC use does not extend to marijuana use.
Eighteen states in the U.S. (as well as the District of Columbia) have passed laws that make it possible to prescribe medical marijuana for their patients. Essentially, these laws decriminalize marijuana use in a medical context and take away the legal penalties otherwise associated with possession or consumption of the drug. In addition, both Colorado and Washington State have gone beyond decriminalization for medical marijuana and passed laws making it permissible for adults to possess and use small amounts of the drug in a recreational context not based on perceived medical need. These laws make marijuana use legal instead of merely decriminalized. However, in terms of ultimate jurisdiction, none of the state laws regarding medical marijuana or recreational marijuana take precedence over federal law.
Marijuana Abuse And Addiction
Like any other classic substance of abuse, marijuana produces rewarding sensations in the brain’s pleasure centers and, when used repeatedly, also makes long-term changes in brain chemistry that support the onset of physical dependence and addiction. According to figures compiled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one-quarter to one-half of all regular users of the drug will ultimately develop a cannabis addiction and meet the terms for diagnosing cannabis use disorder. Significant numbers of occasional marijuana users will also get addicted. As a rule, teenagers are substantially more susceptible to the drug’s addiction-promoting effects than adults.
A Rise In Abuse And Addiction Rates?
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the Columbia University researchers used information gathered from a large-scale, nationwide project called the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) to explore the issue of how the passage of medical marijuana laws in all U.S. states might impact rates for the diagnosis of cannabis abuse and cannabis addiction. After analyzing the information from NESARC, the researchers checked their findings against recent figures gathered from another nationwide project, called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which explores drug use trends in all American adults and teenagers.
Using the results gathered from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, the researchers concluded that, compared to people living in states that have not passed medical marijuana laws, people living in states that have decriminalized the use of medical marijuana are more likely to use marijuana, and also more likely to experience cannabis-related problems with abuse and addiction. Using the results gathered from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the researchers again concluded that people in pro-medical marijuana states use marijuana more often than people living in other states. However, neither survey indicated that the overall percentage of people affected by cannabis abuse and addiction is higher in medical marijuana states than in non-medical marijuana states. Instead, the number of affected individuals apparently goes up because the increase in total users leads to a larger pool of individuals at-risk for developing problems.
The authors of the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence did not offer a reason for the increase in marijuana users in states that allow medical marijuana. Since diagnosable problems appear in a certain percentage of all occasional and regular marijuana users, it seems logical to assert that a spread of medical marijuana throughout the U.S. and a subsequent increase in marijuana users would lead to increased numbers of cannabis use disorder diagnoses. However, continual future research will be needed to prove or disprove this assertion.