In marijuana policy debates, whether legalization leads to more use is a crucial point of contention. Legalization advocates argue that allowing the drug but regulating it could reduce use and make its use safer, while critics say legalization will make pot more easily accessible and, therefore, more widely used and misused.
It’s too early to say whether full legalization will lead to more widespread use, but recent research has found that pot use increased in states that legalized medical marijuana.
A comprehensive study from researchers at the RAND Corporation found that laws that allow medical marijuana dispensaries correlate with increases in overall pot use and dependence for adults 21 and older but only rises in dependence among youth. The findings suggest that allowing businesses to sell marijuana leads to more access and use, particularly for adults.
Another study from Emory University researchers found that after some states legalized medical marijuana, they saw increases in overall marijuana use and, for adults 21 and over, a rise in binge drinking. The increase in binge drinking is particularly worrying because while marijuana carries few health and social risks, alcohol causes many serious public health and safety issues, such as liver damage, more fatal car crashes, and violent behaviors that can spur crime.
This latest research disputes earlier studies that found no increases in teen pot use following the legalization of medical marijuana. Drug policy experts argue these earlier studies were far less robust; they failed to control for factors like whether a state allows dispensaries, cultivation, or only possession — rendering them incapable of gauging the full effect of different pot policies.
Still, the studies by and large only show correlation, meaning it might not be medical marijuana legalization that’s necessarily causing the increase in use. And it’s possible — although not likely — that the effects of medical marijuana laws on use could be more pronounced than full legalization.
If legalization does lead to more pot use, the question for society and public health officials is whether that downside outweighs the benefits of legalization. More people getting intoxicated — albeit through a relatively safe drug — isn’t an outcome that most supporters of legalization see as desirable, but banning pot has costs of its own, including hundreds of thousands of racially skewed arrests and the creation of a black market that helps finance violent drug cartels around the world.