Quick. Do you know whether marijuana is legal in your state? Is it approved for medical or even recreational use? If you don’t know, that is completely understandable. We are a collection of 50 states with a wide-ranging patchwork of laws regulating cannabis, nearly all of which are in direct opposition to federal law.
It’s difficult to generalize on the state-by-state tally because the laws are so different. One state’s medical marijuana law may be limited to products containing cannabidiol, abbreviated to CBD, a chemical extracted from cannabis and sold in oils, sprays, patches and lotions. Another state’s legislation might be more liberal, allowing CBD products plus sale of loose marijuana for smoking or for edible products such as brownies. Some states require a doctor’s prescription for purchase, while others require only proof of residency.
Generally speaking, as of February of this year, 39 states plus Washington, D.C., have legalized the medical use of marijuana. And as of April, 18 states have fully legalized recreational use of marijuana, if it is sold in small amounts through licensed dispensaries to customers older than age 21.
Without getting into the weeds (pun intended) on all the permutations of state pot laws, you can see that the trend is firmly on the side of legalizing, while still regulating, cannabis. One major motivation is the millions of dollars in tax revenue it can deliver to cash-strapped states.
So why does Uncle Sam still list marijuana as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act? Schedule I drugs are those considered to have “a high potential for misuse” and have no accepted medical use. Among the other Schedule I drugs are heroin, cocaine and LSD. And if the federal government still considers marijuana to be a dangerous product, why has its own Food and Drug Administration approved some cannabis compounds, specifically THC and cannabidiol, for prescription use?
The situation is such a contradiction! The feds continue to stand fast in the face of a vast majority of states deciding to either decriminalize or outright legalize marijuana.
Take California, for example, where marijuana is legal for both medicinal and recreational use. The Los Angeles County prosecutor is dismissing some 60,000 past marijuana convictions. That follows another 66,000 pot cases that were dismissed previously. District Attorney George Gascon says his action is great news for those once convicted and saddled with a criminal record.
“It clears the path for them to find jobs, housing and other services that previously were denied to them because of unjust cannabis laws,” Gascon said.
Everyone is familiar with the competing arguments: “Marijuana is a gateway drug that can be addictive and lead to harder, even fatal, drug use” versus “Marijuana has scientifically proven medicinal qualities and should be legalized for responsible recreational use, just like alcohol.”
Back in 2013, then-President Obama’s Justice Department issued a memo to all U.S. Attorneys’ offices saying, in effect, that because of limited resources they should no longer enforce federal marijuana laws in states that had “legalized marijuana in some form.” In 2018, then-President Trump’s DOJ rescinded that order. If some hoped there would be a flurry of federal pot prosecutions, they were disappointed.
There has been a slew of bills introduced in the U.S. Congress to rectify this confusing situation. Several proposals would completely remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, regulating it like alcohol. Another would allow Veterans Affairs to recommend medical cannabis to vets to treat chronic illness. And the Sensible Enforcement of Cannabis Act seeks to protect lawful marijuana businesses and consumers from prosecution.
The COVID-19 pandemic pause interrupted consideration of these bills, but one, called the SAFE Banking Act, passed the House in April and is now awaiting action in the Senate. It would give a federal stamp of approval on cannabis commerce, thus freeing federally controlled banks and credit unions to do business with marijuana merchants without fear of reprisal.
Whether you partake or disagree with legalization, it makes no sense to have two competing sets of laws on marijuana. And the fact is that some form of cannabis consumption is lawful in most states. This cat is out of the bag, so doesn’t it make sense to clearly define how to deal with it?
— Diane Dimond is the author of three books, including her latest, Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.