By Nick Etten, VP of Government Affairs, Acreage Holdings
A full two-thirds of Americans support cannabis legalization, and in these days of political polarization, it’s important to note that that number includes a majority of both Democrats (78%) and Republicans (55%). The support comes in part from the plant’s various attributes, including its health and wellness, medicinal and recreational properties. What’s flying under the radar are the public health benefits of cannabis legalization — and there are many.
Perhaps most striking is the fact that when states legalize adult-use cannabis, teen use of the plant drops. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics last year found that the likelihood of teens trying cannabis dropped 8% after legalization, while frequent use of cannabis by teens dropped 9%. Just the fact that cannabis is legal normalizes it, removing some of its “rebel” factor, so teens may be less interested in it overall. At the same time, legalization allows for public service announcements and educational programs to teach teens and adults about the responsible use of cannabis. Neither is possible when the plant is under prohibition.
Other studies have found that legalizing cannabis leads to reductions in violent crime, motor vehicle accidents and alcohol consumption. U.S. states along the Mexican border saw a 13% drop in violent crime after medical cannabis dispensaries opened. Last year, researchers from the University of Bologna, Italy, published a report showing that legalization of adult-use cannabis in Washington state resulted in a “significant reduction in rapes and property crime” in the state. It also led to a decrease in binge drinking and the consumption of illicit drugs. Another study, published by the Journal of Law and Economics, showed that in the first year after legalization, states saw an 8% to 11% decrease in traffic fatalities.
Cannabis has even been shown to help with the opioid crisis, since introducing medical or recreational cannabis leads to a drop in opioid use. A 2018 JAMA Internal Medicine study found that when cannabis was legalized, the rate at which doctors prescribed opioids fell. Interestingly, it fell most when adult-use cannabis was allowed. Another study showed prescriptions for opioids fell by 3.74 million daily doses per year with the introduction of medical cannabis dispensaries in a state. Additionally, the actual cost to the health system of cannabis use is significantly less than that of alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs, according to an Australian study. It determined the public health burden of cannabis is about 90% less than the other substances.
For patients, and those suffering from chronic pain, legalization offers the opportunity to experiment with different strains and products to see which one or which combination works best to control their pain or symptoms. After legalization, consumers have access to a wide range of options, so they can tailor products and dosages to meet their individual needs.
Another benefit of legal cannabis is that it moves people out of the dangerous, unregulated market. Products sold in legal dispensaries must meet strict requirements and often be certified as safe by third-party labs before they go on sale to the public. Illicit market products, on the other hand, frequently are contaminated by mold, toxic chemicals, heavy metals and even human waste.
Legalization also drastically reduces the number of people being incarcerated for nonviolent possession offenses, helping preserve families, stabilize neighborhoods and reverse some of the damage caused by the unequal application of drug laws on minority communities. It also frees up limited police and prosecutorial resources and unclogs courts. In Colorado, for example, the number of prosecutions for cultivation, distribution and possession of cannabis fell 85% in the first year of legal sales. Washington state had nearly 300 convictions for misdemeanor possession in January 2012. A year later, with legalization, there were zero.
While these public health benefits for individual states are significant, they could be greatly amplified if rolled out nationwide. But that can’t happen while the federal government still classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, equating it with heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Until it’s descheduled, only states that have lifted prohibition will reap the rewards.