Welcome to part one of a three-part series on the state of marijuana in these United States. In this intro, we’ll be discussing where exactly we as a nation stand with pot, and diving into the jigsaw puzzle of state-by-state policy.
By Christina Rock
Where Cannabis is Legal, or Legal-ish
In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. Since then, states around the country have experimented with legalizing medicinal marijuana, reducing penalties, or legalizing all use. Nearly three-quarters of states have done one of these. As of now, marijuana is legal for recreational purposes in nine states, plus Washington DC, and an additional 20 permit the use of medical marijuana.
Map Source: Marijuana Policy Project
Marijuana is completely legal for recreational consumption in Alaska, California, Colorado, DC, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
There has been a recent groundswell in public support for more widespread legalization, which is evident in the number of other states that have recently liberalized pot laws, or seem poised to. Traditionally conservative Oklahoma recently became the 30th state to legalize medical marijuana, and there are either ballot measures or legislation being considered in ten more states—New Jersey, Michigan, Delaware, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Ohio, Kentucky, South Dakota, Missouri, and Utah.
In addition, marijuana has been largely decriminalized in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island. This means that while consumption for recreational purposes is prohibited, it has been downgraded to a misdemeanor, generally on par with a minor traffic violation. Typically, decriminalization means no arrests, jail time or criminal record for the first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal consumption.
Federal Law and Public Opinion
Despite the surge of state support, marijuana remains illegal under federal law. And although the Obama administration allowed state-level rules to stand without much federal interference, the Trump administration has taken a tougher tack. In theory, this leaves citizens vulnerable to the whims of whoever happens to be in power and if they choose to enforce or not enforce the federal law.
Nevertheless, public support for marijuana reform can’t be ignored: recent polls indicate that more people favor legalizing weed in some form now than at any time in US history. Overall support has swung from 25 percent in 1996 to 64 percent in 2018.
Moreover, as there is increasingly widespread acceptance of cannabinoids as viable painkillers, free from the addictive side effects of opioids, even groups that have traditionally been perceived as skeptical, like the elderly and conservatives, are hopping on board. Research indicates the fastest growing market for medical marijuana is 60 and older, as they seek relief for issues associated with aging, like chronic pain and insomnia.
Notably, members of Congress appear to be more amicable to reforming federal pot laws, and 2018 marked the first time that polls found a slight majority of Republicans (51 percent) in favor of legalization. This shift in congressional support was evidenced by a recent bipartisan bill to liberalize marijuana policy and limit the Department of Justice’s discretion in enforcing federal marijuana laws. The bill, known as the STATES Act, would protect people who choose to use marijuana, as long as they are in compliance with local state laws. It would also make it illegal for the federal government to interfere in state marijuana industries. President Trump indicated his willingness to sign the bill, breaking with his anti-marijuana stalwart Attorney General Jeff Sessions. If passed and signed into law, it will be a big move in the right direction for the legal cannabis industry.
The Catch 22 at the Heart of Federal Policy
In spite of this apparent tipping point in favor of marijuana in America, cannabis remains designated as a Schedule 1 substance by the federal government. Schedule 1 drugs are classified as having no medical value whatsoever, and legally regarded as more dangerous than even methamphetamine and cocaine (which are Schedule 2 drugs). This system makes it nearly impossible to legally study the benefits of marijuana, which paradoxically, would be almost certainly required to change its classification in advance of a more liberal national pot policy.
The inherent conflict between states and the federal government on marijuana legalization point to a pressing need to reimagine US drug policy and how it should change as people seek alternatives to punitive criminal justice policies that have led to steep incarceration rates and a criminal black market.
We’ll discuss more about the social costs of the current federal marijuana policy in part two. Watch this space.
Christina Rock is a Seattle-based writer and photographer who loves late sixties music and days that go better than planned.