Exploring the Downsides of Marijuana Legalization in California


California is the state of marijuana, it is part of the culture. In 2016, recreational use was legalized in the hope that making it a regulated product would make it safer to use and cut out the black market. However, the first five or so years of legalization have not seen a reduction in the illicit market and there is evidence that there are other downsides such as increased use by children. Rehab services across the US are reporting a raise in the requests for addiction treatment.

Several national law enforcement groups oppose marijuana legalization. A study by the University of Colorado, John Hopkins University, and Harvard Medical School looked at the impact of legalization in Colorado. They found that there was a persistent black market, high rates of traffic fatalities, and increased marijuana-related poisonings and hospital visits for children. Chronic use of marijuana has been observed to sometimes lead to mental illness and violence. Therefore, if you are using it frequently, you might want to consider the effects that this could have on you.

Off to a Bad Start

In 1996, the state of California passed a law which decriminalized marijuana for medical purposes. This law allowed doctors to recommend that patients and caregivers grow their own marijuana. However, it did not legalize the business side of things.

For the next twenty years, a gray market for medical marijuana grew. Doctors’ recommendations were easy to acquire and so people started to open dispensaries and grow acres of weed. These were so successful that if they were raided, they could quickly set up another site with the profits made. By 2010, there were 2,000 shops selling marijuana in Los Angeles. This meant that by the time it was made legal in 2015, there were already many people operating illicitly.

Some people have tried to start legal operations; however, it is difficult to make any profit in an entirely legal way. Tax rates for businesses selling weed are around seventy percent. Politicians have tried to use the industry as a source of tax revenue. Legal weed growers and sellers, because they are breaking national law, they cannot take tax deductions. Small businesses compete with the illicit market as well as big investors such as Jay-Z. In this way, very few small business owners are making a profit from the legal cannabis trade and those who do, usually have to have links to the illicit market.

Illicit Market

While the legalization of weed was meant to deal with the illicit market, it seems to have done little to achieve this. The state’s illegal market makes almost $8 billion annually, twice that of legal sales. Due to high taxes and heavy regulation, buying illegal marijuana is cheaper than buying it legally, so many people prefer to continue buying illegally.

Even when consumers want to buy from legal sources, it can be confusing to understand what is legal and what is not. Underground dispensaries can look very similar to licensed ones and sell very similar products. This might be because many unlicensed businesses operated legally under the medical marijuana laws from 1996 and only went underground when marijuana was legalized.

In addition, marijuana sold on the streets in California is exported to other states where it is still illegal. There are even reports of drug cartels moving their operations to states such as Colorado to take advantage of the more open marijuana laws.

Driving and Crime

Like with drunk driving, driving under the influence of weed leads to lack of coordination. Data for marijuana-related accidents in California have not been analyzed extensively. However, in Colorado, where weed has been legalized earlier, there is more evidence. When marijuana users were surveyed in Colorado, fifty-five percent of them thought that it was safe to drive under the influence. The same percentage reported to have driven high in the past thirty days with an average of twelve times.

In addition, marijuana-related traffic deaths increased forty-eight percent in the three-year average following legalization (2013-2015), compared to the previous three-year average (2010-2012). Drugged driving went from killing one person every 6.5 days to one person every 2.5 days. If this trend applies to other states where marijuana is legalized, California may also have a big problem.

The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys reports that there has been an increase in crime in states where marijuana has been legalized. This includes increased:

  • noise and property damage
  • smoking in public areas
  • violence towards marijuana dispensary owners and employees
  • burglaries of dispensaries
  • offenses involving driving under the influence
  • crime in areas with dispensaries
  • sale of marijuana to children under eighteen years old

Mental Health

Research has linked marijuana use to psychosis, schizophrenia, and violence. In fact, regular marijuana users have a higher rate of psychotic disorders than users of any other recreational drug. It has been shown that marijuana can trigger psychotic symptoms in forty percent of people with a family history of psychosis.

The chemical responsible for this is THC; the more potent the THC, the greater risk there is for psychosis and violence. Since marijuana was legalized, there has been an increase in more potent weed, it can now reach ninety-nine percent pure THC. In Colorado, marijuana is the number one substance found in suicides in people aged ten to eighteen, with twenty percent of cases showing marijuana in their toxicology.

Final Word

The legalization of weed in California was meant to bring with it a decrease in crime and illicit sales of marijuana. However, it seems there has been little success. This is in part due to the set up from the previous twenty years of gray market marijuana sales. 

In addition, selling marijuana legally is expensive and not profitable for small businesses due to high taxes. There also seems to be a lack of understanding around how marijuana use affects people. High numbers of people thinking that drug driving is ok would suggest that better education on the effects of drug use and on safe drug taking should be considered state-wide.


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