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Examining the Scientific and Societal Effects of Drug Decriminalization

Popular Science recently examined the science behind marijuana decriminalization efforts across the country.

In November 2014, the states of Alaska and Oregon, along with the District of Columbia, voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. This came two years after Colorado and Washington broke ground by being the first states to approve these measures, and more states across the country appear to be moving toward similar efforts.

Although the legalization of recreational marijuana is relatively new in the U.S., many states and local governments nationwide have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of the drug. These measures, endorsed by organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, aim to reduce the number of people incarcerated for marijuana possession and allow law enforcement officers to focus on more serious crimes. Generally, these states still have steep penalties for those convicted of selling and distributing the drug.

Considering these recent trends, Popular Science magazine has examined the scientific aspects of marijuana decriminalization and what it means for society as a whole. According to the report, states that have decriminalized marijuana are able to save money and resources in the criminal justice system, while reducing drug-related arrests and the number of people incarcerated in jails and prisons. However, it's not yet clear just how much decriminalized states save in costs, as the various studies have come up with very different estimates.

Popular Science's examination of the issue also found that there is typically not much of an uptick in overall marijuana use after a state decriminalizes it. In fact, an American Academy of Pediatrics study found that decriminalized states have not seen any changes in the number of individuals under the age of 18 using the drug. On the other hand, some critics believe that this is only because citizens of these states generally are not aware that decriminalization measures have been implemented.

Arguments for and against

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is the preeminent decriminalization and legalization advocacy group in the United States. In its support of marijuana reform efforts, NORML argues that criminal justice systems allocate too many resources to the policing of small-time marijuana users and dealers, and that by ceasing to consider possession a crime, law enforcement agencies nationwide could proportionally reduce costs.

The organization also points to several studies indicating that decriminalization does not lead to increased use of the drug and that crime would actually decrease, rather than increase, if more decriminalization measures were enacted.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, is firmly against legalization and decriminalization, arguing in a 2010 paper that marijuana is more dangerous than many people realize and that law enforcement officers would have a hard time determining if individuals are operating motor vehicles while under the influence - as there are no similar tests to those measuring blood alcohol content. The organization also claims that it would be very difficult for states or the federal government to reasonably regulate the drug.

In 2014, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law a measure decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, along with a bill allowing individuals with chronic pain to access legal medical marijuana. However, there are still some serious penalties for individuals caught possessing larger amounts of the drug, and even steeper consequences if they are accused of selling or distributing it. Those facing drug charges should consult an experienced Annapolis criminal defense attorney.

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