February 27, 2021

Is Medical Marijuana a Political Gateway to Recreational Pot

California was among the first states to completely decriminalize marijuana use. It was also the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. Nearly 25 years later, 33 states allow medical marijuana along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam.

Though the number of states allowing recreational use is still fairly small, there is the nagging question of whether or not medical marijuana is a political gateway to legalizing recreational use. It is a legitimate question. History dictates that governments are hard to stop once they begin down a certain road. Why would cannabis politics be any different?

Montana, Arizona, and Utah

Montana, Arizona, and Utah have all passed laws legalizing marijuana for medical use. Utah’s law was only passed in early 2020. Just six months along and legislators are patting themselves on the back for their success. They should. They have managed to craft a law that recognizes the medical benefits of cannabis without going as far as to completely decriminalize the drug. But how long will their commonsense law last?

Arizona legalized medical cannabis a decade ago. Now the state finds itself arguing over whether or not to allow recreational use as well. If we look back at the debate before medical clearance was given, would we find proponents of medical marijuana openly saying the ultimate objective is full decriminalization?

Montana finds itself in a similar position. After legalizing medical cannabis years ago, the push is now on to completely decriminalize sale and possession. That would open up the door to recreational use. Doctors, police officers, and others are urging voters to reject a new initiative to that effect.

                   Conflicting Science Doesn’t Help

The battle over recreational marijuana really boils down to the science. Those adamantly against recreational use point to data suggesting detrimental effects on human health with long-term use. Opponents also cite data suggesting that recreational use increases crime and other societal ills. On the other side, data is presented to prove just the opposite.

Unfortunately, there is no scientific consensus on whether or not recreational cannabis use is a good idea. There likely never will be. That leaves us no other choice but to debate the merits of recreational marijuana in the political arena.

                   Controlling Cannabis Use

In states that allow medical marijuana, controls have been put in place. Utah is a great example. In the months since medical cannabis became legal there, cannabis dispensaries have begun opening in a number of cities. Deseret Wellness was one of the first cannabis dispensaries to open in Provo. Business has been good enough that they plan to open additional dispensaries in other cities as well.

The dispensary concept is designed to control access to marijuana to ensure its medical use. In the same way people cannot buy opioids over the counter at a local pharmacy, they also cannot purchase cannabis products without the equivalent of a prescription – at least legally. In Utah that means possessing a state-issued medical cannabis card.

Such controls work about as well as they can. Some 10,000 Utahans already possess cannabis cards. Thousands more are expected to apply in the coming months. These are all people who would have otherwise obtained cannabis illegally on the street.

It will be interesting to see where Utah is 10 years from now. Is it possible that approving medical use is a political gateway to recreational approval? It could be. Then again, maybe not. There are no easy answers in any of this. It is no wonder the question engenders so many passionate responses on both sides.