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Legalization, Decriminalization, and De-stigmatization: How Legalizing Marijuana Can Help Destigmatize Drug Users

Drugs are a very controversial subject, and marijuana (also known as cannabis, weed, Mary Jane, etc.) is no exception. Earlier this month, Oklahoma became one of several southern states to reject the legalization of recreational marijuana. According to the article Oklahoma voters say "no" to recreational marijuana question - CBS News, published March 7, 2023, Other southern states that have rejected the recreational use of marijuana “[...] includ[e] Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota last year.”   


     On March 7, 2023, Oklahoma’s Republic Gov. Kevin Stitt tweeted: 




Oklahomans rejected SQ 820. I believe this [keeping recreational marijuana illegal] is the best thing to keep our kids safe and for our state as a whole.


I remain committed to protecting Oklahomans and my administration will continue to hold bad actors accountable and crack down on illegal marijuana operations.


     Is this aversion to marijuana warranted? That depends on if the drug has more drawbacks than benefits. This paper will argue the advantages of legalizing recreational marijuana use, especially when it comes to the decriminalization and de-stigmatization of drug users. 


     First, let’s start with the benefits of legalizing marijuana in the criminal justice system. The article, The Wider Impact of Drug Legalization on the Criminal Justice System published March 16, 2021, states that legalizing marijuana “[...] removes the viability of the black market drug trade [...] Legalization treats the cause of the disease, and the consequent reduction in symptoms would decrease the need for these yearly international enforcement expenditures.” Basically, marijuana would no longer be on the black market, thus decreasing the drug trade’s power. 


     Another benefit to the legalization of marijuana is that it can give more patients something to treat their diseases. The article, What are the health benefits and risks of cannabis? Says that marijuana has been shown to help treat chronic pain; alcoholism and drug addiction; depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety; nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy; multiple sclerosis; and epilepsy.


     Evidence of these medical benefits can be seen first hand in the article, I Tried Medical Cannabis During Chemo, and Here’s What Happened (, published January 24, 2018, which chronicles the writer, Cheyann Shaw, and her experiences with chemotherapy. Shaw was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer just 36 days before her scheduled wedding. When she was at an all-time low, Shaw’s parents “[...] wanted me to start taking [Tetrahydrocannabinol] (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) to help battle the side effects I was experiencing with chemo.” 


     Although Shaw was skeptical, her mind was changed when her father, who Shaw described as “[...] completely against cannabis [...]  told her about a friend of his who was using cannabis to treat his back pain and was “[...] reaping amazing benefits.” After Shaw started taking the drug, she stated “It was instrumental in helping me not feel nauseous and sick.”


     Other benefits Shaw felt from taking cannabis were an increase in appetite–what marijuana users call the “munchies”-- which helped her gain back weight after her cancer caused her to drop from 130 to 97 pounds; stopped her insomnia; and decreased her anxiety and exhaustion.    


     The article, 40% of U.S. drug arrests in 2018 were for marijuana offenses | Pew Research Center published January 22, 2020, “A growing number of states have legalized or decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. But the drug remains illegal in other states and under federal law – and police officers in the United States still make more arrests for marijuana offenses than for any other drug, according to FBI data.” 


     How many states have legalized marijuana? In the article, MARIJUANA LEGALITY BY STATE | DISA, there is a chart which lists states that have fully legalized the recreational use of marijuana. These include but are not limited to Illinois, Washington D.C., Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, and Connecticut. The chart goes on to list more states, totalling those that have fully legalized marijuana up to 27. 


     Legalizing marijuana may also make the public more willing to clear up and destigmatize common inaccuracies about the drug and (in my opinion, more importantly), its users. If marijuana is treated as an awful thing no one should talk about, then that will make people more afraid of it and less willing to understand it. The more commonplace something becomes, the more normal and acceptable it seems.


        What are common misconceptions about marijuana? For one thing, many assume it is a gateway drug. The article, False Facts About Marijuana You Always Thought Were True ( published July 19, 2021, states that, while “[...] there is a definitive correlation between smoking marijuana and using other drugs [...]  correlation is not causation[,]” and “In a Congress-commissioned report, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences concluded [‘]there is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.[‘]" 


     Where do these common and false myths stem from? A couple things. A big one is the War on Drugs, a 1970s anti-drug campaign led by the government that has received mixed to negative reactions and continues to be a subject of debate to this day. 


