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Marijuana legalization has become a topic of relevance in the United States as recent changes in various state legislations fuel the controversial issue relating to its effects on society. With more than thirty states legalizing marijuana for medicinal or recreational uses, the once taboo topic has reemerged into the spotlight for policymakers to consider the benefits and adverse effects of cannabis for state legislation. Although the legal status is changing nationwide, the uncertainties surrounding marijuana today stem from the political and racial factors that led to the national criminalization of marijuana in the 20th century. Despite this, public attitudes over marijuana legalization, specifically medical marijuana, have been seen to highly favor the notion against this twentieth-century quest of marijuana prohibition, with estimates that nearly three-quarters of Americans support medical marijuana legislation according to the Pew Research Center (Heimlich 2). The debate on medical marijuana legalization has come to legitimize itself through the modernization of technology and research efforts, ultimately suggesting the mostly positive impacts of marijuana, advancing research concerning social and health epidemics, while revolutionizing modern medicine.

Marijuana has a long history of human use that originates back to 400 BC from the practice of cannabis herbal medicine in ancient cultures. In the early 1800s, Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy found medicinal uses for cannabis extract for the initial purpose of lessening stomach pains for people suffering from cholera (Bridgeman and Abazia 1). This discovery led to the utilization of cannabis as a patent medicine during the 19th and 20th centuries, commonly known as the United States Pharmacopoeia. However, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 created federal restrictions on cannabis usage and sales, causing marijuana to drop from the United States Pharmacopoeia in 1942, with increasing legal penalties for possession from there on (Bridgeman and Abazia 2).

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Marijuana essentially went from being a useful herbal remedy to the enemy of the people overnight. Harry Anslinger, head of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Narcotics Bureau from 1930 to 1962, capitalized on transforming marijuana from a low-grade drug to a narcotic “as hellish as heroin” (Gray 2). He infiltrated racially-influenced propaganda to allude to the dangers of marijuana by stating, “…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races” and adding, “…most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others” (Gray 3). Anslinger began using these notions to run a public relations campaign to encourage the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Interestingly, the movie Reefer Madness came out within the same year (Siff 40). Concurrently, lobbyists created by the monopolized pharmaceutical, oil, and petrochemical industries began to supplement their own influences into anti-marijuana legislation by supporting Anslinger, with the purpose of eliminating threats to their industries created by marijuana cultivation. In 1961, Anslinger was able to unify all existing treaties on drug control, creating the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that made the cultivation of marijuana virtually illegal in all parts of the world (Mazzocco, “True History of Marijuana”). This eventually led to the declaration of the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 that categorized marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, defining it to have no medicinal uses and a high potential for abuse within the United States (Bridgeman and Abazia 2). Beyond the criminalization of cannabis, this prohibition-like legislation instilled a misunderstood notion on the premise of marijuana’s effect, particularly its medicinal compounds, for many decades to come. Researchers and medical experts face the obstacle of overcoming federal law and years of ingrained adverse attitudes towards cannabis, resulting in little to no research to help overthrow these faulty legislations.

As a result of marijuana becoming a heavily criticized drug, the restrictions on the attainment of marijuana for academic research continued to deepen the absence of formal rhetoric to prove or disprove the effects of cannabis. In the congressional hearing for the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, a solitary medical expert, Dr. William Woodward of the American Medical Association, argued the lack of scientific evidence to disprove marijuana’s medical properties or prove marijuana’s alleged dangers (Gray 4). Soon after the passage of the act, Anslinger and his lobbying organization worked to defund or discredit research that contradicted their views on the dangers of cannabis. The American Journal of Psychiatry preemptively attacked the New York Academy of Medicine in an article solicited by Anslinger for producing a report in 1944 concluding that marijuana was only a mild intoxicant (Siff 38). As a result of Anslinger’s anti-marijuana rhetoric that eliminated the competition of hemp paper from William Randolph Hearst’s tree paper production, Hearst’s publication company continued to push Anslinger’s ideals in virtually all forms of media. The demonizing rhetoric continued to discredit medical experts and academic studies for the purpose of inciting their own political agenda. A report from the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse was published in 1972 titled “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding”, highlighting the importance of refining legislation that was largely ignored by Nixon and other government officials as they continued the “War on Drugs”. This turn of events effectively highlights the low-level of cooperation between politicians and research experts on such topics that were once so important to the agricultural premise of America’s vast cannabis cultivation industry. Not only that, the influence of major corporations in government politics has created significant dangers in eliminating the possibility of legally obtaining cannabis for medical purposes; as it was once used before. As a result of history, we continue to find the obstacle of federal law restricting citizens from the medicinal benefits of cannabis today.

The innovation of medical research and ideals on the liberalization of cannabis has resurfaced within the last thirty years, as states like California began to decriminalize the possession of marijuana and legalize it for medicinal uses. Public opinions have been changing as well. Pew Research published multiple statistical studies observing the support of medical marijuana legislation across different demographics, age groups, and political affiliations. The report concludes that medical marijuana support is broadcast across almost all groups of people, including senior conservatives, and is on a trend to continue to grow (Heimlich 4). With the increasing number of US states that have passed recreational and medical marijuana laws, “two-thirds of the adult population in the United States now have legal access to cannabis for medicinal or recreational purposes” (Albright and Johnson 2). Looking forward, the support across essentially every demographic foreshadows an urgent need to rapidly advance our understanding of this drug and its effects. Archaic ideologies on the effects of marijuana have become a thing of the past in the minds of Americans, yet these same beliefs are still interpreted within federal law today.

