The Dark Side of Marijuana Prohibition

While cannabis gradually becomes accepted and legalized, the recent deaths from blackmarket vaporizers remind us of the harms that come with marijuana prohibition.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

Recently, five people have died due to respiratory-related issues after using cannabis vaporizers, with an additional 450 people in 33 states developing lung illnesses forcing U.S. health officials to urge the public not to use vapes.

A few of the illnesses involved products purchased at a dispensary, though the vast majority involved vaporizers acquired illegally through the black market.

Some fear that these events may shine a negative light upon cannabis, while others argue that they serve as the perfect argument for legalization.

Dumas de Rauly, a chairman on the ISO Committee on Vaping Standards and CEN Vaping Standards Committee, argues that "all of the patients are saying they bought it off the street. They didn't buy it in legal, regulated environments,"

"This is just basic math. … We have substantial data that shows that these products and these vaping illnesses come from the black market," de Rauly continued.

"The culprit here is the black-market product. It's not the cartridge, it's not the hardware, it's not the regulators. It's the black market."

Marijuana prohibition

A Long Time Ago…In a Galaxy, Far, Far, Away.

Before delving into the deleterious effects of the prohibition, it's important to remember how we arrived here.

For starters, cannabis wasn't always illegal. In fact, it was once celebrated for its many benefits and uses.

The earliest evidence of cannabis smoking spans back 2,500 years, in the tombs of Jirzankal Cemetery in Western China, where cannabis residue was found in burners with ash and charred materials.

Fast forward to the 1840s, and marijuana became popularized as a medicine by a French psychiatrist named Jacques-Joseph Moreau when he found that the plant helped to alleviate headaches, assist with sleep and boost one's appetite.

By the 1850s, marijuana had found its way into pharmacies, being used as a treatment for a lengthy list of ailments such as tetanus, cholera, and opiate addiction.

It wasn't until 1937 that the Marihuana Tax Act was introduced, and began the eventual War on Drugs.

Now, marijuana is illegal in many countries, including federally in the U.S., as the plant has been placed into the Schedule 1 Category – meaning it has no medicinal purposes.

This will come to a shock to many, who will frequently hear of marijuana treating epilepsy, or PTSD, or insomnia.

Marijuana Prohibition

Legalize it, You Must

According to Pew Research, more than six out of ten American adults favor marijuana legalization – A number which has increased since the War on Drugs began.

Though if we ignore the medicinal benefits of the plant, and even ignore the number of people in favor of legalization, the picture doesn't get much prettier.

Prohibition of any substance is undoubtedly designed to reduce its consumption among the public – and this clearly hasn't worked for cannabis.

As you can see, marijuana arrests have sharply spiked in the U.S. since the 60s, despite the War on Drugs and efforts to curb the use of the plant. Economists also estimate that in the U.S. alone, marijuana prohibition costs the government, and by association the taxpayers, $20 billion a year.

And the rise in arrests isn't because police have developed more effective ways to catch marijuana users, but rather because more people are consuming cannabis. 7.8 percent of college and non-college youths stated that they consume cannabis daily, which is the highest it has been since the early 1980s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

More money is being spent, more people are being arrested, and yet cannabis use continues to climb. And this is all because of the assumption that cannabis use is somehow inherently dangerous and must be stopped.

Though the harms of cannabis have never truly been proven. In fact, the most frequently mentioned risk of cannabis use is that it may result in schizophrenia in some, and therefore poses a mental health risk to the public.

However, some publications have noted that while cannabis has become much more potent than it was in the 60s, there has been no concurrent spike in the rates of schizophrenia.

And as many have pointed out, if health is truly the main concern with marijuana use, drugs such as tobacco, alcohol and opiates should certainly be less accessible than weed.

Instead, they are readily available, with opiates leading to over 72,000 deaths in 2017 alone.

Cannabis, on the other hand, has frequently been said to have never caused a single death…until recently. Though it may not have been the cannabis itself, but rather, dangerous additives found in black-market products.

Potentially dangerous solvents are believed to be frequently added to black-market vape cartridges, along with other additives like vitamin E oil, which some have argued is responsible for the deaths.

Though it's impossible to know the contents of every vaporizer on the black market, as illicit products don't undergo any regulation or oversight. Prohibition has pushed these products out of the hands of legitimate business owners who would require licenses and inspections to ensure their products are safe, and into the hands of dealers in back alleys who will sell anything to make cash.

And for those who want to avoid legal repercussions while continuing to smoke weed, they may turn to synthetic alternatives, such as K2, or 'spice' which is really just random plant matter sprayed with certain chemical combinations.

There have been hundreds of reported overdoses due to K2, and yet it is perfectly legal, as legislators have very little ability to restrict its use. If they ban the chemical composition of one batch of skunk, producers will simply replace some of the chemicals to create a new, not yet illegal batch.

marijuana prohibition

A New Hope

While marijuana has been clouded in propaganda for decades, we're finally getting to witness what happens when weed is legal, and it isn't reefer madness.

In 2018, Colorado legal pot sales topped $1.2 billion, with the state pulling in about $270 million in taxes.

That same year, the total U.S. cannabis market size was valued at USD 11.3 billion by Grandview Research, and added 64,389 jobs across America, making it the fastest-growing job market in the U.S., according to Leafly and Whitney Economics.

The FDA also approved its first cannabinoid-based drug 'Epidiolex' which is used to treat epilepsy, and universities have begun to offer majors in marijuana.

And let's not forget about the billions spent on enforcing marijuana laws, which can now be re-allocated throughout the economy.

As we can see with the harms caused by illicit products and prohibitory laws, and the benefits that have followed cannabis legalizations, one question comes to mind:

Why didn't we legalize it sooner?

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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