The State of Cannabis Legalization in the US

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To say that the United States of America has a turbulent relationship and history with cannabis would be an understatement. Before federal prohibition, many Americans used cannabis as a medicine. They also used hemp fibers in many industries – from papers to textiles and even cars. It was unlikely that someone back then could have predicted how hard people would have to fight for its legalization nor how much depended on it. 

However, when Mexican immigrants began moving into the country, bringing with them their own traditions, including the use of recreational cannabis, racism and bigotry ran rampant. Authorities saw an opportunity to capitalize on people’s fear of the unknown and the ‘other’, and intentionally put out propaganda to try and create a negative correlation between people of colour and cannabis, or as they now called it, ‘marihuana’, a phonetic take on the Spanish word for cannabis. Politicians like Harry Anslinger, the 1st Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, used cannabis as a tool to spread more fear and incite racism. 

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Harry Anslinger used bigotry and scare tactics to target minorities and cannabis users.

And they were successful, too. By the mid-1930s, their propaganda had already created a great divide that resulted in nationwide cannabis prohibition, including hemp. The country’s succeeding war on drugs also led to stiffer punishments and increased incarceration rates for people caught with drugs, including cannabis.

A once beneficial plant, cannabis has been demonized and deemed illegal for many decades. Despite long-standing nationwide cannabis prohibition, the support for rescheduling, decriminalization, and the use of cannabis as a medicine has been growing at an ever-increasing rate. In 1991, California became the first state that passed its own medical cannabis laws. For years to come and as studies on the health effects of cannabis grew, more states legalized the use of medical cannabis.

Today, medical cannabis is legal in many states, with some even legalizing its use for recreational purposes. It would seem that nationwide legalization of cannabis is inevitable, however, there are several hurdles the movement will have to overcome before it can become a reality. 

Current Cannabis Law in the US

The current cannabis laws in the US are murky on a federal level and only worse on a state one.

States may have the power to create their own cannabis laws, but they are still under the federal government. So even if cannabis is legal in some states, the federal government has power over them. 

Last year, the 2018 Farm Bill legalized the use of hemp federally. This means that all parts of the plant can now be used legally, including its cannabinoids, extracts, as well as derivatives, provided that the hemp doesn’t contain more than 0.3% THC and it came from federally-compliant, licensed growers. With hemp becoming legal, people are given safe access to legal CBD.

This bill, as good as it may be, has created its own set of problems. Hemp and cannabis look alike, and their similarities in appearance have led to some confusion among law enforcers. In Tennessee, for example, where hemp industry is booming, police are having a bit of a tough time differentiating between cannabis and hemp, a confusion that could mean jail or freedom.

Of note, both cannabis and hemp produce CBD, and there’s no difference in their chemical structures. CBD from cannabis has the same chemical structure as CBD from hemp. But when it comes to the legality of CBD, CBD that came from cannabis remains illegal, while CBD that came from hemp is legal.

State to State

It becomes even more confusing when considering the reality of traveling from state to state. Say a medical patient, or even a recreational user, is going from Seattle to Colorado to visit family. Unless they want to add at least another 5 hours on to their already 20 hour plus drive, they would have to drive through Idaho. The ‘Gem State’ has some of the strictest cannabis laws, with its governor even vetoing medical CBD legalization in 2015. If this person was to be stopped by the police during a routine roadblock, they could be arrested and face both 5 years in prison and a massive fine for carrying the same amount that would be legal in both their home state and their state of destination. 

Under federal law, cannabis remains illegal and a controlled substance. This gives the federal government the right to prosecute states that have violated and are not in compliance with applicable federal laws. However, in most cases, the federal government will only intervene if there are safety problems or if the state failed to regulate cannabis properly. 

Federal Government vs Legal States

Nobody represents the current administration’s conservative feelings towards cannabis and its users, as well as the fed’s desire to supersede state laws, quite like disgraced former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Despite the fact that Donald Trump insisted he supported medical cannabis users’ rights during his campaign, his actions and those of his appointees have done little to validate his words. Session’ strong anti-cannabis stance and threats of a federal ban created problems for cannabis legalization, even after his disgraced departure, like so many of his colleagues. 

 

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Donald Trump went back on his word of supporting medical cannabis users once elected.

 

In 2017, Sessions plead with congress to repeal the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment so that the Justice Department could prosecute medical cannabis providers. His most notable anti-cannabis act was when he rescinded the Cole Memo, a document that prevented the Justice Department from enforcing cannabis prohibition in cannabis-legal states. 

But little came from this though for several reasons. One, the 2001 Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment protects medical cannabis patients and specifically prohibits the Justice Department from interfering with the state’s medical cannabis laws. Two, the Justice Department has limited resources to go after cannabis-legal states. Only perceived serious offenses take precedence over the orderly implementation of the states’ cannabis laws.

Sessions rhetoric around cannabis sounds all too familiar like the same hateful ideology spread by Anslinger and his racist policies. Always the wordsmith, Sessions explains that “Good people don’t smoke marijuana”. He stated during his time in office that “Marijuana is against federal law, and that applies in states where they may have repealed their own anti-marijuana laws. So yes, we will enforce the law in an appropriate way nationwide.” In keeping with the stellar logic displayed by the current administration, Sessions even compared the dangers of cannabis to that of heroin. 