Meanwhile, medical marijuana has also been gaining ground within the medical community. Researcher and Professor at the Harvard Medical School, Peter Grinspoon, suggests that physicians open their minds to the usefulness of CBD to relieve patients of insomnia, anxiety, pain, and epilepsy (Peter 4). The evolution of medical research over the past few decades has been able to support Grinspoon’s claims of the medicinal usefulness of marijuana as well as provide a logical understanding of the principle of medical marijuana, its compounds, and likely effects on the mind and body. Ground-breaking research has become available to observe the effects of CBD, a medicinal chemical compound of marijuana, on severe drug-resistant seizures for Dravet syndrome, a rare genetic epileptic disorder that develops in the child’s first year of life. A host of researchers in the Cannabidiol in Dravet Syndrome Study Group combined their expertise in medical research to conduct a trial to compare a cannabidiol oral solution and a placebo on a sample of patients with Dravet syndrome and then assessed their epileptic activity. They found that cannabidiol resulted in a greater reduction in seizures as the CBD-treated convulsive seizures decreased from 12.4 to 5.9 percentage points. At the same time, 5% of patients became seizure-free, compared to 0% with the placebo (Devinsky et al. 3). The impact of this study can be far-reaching for others who suffer from other forms of epileptic disorders and further develops the evidence of the medical properties of marijuana, debunking the claim that marijuana is a Schedule I drug with no medical value.

The argument proposed by the opposing side of medical marijuana legislation concerns the relation between marijuana and its adverse effects on adolescents. These are significant aspects to consider as adolescent marijuana usage reportedly has unfavorable impacts on developmental health. However, studies show that medical marijuana legislation, aimed at adult use, has minimal to no effect on illegal adolescent recreational use. The Department of Emergency Medicine discusses how the drug appeals to the youth and compares trends in adolescent marijuana use in states both with and without the legalization of medical marijuana. In the sample of students, they found that there were no statistically significant differences in marijuana use following policy changes (Choo et al. 3). Further supporting this finding, the article, “Medical Marijuana Laws and Adolescent Marijuana Use in the USA from 1991 to 2014: Results from Annual, Repeated Cross-Sectional Surveys,” addresses the health concerns of adolescent marijuana use and studies the question of whether there is a correlation between U.S. state medical marijuana laws and adolescent marijuana use. The report concludes that while adolescent use is higher in states that have passed such laws, the passage of medical marijuana laws does not increase adolescent marijuana use. It significantly emphasizes that “state-level risk factors other than medical marijuana laws could contribute to both marijuana use and the passage of medical marijuana laws…” (Hasin et al. 1). Medical marijuana legislation is crucial to allow for treatment options for those suffering from illnesses that cannabis can treat. It also focuses significant attention on the topic of medical marijuana as policymakers assess the potential adverse effects. While medical marijuana is given to adolescents in some cases, such as children suffering from Dravet syndrome, the drug is extracted in a form suitable for consumption with low THC and high CBD levels. However, studies show little to no correlation between adolescent recreational marijuana use and state medical marijuana legislation. This evidence further strengthens the argument for policymakers and government officials to continue advocating for medical cannabis nationwide.

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Medical marijuana has single-handedly revolutionized modern medicine in the twenty-first century. The array of different uses for this drug has been implemented into an assortment of different principles of medicine, and it introduces solutions dealing with the health epidemic of more serious and addictive drugs. Amanda Reiman, an internationally recognized cannabis expert and public health researcher, conducted a study with peer researchers and reviewers to find an alternative to heavy pain medications that may lead to prescription drug abuse. The study collected data from 2,897 medical cannabis patients who reported having used opioid-based pain medication within the last six months. The participants noted that cannabis was effective in providing pain relief, with ninety-seven percent strongly agreeing that they did not need to take as many opioid medications for pain when they also used cannabis. Astonishingly, eighty-one percent also agreed that taking cannabis by itself, without opioids, was more effective. This study suggests a strong possibility in decreasing the chances of addiction to opioid-based drugs with cannabis use as a supplement or a substitute for the medication. While this study further supports the medicinal values of cannabis, it provides a gateway to tackle the more serious problem of opioid-based medication drug abuse. According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, prescription painkiller misuse currently affects an estimated 3.3 million users, with an estimated 2 million Americans misusing prescription pain relievers for the first time in the past year (“Misuse of Prescription Drugs”). The use of cannabis to lessen the risk of abuse with opioid-based pain medication has not only been proven effective, but it also provides a solution to combat an issue that plagues America, as well as opens the pathway towards the possibility of cannabis aiding a variety of health epidemics facing people all over the world.

Getting the federal government to acknowledge marijuana’s medical value would be a momentous step in the right direction. The Drug Enforcement Administration would then have to relax some restrictions on the drug, allowing for a symbolic shift of marijuana from the strictest possible category. The number of people arrested for marijuana law violations for possession in 2017 was 599,282, who then faced harsh federal penalties of a Schedule I drug (“Drug War Statistics”). Additionally, millions of tax dollars are wasted each year continuing this war on drugs while keeping these individuals in prisons for excessive criminal offenses. If the federal government were to adopt legislation ending the categorization of marijuana as a Schedule I substance and unify efforts to legalize medical marijuana, it could yield an annual tax revenue of forty-seven billion from the taxation of the former illegal drug (“Drug War Statistics”). Policymakers must now undertake the task of adopting these notions into legislation to protect the interests of the general public and properly testify on the issues of the medicinal value of cannabis, as well as the drug’s social and health benefits on the population.

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