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Will Legal Marijuana Use Lead to Illicit Drug Abuse?

Marijuana has been going through a years-long process of legalization in the United States. What was once considered a dangerous illicit drug has been decriminalized and legalized in many states. It’s only fully illegal in seven states, and in one of those, it’s decriminalized. In the 2020 election, New Jersey joined 14 other states that have made marijuana fully legal, which means it is lawful to use the drug recreationally. 

Marijuana wasn’t only on the ballot in New Jersey. It also appeared in four other states. Every state in which marijuana legalization (for medical or recreational use) was on the ballot, it was approved. As support for softer penalties for drug offenses and the acceptance of adult marijuana use grows, it may cause a shift in public perception and exposure to the substance.

What will that mean for users in the state, and how might it affect New Jersey’s drug misuse problem?

What Do the New Amendments Mean?

There are several challenges to overcome in light of a newly legalized substance. Voters decided to allow recreational marijuana use, but the state still has to legislate the marijuana industry and manage the shift in law enforcement. The process has been slow for lawmakers, who are charged with making provisions for the new law by Jan. 1, 2021, which is when the amendment will take effect.

The amendment in the state’s marijuana laws doesn’t permit a free-for-all when it comes to the use and distribution of the drug. All 15 states require a person to be 21 years old or older to consume the substance. There is also a host of regulations when it comes to grown, producing, and selling marijuana. For instance, depending on the state, growers can only have a certain amount of cannabis plants for personal use. 

It also affects people with prior marijuana convictions. The new laws open up the possibility that marijuana convictions may be expunged. 

How Does Legalization Affect People?

Any new law that will affect a large population will have a complex impact on the area it occurs in. When you hear about drug legalization in a state, you may have a few concerns. How will this affect people’s health? What are the economic impacts? What is the impact on crime?

One of the most common concerns is related to increased intoxication. Before Colorado legalized the recreational use of marijuana in 2012, opponents of the change worried that it would lead to an increase in substance-related automobile accidents. However, there was no such increase in the year following Colorado’s marijuana legalization. 

There’s also the debate over whether marijuana leads to the use of illicit drugs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there is some evidence to suggest that marijuana use is connected with the later use of other substances. Some studies suggest that THC use could make the brain more sensitive to other drugs. However, NIDA notes that most people who use marijuana don’t use harder illicit drugs like heroin or cocaine. In Colorado, there was no evidence suggesting that marijuana legalization directly influenced the use of other harder drugs.

However, there are a few advantages and challenges that the legalization of marijuana may pose to a state. 

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Legalized marijuana is a significant source of tax revenue in states that have allowed recreational use, growing, and selling. With the growth of the marijuana industry, tax revenue has only increased. States that legalize the substance see a jump in tax revenue in the tens of millions of dollars range. Legalized weed also produces more jobs. These benefits are small in the short-term, but they usually grow over time.

Legalizing the most commonly used illicit drug may cut down on the prison population in the United States. The U.S. prison population is among the largest in the world, much of which is due to drug convictions. In fact, NIDA reports that as much as 65 percent of prisoners have substance use disorders. Prison time, without drug rehab, many do more harm than good to people with substance use problems. Cutting down on people getting criminal records for the possession of marijuana could help prevent later socio-economic issues. 

Proponents of legalization also make the case that marijuana-related arrests have been disproportionately enforced among minorities, especially Black and Hispanic people. Ideally, legalization could cut down on that disparity.

More than half of Americans have tried marijuana at some point in their lives despite its illegal status in several states. There is no set standard for illicit drugs. Advocates for legalization often point out that legal marijuana gives people a safe source of the drug. This may protect against encounters with synthetic marijuana, which can be life-threatening.


Legal recreational marijuana in a greenhouse

Legalized marijuana may end up being used in a way that’s similar to alcohol in that 80 percent of the product is consumed by 20 percent of its users. This means that a small number of alcohol users drink the majority of alcohol that is marketed. That means the industry is incentivized to target problem drinkers, and marijuana may follow the same model.

Obviously, states that legalize marijuana see a dramatic decrease in arrests across all communities. However, there also seems to have been a growing disparity between minorities and white people in charges for public consumption in Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. While legalization and decriminalization have improved incarceration, poor communities and minorities may still be affected by marijuana laws.

Alcohol and tobacco consumption has a significant impact on public health. So much so that it has billions of dollars in societal costs. Opponents of legalization often point out that adding another recreational substance could lead to higher costs in things like health care, law enforcement, and intoxication-related accidents. However, marijuana is already extremely prevalent in American society. Plus, its effects on public health aren’t as dire as alcohol and tobacco. However, its long-term health effects are still being studied. 

What About Rising THC Levels?

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is one of two major active chemicals in cannabis plants. The other is CBD or cannabidiol. In its natural form, cannabis produces similar amounts of both drugs. CBD counteracts the psychoactive effects of THC. When marijuana contains a balanced amount of both, you may still feel the effects of THC, but they will be mitigated by CBD. However, as with many illicit drugs, marijuana became more potent over time. Marijuana growers found ways to decrease CBD and increase THC levels in marijuana. 

The result is extremely potent weed. In high concentration, THC can even cause psychosis. The risk of psychosis is highest among people that have other risk factors for mental health problems like schizophrenia. Illegal marijuana incentivizes increased potency. More powerful marijuana allows illicit drug traders to ship profitable amounts of marijuana in smaller packages. Smaller packages are easier to conceal and increase profits. The same could be seen in the days of alcohol Prohibition and with today’s introduction of the highly potent opioid fentanyl.

However, the legal marijuana trade has some of the same incentives. More potent marijuana means a more powerful and attractive recreational product and lower shipping costs. However, legal marijuana production and trade is easier to regulate, and lawmakers could impose a regulated THC to CBD ratio. 


Angell, T. (2020, April 20). On 4/20, ACLU Highlights Racist Marijuana Enforcement In New Report. Retrieved from

Drug Policy Alliance. (n.d.). Colorado Marijuana Arrests After Amendment 64. Retrieved from

Habel, C., Rungie, C., Lockshin, L., & Spawton, T. (1970, January 01). The Pareto Effect (80:20 rule) in consumption of liquor: A preliminary discussion. Retrieved from

Hoover, A. (2020, November 24). Lawmakers planned to pass a legal weed bill Monday. Here are the disputes that stopped it from happening. Retrieved from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, April 08). Is marijuana a gateway drug? Retrieved from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, June 16). Criminal Justice DrugFacts. Retrieved from

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