What's the problem? History and background of marijuana in the United States

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History and background of marijuana in the United States

The first documented use of marijuana (cannabis sativa) is dated around 2500 B.C., in the ancient Chinese cultures, where the plant was discovered to produce a mild euphoria in those who ingested it, and to be an effective general pain reliever. Since that time, the marijuana plant has spread to cultures in various parts of the world, and during the establishment of British colonies in North America, the plant arrived in the present-day United States. Marijuana was a common substance among Americans during colonial and early Union times, used by doctors for pain relief and appetite inducement, and by citizens as a recreational substance. However, in the years between the first and second World Wars, the United States Federal Government completed several studies which concluded that marijuana production and use were detrimental to American culture and morality. As a result, in 1937, the government instituted the Marijuana Tax Act, which was intended to disrupt the marijuana industry through high taxes, and eventually terminate marijuana production and use inside the United States. Though the American Medical Association opposed the anti-marijuana legislation, the government continued the effort, instituting mandatory jail sentences and fines for marijuana possession and distribution in the early 1950's. In the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana was classified as a Schedule 1 substance, which put marijuana into a class with cocaine and other such drugs. Later in the 1970's, there was a movement toward a less-strict federal policy against marijuana, which led to some changes in federal policy, and allowed for the decriminalization of (revocation of jail sentences for) marijuana use in states that chose to do so. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President, and began a very strong anti-drug policy which erased all the reforms of the late 1970's. Both Reagan and his successor George Bush, Sr. held strong anti-marijuana positions, and instituted harsh penalties for any involvement with marijuana. In the last ten years, there has been little change in federal policy toward marijuana, though there has been a heated debate over the idea of medical marijuana (which will be described later on this page). In 1996, the state of California passed Proposition 215, which permitted the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Since then, 6 other states and the District of Columbia have passed similar measures, despite a Supreme Court ruling against such legislation. Currently, there are two active sides of the marijuana controversy, who fight for the support of the American public and for legislation to back their point of view... 

The Two Sides of the Conflict


The anti-marijuana camp consists mostly of right-wing republican Americans, and a great majority of politicians in the federal government. The large number of politicians who support anti-marijuana legislation probably stems in some part from the fear that being perceived as soft on crime/drugs will cost them votes. The anti-marijuana camp cites in their arguments the studies which have shown marijuana to be an addictive, mind-altering substance. Scientific studies have shown smoked marijuana to be linked to heart and lung disease, throat cancer, and a decreased memory capacity. Anti-marijuana activists also point out that a driver under the influence of marijuana is ten times more likely to be involved in an accident than a driver under the influence of a comparable amount of alcohol. Another supporting argument for the anti-marijuana side is the staggering amount of drugs that have been seized coming into the United States. Advocates of the drug war use these statistics and the statistics that show drug use to be strongly linked to criminal activity as their arguments against legalizing marijuana.


The pro-marijuana camp is generally composed of Libertarians and left wing activists, and advocates the decriminalization, and in some cases, total legalization, of marijuana. Proponents of legalization claim that the drug war is failing, that people arrested and imprisoned for marijuana use are not cured of their habit during time spent in jail. The pro-marijuana advocates also suggest that if marijuana were to be legalized, the government could regulate the substance, much like tobacco and alcohol. Thus, there would a means to regulate the purity of distributed marijuana, a means of tracking marijuana use in the United States, and a means of taxing (therefore increasing federal revenue) sale and distribution of marijuana. Under such a policy, abuse of marijuana would be treated very similarly to abuse of alcohol. The liberal side also suggests that legalizing and controlling marijuana would decrease crimes associated with the substance, and lead to safer and more responsible use of the substance.

The Problems with Both Sides

The ironic part of this debate is that both sides of the controversy are arguing for essentially the same thing: alleviation of the drug problem in the United States, although their methods of achieving this goal are diametrically opposed. However, each side has some gaping holes in their arguments, which should be examined to realize that neither side has an entirely effective solution at present. The anti-marijuana side believes that punitive measures such as fines and jail time will decrease marijuana use. However, in many cases, people who are thrown in jail for marijuana use are non-violent, petty criminals. Studies have shown that these people, who only used marijuana before their jail time, often come out of jail using more dangerous substances and sometimes move on to other criminal behaviors as well. Thus, jailing these users could be construed as a waste of federal funds; it also causes the problem of over-crowding in the nation's prisons. The pro-marijuana camp suggests that marijuana is a part of our culture, and should be accepted as such. Some marijuana legalization advocates believe that the best way to eliminate illicit marijuana use is to legalize the drug itself, rather than to punish those who use the drug. The problem with this argument is that the proposal ignores the likely effects of such a policy, which would probably be a substantial increase in marijuana use due to its legal nature. Also, there is no evidence to support the assertion that legalizing marijuana will help to regulate marijuana use, and stop the illegal sale of the substance.


The Medical Marijuana Debate

In the midst of the legalization battle over marijuana is the subject of marijuana as a form of medicine. Prior to 1937, marijuana was a commonly used painkiller for all types of aches and pains; recently, it has been found to be effective as a pain killer and nausea-reducer for chemotherapy patients. Numerous studies have been done, but none have conclusively determined that marijuana is a more effective pain killer than other treatments. Many cancer patients are convinced from first-hand experience that marijuana is the only effective treatment for them. In 1996, California took the initiative to exercise its right as a state to legislate on medical policy, passing Proposition 215, which allowed physicians to prescribe marijuana as legitimate medical treatment. Since that proposition passed, 6 other states and the District of Columbia passed similar measures. The United States Supreme Court reacted immediately to such measures, saying that the proposals passed did not overthrow federal policy on marijuana use, and that medical practitioners who prescribed marijuana were subject to having their licenses revoked. The medical marijuana debate has been made a great battle between states' rights and the powers of federal government because of the contradictory decisions of the state legislatures and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Marijuana Debate Paper

  1. Each student is to read the article on the following page and make a decision based on the evidence presented in the article.

  2. Each student will need to write a one page paper stating their stand on Marijuana.

  3. In order to get credit you must have a full page or no credit will be received.

  1. The paper must be well written to receive the full 40 points.

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