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JANUS Forum delivers a smokin’ hot debate over legalization of marijuana

While the number of Americans in favor of legalizing marijuana is at an all-time high, Ohio’s path to legalization is still in the weeds.

Hosted by Miami University’s political science department, the 2022 spring JANUS Forum,  titled “Let’s be Blunt: Should Marijuana Be Legalized?” sought to clarify the opposing arguments on the issue. 

The event was initially scheduled for March 2020 but was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The forum invited Julián Castro, 2020 presidential candidate and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Bertha K. Madras, professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School, to debate the benefits and risks of making cannabis legal. 

“I believe this is a policy idea whose time has more than come,” Castro said, arguing in favor of legalizing marijuana both in Ohio and at the federal level. 

Marijuana was outlawed in the time of prohibition, when alcohol and marijuana were “associated with evil-doing,” Castro said. 

“Those prohibitions were not based in science at that time,” Castro said. “[In 2022] we have data to suggest that you can regulate it in a smart, feasible way.” 

Castro pointed to the dozens of states that have already legalized marijuana as evidence of its ability to be safely dispensed and regulated. 

Madras opposed this view. Rather than using states like Colorado as successful case studies, she said they prove marijuana is too difficult to regulate. 

According to Madras, cannabis use in people under the age of 18 has increased in states like Colorado since it became legal for adults. For adults, traffic deaths and overdoses have increased as well, Madras said. 

While overdoses have increased in Colorado, they remain below the national average – research linking marijuana legalization to opioid overdoses is inconclusive.

“Given access to drugs, people will use and use more,” Madras said.

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In Colorado, 66% of local jurisdictions have banned medical and recreational marijuana businesses. 

Castro noted the economic benefits of legalizing marijuana, such as creating jobs for marginalized communities and bringing in tax revenue for the government to use in various projects. 

“We can ensure there’s tax revenue [to invest] in our healthcare system, or education system, or even addiction prevention efforts,” Castro said. 

Madras, however, viewed its revenue potential in a negative light. She argued that the commercialization of marijuana leads companies to prioritize profits over public health. 

“As with alcohol and tobacco, they have — and will — fight any effort whatsoever to prevent them from profiting and becoming wealthy, regardless of collateral consequences,” Madras said. “Their agenda is, first of all, to enable people to try it, use it, use it more frequently and then become addicted to it.”

Castro also mentioned the issues caused by the criminal justice system when marijuana is illegal. 

“Black Americans are up to four times more likely to be prosecuted for the use of marijuana even though Blacks and whites use it at about the same rate,” Castro said. “You have this gross injustice that has set people behind bars and has ruined a lot of lives.”

Madras countered by saying that legalizing marijuana would do nothing to actually solve the inequalities in our criminal justice system. 

“Legalization is a very mediocre way to end inequality of arrests,” Madras said.

Castro and Madras disagreed on whether marijuana is a safe drug, regulated or not. 

“There's still many Americans who see marijuana as this great evil,” Castro said. “There are many findings that suggest that you can do this safely.”

Madras said the dangers of marijuana being a “gateway drug” shouldn’t be overlooked. 

“The leap between marijuana and the use of other drugs, including opioids, is unequivocal,” Madras said. “The highest [predictor] of using opioids is marijuana use before the age of 18.”

Madras said legalizing drugs of any kind should be decided by health agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, not by voters or legislative bodies.

While marijuana is not physically addicting like other drugs – meaning withdrawal is not experienced as the drug wears off – it can be mentally addictive. About 30% of people that use marijuana have marijuana use disorder, Madras said.

“The ultimate regulatory objective should be, and has not been, to protect the public health,” Madras said. “Our marijuana experiment is uncertain at best, appalling and regrettable at worst.”

Castro countered by looking to other countries that have loosened their drug policies without disastrous consequences.

Students both in and outside of the political science department attended the forum to learn more on the subject and witness the debate. 

“It’s really interesting to come out here and make sure I’m getting educated and hearing both sides of the argument,” said Charlie Cagann, a first-year political science major. 

Cagann said although his opinion on marijuana didn’t change much because of the debate, he could see valuable points from both sides. 

“I’m still relatively pro-legalization,” Cagann said. “Hearing a lot of the evidence about possible effects makes me think we should look at how we can safely regulate this to prevent the marijuana industry from ... targeting individuals that are susceptible to addiction.”

Nina Liebes-McCellan, a sophomore social work and global intercultural studies double major, said although the debate didn’t change her mind on the subject either, it did introduce her to new ideas.

“I think I was kind of biased going into it because I sided more with Castro,” Liebes-McCellan said. “I did like the idea though that we should not [focus on] legalizing it but instead on fixing the justice system.”

Regardless of the outcome, Castro and Madras agreed that it will take a joint effort to reach a conclusion on this debate. 

“You always have to strike a balance,” Castro said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re super liberal or super conservative, you have to make sure when you create policy that it’s operational, that it actually works.”