     The article, War on Drugs - Timeline in America, Definition & Facts - HISTORY, published May 31, 2017, and updated December 17, 2019, goes into more detail about the campaign: “As part of the War on Drugs initiative, Nixon increased federal funding for drug-control agencies and proposed strict measures, such as mandatory prison sentencing, for drug crimes. He also announced the creation of the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP), which was headed by Dr. Jerome Jaffe.” 


     While the campaign may have helped decrease substance abuse and decrease drug-related crime, it is also theorized to have had ulterior motives. The aforementioned article states that, “President Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, provided inside information suggesting that [...] the Nixon campaign had two enemies: [‘]the antiwar left and black people.[‘]” 


     What does this mean? I’ll let this quote from Ehrlichman explain: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”


     This vilifying came from criminalizing marijuana which, according to Racism in the War on Drugs | Addiction Treatment | Gateway Foundation published January 3, 2023, “[...] is the most commonly used substance among Black Americans, but it’s considered less dangerous than any other Schedule 1 drug.” 


     Another big influence on the public’s perception of marijuana, and drugs in general, is the media. Movies and TV shows can have a profound impact on how we see the world and reflect the creator’s thoughts about the subjects they choose to portray. The War on Drugs, for example, utilized everything from cartoons to PSAs to stop illegal drug use. This has led to some inaccurate and harmful portrayals of drug addicts in an attempt to deter adults and children from possible addiction. 


     More sinister portrayals of marijuana and its users can be found in its various portrayals in the media. The article How is Marijuana Portrayed in Media Throughout the Years? – Real Stoned Times published February 23, states that “Earlier films were propaganda to warn against the dangers of the drug, feeding into the fears of American citizens.” Films of this nature include the infamous 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness, which portrayed marijuana as a gateway drug that, in the film, led a set of high schoolers to a life of crime. 


     I saw Reefer Madness in a film class in college and, at the time, my class and I laughed at its melodramatic acting and exaggerated portrayal of marijuana use. Looking back, I now realize that not only is this portrayal of the drug and its users inaccurate, it is downright harmful to its users. It paints them as crazy, paranoid criminals destined to die a horrible, painful death. While marijuana is known to cause paranoia, as shown in the article Cannabis Really Can Cause Paranoia | Psychology Today, the degree to which it does this in the media is highly exaggerated.  


  Not all portrayals of marijuana and its users spell out gloom and doom. Funny and, for the most part, innocent portrayals exist in the form of TV shows like That 70s Show (1998-2006) which, according to the aforementioned article, “[...] showed the drug as having similar effects to LSD.”  


     To this day, I’ve never watched a full episode of That 70s Show, but I remember seeing snippets of it on TV around 2014, when I was still in high school. I’d watch it in the morning when I was getting ready for the day, and the thing I most remember seeing the most (apart from the characters’ random conversations in the kitchen) is the characters sitting around a circle in their basement, talking and laughing while getting high on what I correctly assumed was weed. 


     Here’s an interesting fact. According to the article That '70s Show: “The Circle” Was Used To Battle Network Censorship published February 15, 2020, the camera technique used in the show was literally dubbed “The Circle” and was used as a form of circumventing Fox’s censorship rules. Fox didn’t allow any depictions of teens using drugs, so the show’s team had to work around it. They did this by having “[...] the group [...] sit in a circle as the camera swiveled person to person, imitating passing the joint.” The joint is another term for marijuana. 


     The circle and the characters’ use of marijuana is not portrayed in a negative light. Heck, from what I’ve seen of the show, it isn’t mentioned directly or given any attention at all. It’s just accepted as a normal part of the characters’ universe. 


     Speaking of the characters, they, unlike the aforementioned depictions of teens in Reefer Madness, aren’t portrayed as insane hippies whose only purpose is to get high and act as a cautionary tale to keep teens on the straight and narrow. They had dreams and aspirations that went beyond smoking a joint in a basement. 


     In conclusion, legalizing marijuana can not only create various health benefits; it can also help decrease the stigma around the drug and its users, creating a more accepting and inclusive environment for many people. And, at the end of the day, isn’t a more accepting world something worth fighting for?  

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Tags: #Marijuana #Cannabis #Legalization


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