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Jeff Sessions

Unfortunately for Sessions, he didn’t get to do much enforcing of federal cannabis laws as he was asked to resign by the same man who appointed him. The President believed that Session’s failed to protect him from ongoing investigations, and grew frustrated with Session’s refusal to look deeper into his former opponent’s alleged wrongdoings. He did carry on Ansligner’s spirit of xenophobia by allowing the travel ban as well as trying to justify his policy of separating detained children from their parents when families were caught illegally crossing the border. Despite society’s progress on its views on cannabis, fear of the other still plays a frighteningly large role in American politics. 

Jeff Sessions’ resignation last year as Attorney General seemed like a victory for the cannabis industry and for those fighting for federal legalization. After all, his departure is one less hurdle for cannabis legalization. However, the battle between the federal government and the cannabis-legal states is far from over. Many issues have to be addressed first before cannabis is legalized at the federal level. Issues such as cannabis companies’ access to banking services, the need for more studies on cannabis’ risks and benefits, high federal taxes, etc. are still huge setbacks for cannabis legalization and delay its progress in Congress. Until then states that offer no access at all to cannabis force their citizens to use black market dealers, as even grey market businesses are forbidden in many states.

State’s Cannabis Legal Status

Right now, despite federal laws, there are more than 30 states that have decriminalized and legalized the use of cannabis.

STATES MEDICAL CANNABIS RECREATIONAL CANNABIS DECRIMINALIZED
Alabama Only in CBD
Alaska X X X
Arizona X
Arkansas X
California X X X
Colorado X X X
Connecticut X Reduced
Delaware X Reduced
District of Columbia X X X
Florida X
Georgia Reduced
Hawaii X Reduced
Idaho
Illinois (Effective January 2020) X X X
Indiana Only CBD Oil
Iowa X
Kansas Only CBD Oil (From Out of State)
Kentucky Only CBD Oil
Louisiana X
Maine X X X
Maryland X Reduced
Massachusetts X X X
Michigan X X X
Minnesota X Reduced
Mississippi Reduced
Missouri X Reduced
Montana X
Nebraska Reduced
Nevada X X X
New Hampshire X Reduced
New Jersey X
New Mexico X Reduced
New York X Reduced
North Carolina Reduced
North Dakota X Reduced
Ohio X Reduced
Oklahoma X
Oregon X X X
Pennsylvania X
Rhode Island X Reduced
South Carolina Only CBD Oil
South Dakota
Tennessee Only CBD Oil (From Out of State)
Texas X
Utah X
Vermont X X X
Virginia Only CBD Oil
Washington X X X
West Virginia X
Wisconsin Only CBD Oil
Wyoming Only CBD Oil

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This chart only serves as a guide. If you’re going to use cannabis and hemp-derived products in the US, you should familiarize yourself with your state’s cannabis laws to avoid legal issues and problems.

The Future of Legal Cannabis in America

For many, cannabis legalization may seem inevitable. A dozen states have legalized its recreational use, with even more allowing medical use, therefore it should not be long before the other state states follow. However, there are still several massive ideological changes that must take place before cannabis was be federally legalized. 

Some pressing issues might speed up the process. For one, cannabis legalization could put an end to the production of fake cannabis products. This is especially important in light of the recent vaping-related health problems. By legalizing cannabis at the federal level, the risk of buying fake vape oils and cannabis products from the black market will be reduced. Secondly, cannabis legalization would also put an end to the confusion between hemp and cannabis that’s happening in some parts of the country. It would also make it safer for medical patients and recreational users to travel from state to state. 

It does not look like the Trump administration is going to legalize recreational cannabis so if he wins his bid for re-election in 2020, don’t expect things to get better on a federal level and possibly even brace for federal interference in state cannabis laws as well. The Supreme Court can tend to lean conservative after the appointment of Kavanaugh and with several of the more progressive judges expected to retire in the coming years, this may slow down cannabis legislation even more. 

Cannabis legalization is a hot topic in the upcoming American election and a favourite talking point for candidates on the campaign trail. Democratic Candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris have all voiced their support for cannabis legalization, however not all of their records support this choice. Nevertheless, their change of stance of cannabis is an incredibly good sign and positive for the movement. Democratic front runner and former Vice President, Joe Biden has given no indication that he would legalize cannabis, whereas one of his fellow candidates Bernie Sanders 

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Bernie Sanders (Right) and Elizabeth Warren (Left) both support cannabis legalization.

Final Thoughts

In North America, society views towards cannabis are improving every day. We are more accepting of the plant and deeply interested in its medicinal potentials. With more states legalizing cannabis both for medical and recreational uses, hopefully, it won’t be long before cannabis is legalized in the US at the federal level. At this point, it is of vital importance. Not only because the logic behind its prohibition is undeniably flawed, but because the laws used to enforce it have proven to unfairly target minorities. For many, legalization may be about being able to enjoy a joint after work, but for countless minorities facing unjust prosecution and harassment, it is about so much more. America can do better. It must. 

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