There are countless legal ways to deal with stress. Painting, yoga or playing video games can help relieve tension after the dust of finals week finally settles. But smoking weed is a time-honored college tradition, and its federal illegality has recently come under heavy debate, especially after several states have decriminalized marijuana for medical purposes or gone as far as legalizing recreational use.
As it stands, legalization for medical or recreational use is a topic of fierce debate across the country. While some U.S. states have fully decriminalized and legalized the drug for recreational use, some have only legalized it for medicinal use, while others have chosen to stick to the federal mandate of total illegality. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia passed decriminalization legislation in 2015 and 2014, respectively, and the University of Pittsburgh was certified for medical marijuana research just last year. But laws for the rest of Pennsylvania have remained unchanged.
Although two-in-three Americans now support legalization, not everyone is totally convinced. Peter Brath, a member of the Pitt College Republicans, believes although marijuana may be useful medicinally, and it’s certainly worth researching, laws against recreational use should remain in effect.
“I’m against recreational legalization,” Brath, a senior economics and political science major, said. “There’s a lot of studies that link high marijuana use to increased instances of psychosis. I think in general, it’s bad to have too much of a country’s population using different kinds of drugs … I do think that it should be legalized for research and medical use, but not for recreational use. And I do think it should remain a federal policy.”
Marijuana is a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning it’s legally considered among the most dangerous drugs, with “potentially severe psychological or physical dependence” and “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
Like any psychoactive drug, marijuana can have addictive qualities. About 9% of adults who use marijuana demonstrate signs of addiction. But this is lower than the 15% of adults addicted to alcohol, which is legal throughout the country. In addition, several studies indicate marijuana has valuable medicinal qualities such as treating seizures and nausea in cancer patients.
Because marijuana is a Schedule I drug, federal laws about punishing violations of carrying, distributing or growing it often include mandatory minimum sentencing, which means that judges are forced to impose at least the declared punishment. Many of these laws were written in 1971 when Richard Nixon began his “War on Drugs,” which began as a crackdown on narcotics use in America but ended up disproportionately targeting and incarcerating minorities.
Grace DuBois, a junior political science major and president of the Pitt College Democrats, said those reasons are why the Pitt College Democrats support legalization efforts.
“According to the ACLU, black Americans and white Americans use marijuana at approximately the same rates, but a black individual is nearly four times as likely to be arrested and incarcerated for marijuana possession,” DuBois said. “We believe that the prison-industrial complex and mass incarcerations are serious issues because it disproportionately affects people of color and communities of color.”
The term “prison-industrial complex” is used to refer to huge increases in prison populations since the 1980s, which is often attributed to government contracts for private prisons becoming more profitable. In America, there are roughly 1.8 million people currently incarcerated, with corporations being awarded massive government contracts to house inmates.
Because the laws surrounding marijuana helped put a large number of those inmates in prison, proponents for legalization believe that legalization would help. Brath, however, isn’t so sure.
“There’s a big difference between decriminalization and full-on legalization. I don’t think people should be going to prison for extended periods of time for having small amounts of marijuana on them or smoking it,” Brath said. “It’s definitely been a really big problem, a very divisive racial issue that needs to be fixed.”
Sunanda Tamrakar, a junior economics, political science and nonfiction writing major and co-chair of Pitt Progressives, agrees it’s a complicated problem. She believes decriminalization might solve some issues in the future, but many proposals don’t consider those who are in prison right now.
“Usually when people talk about decriminalization, they don’t talk about expunging the records, or letting those people out,” Tamrakar said. “Even if you decriminalize, like it is in Pittsburgh, there are still people sitting in Allegheny County Jail for drug offenses and non-violent crimes … Even if you decriminalize, if you put fines on it, that’s still going to disproportionately affect poor communities and disproportionately affect people of color.”
Supporters of legalization believe taxation would be a major revenue source if marijuana was legalized for recreational use, and the Pitt College Democrats support legalization for exactly that reason.
“We believe that if we legalized it, we could tax it, similar to alcohol and tobacco,” DuBois said.
Brath, however, thinks taxation could be a burden on the poor.
“I don’t like the idea of legalizing a potentially harmful substance in order to raise revenue,” Brath said. “As a parallel, Pennsylvania uses the lottery to fund Medicare and different medical services for the elderly, but it comes at a large expense to the poor. The average person living in poverty spends about $400 a year on the lottery, and the 1% spend nothing … It’s a large tax on the poor.”
Tamrakar thinks that while taxation, if it were just a sales tax, might work in that way, there are other factors to be considered.
“When it comes to taxation, there’s so many different ways that you could do it,” Tamrakar said. “You could tax the selling of it, you could tax businesses for it, you could tax when it comes to production … And I mean, marijuana inherently, just because of the demand for it, is going to be cheap.”
Although the criminalization of marijuana is heavily connected with social issues, Tamrakar said legalization by itself wouldn’t necessarily solve them.
“If you legalize it, there are more avenues to offer help to people,” Tamrakar said. “In Portugal, all drugs are legalized, or decriminalized at least, and they have an immense amount of support, like counseling, rehab, if you need help, and addiction levels are really low there … I guess my point is legalization by itself is not something that I would stand behind, I guess I would say legalization with several components [is].”
Legalization seems to be in the cards sometime in the near future. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is currently on a “listening tour” across the state, which entails discussions on the topic of legalization. In a recent interview with the Pittsburgh City Paper, Fetterman said so far support for decriminalization is almost unanimous, and the locations he has visited have been roughly 70% in favor of legalization.
While not everyone is convinced by the idea, Tamrakar said legalization could help both those who have been affected by criminalization as well as anyone who would benefit from better national health care programs.
“In my mind, legalization helps prevention, as well as treatment, because it’s not something that’s under wraps,” Tamrakar said.