More Americans than ever are smoking, eating and drinking marijuana, and they now overwhelmingly support full legalization of the long-banned plant, a new study and poll show.
A Gallup poll released Wednesday shows 58% of American adults think marijuana should be legal, up from 51% a year ago, with just 40% believing it should remain illegal.
Poll Shows Marijuana Legalization Support Nears 60%
And the number of adults who said they’ve used marijuana sometime in the past year has doubled in the past decade, with 9.5% of adults in 2013 saying they’d used marijuana sometime in the past year, compared to 4.1% in 2001. Notable increases came among women, African-Americans, the middle-aged, and those living in the South, the study published in JAMA Psychiatry found.
The trends appear to be reinforcing each other, say experts who caution that broader marijuana use brings the potential for abuse. Young people in particular are concentrating marijuana into wax or oil, which can give a far more powerful high than smoking a joint. Health experts say the highly concentrated marijuana products, which can also include commercial manufactured pot brownies, can cause extreme paranoia and hallucinations, which are considered a form of psychosis.
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized some form of medical marijuana use, while Alaska, Colorado, Washington and Oregon and the District of Columbia have also legalized recreational use. California is widely expected to legalize recreational marijuana use and sales next year. Marijuana remains entirely illegal at the federal level, although Congress has ordered the Justice Department not to interfere with medical marijuana programs..
“The belief that marijuana is safer is increasing … and so the attitudes are changing. But we know there are a lot of harms that are related to it, and that includes addiction,” said JAMA paper co-author Bridget Grant, laboratory chief of the epidemiology and biometry lab at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health. “There are a lot of risks. We need to not be alarmed about it, but we do need to be educating people that there is a risk of addiction.”
Legalization advocates say concerns about marijuana — especially the reefer-madness style scare tactics long used in America’s War on Drugs — are overblown, and say the vast majority of users consume it responsibly. They say the increasing acceptance of marijuana legalization and use reflects the reality that marijuana is far safer than many other widely accepted drugs, from prescription opiates like OxyContin to alcohol.
“There’s more use overall because people are recognizing that marijuana use is not as harmful as they were led to believe,” said Mason Tvert of the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project.
The JAMA paper is based on interviews with more than 36,000 people, who were questioned about both alcohol and marijuana use. For both substances, researchers found about 30% of users met the criteria for a “use disorder,” which included using the substance despite it causing family or work problems. Some health experts say comparing alcohol and marijuana doesn’t actually make sense. Alcohol causes many problems for abusers, but so can marijuana, said Dr. Scott Krakower, the assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” he said, citing increased youth use and hospitalizations for paranoia and hallucinations from marijuana. “There are people out there who certainly get into a lot of trouble because of weed.”
Health experts say marijuana use poses a risk for harming the still-developing brains of young people. Rising youth now could lead to problems a decade from now, they fear. “Those are the kids I worry about,” Krakower said.
Legalization critics see parallels between marijuana and Big Tobacco, which for years marketed cigarettes as a solution for health problems ranging from stuttering to overeating to nervousness.
“The fact that use and addiction have doubled in the past 10 years should serve as a wake-up call to those who think legalization is no big deal,” said Kevin Sabet, the president of Smart Alternatives to Marijuana, which was co-founded by former U.S. Rep Patrick Kennedy. “Rather, the potency of marijuana has skyrocketed, and along with that has come a new batch of mental health problems, emergency room mentions, learning deficiencies and school problems, and car crashes not seen in previous generations. This research tells us that embracing legalization — and the new tobacco-like industry that comes with it — is a grave mistake.”
The Gallup poll of 1,015 adults was conducted October 7-11 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4%. The JAMA Psychiatry study was published online Wednesday.