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Marijuana legalization is getting a lot of press these days with recent legislation in Colorado and Washington states. As correctional nurses, we see the impact of drug charges in our patient population. According to an analysis of the U.S. policy on drugs by the American Enterprise Institute arrests for marijuana (possession, selling, trafficking) doubled from 1990 to 2000. An estimated one percent of the inmates in jails or prisons are incarcerated because of marijuana and more than half of all inmates had THC in their system at the time of arrest.

A recent PEW report found that the majority of Americans now support marijuana legalization. Should nurses support legalization? What is the impact of legalization on public health; a major nursing concern? To inform ourselves on the issue we decided to look at the subject from a point/counterpoint perspective.

Point: Legalized marijuana is harmful to public health

  • Legalized marijuana will increase use and therefore will increase the respiratory illnesses and cognitive impairments associated with smoking the substance.
  • Legalized marijuana will make access easier and increase the number of individuals addicted to the substance. Addiction to substances reduces health and productivity.
  • Legalized marijuana will likely increase drugged driving fatalities with increased availability. Currently, marijuana is the most frequently used drug while behind the wheel.
  • Many healthcare organizations have researched the health impact of legalized marijuana and predict harmful public health outcomes

    • According to the American Society of Addictive Medicine addiction will increase.
    • According to the American Academy of Pediatrics youth use of marijuana will increase with increased availability and cite studies showing use of the substance affecting “short-term memory, concentration, attention span, motivation, and problem solving, which clearly interfere with learning; adverse effects on coordination, judgment, reaction time, and tracking ability, which contribute substantially to unintentional deaths and injuries among adolescents”.
    • According to the National Institutes on Drug Abuse chronic marijuana use contributes to mental illness.

Counterpoint: Legalized marijuana is beneficial to public health

    Marijuana has been used for medical, spiritual and recreational purposes for hundreds of years. The decision made in 1970 to prohibit marijuana was in the absence of any scientific evaluation or input (Bostwick, 2012. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 87(2):172-186). The Institute of Medicine found no evidence that legalization leads to a substantial increase in the use of marijuana.

  • Legalization is an opportunity to regulate production and use of marijuana which improves consumer safety. The public health benefits of legalizing marijuana include:
    • Setting standards to ensure product quality and safety.

    • Research regarding the effects and consequences of marijuana as well as develop new drugs to treat conditions more effectively than botanical cannabis.
    • Opportunity to generate revenue from taxation of marijuana to fund prevention and treatment.
    • Establishing prohibitions on use by children and adolescents.
    • Regulation and prosecution for driving while under the influence.
  • Legalizing marijuana reduces the impact of crime on communities. According to a recent economic analysis each arrest for marijuana is estimated to cost the taxpayer $10,400 for law enforcement, judicial processes, incarceration and community supervision. These funds are better spent on treatment and prevention programs which have evidence to support their effectiveness.

What do you think? Should nurses support marijuana legalization? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

Lorry Schoenly and Catherine Knox are co-editors of Essentials of Correctional Nursing published by Springer Publishing Company. For more information on correctional nursing practice, visit their blog EssentialsofCorrectionalNursing.com.