A significant number of US states have either legalized or decriminalized cannabis, despite it remaining illegal at the federal level. However, certain conservative states continue to prohibit the plant and have harsh penalties for the possession, consumption, and cultivation of cannabis.
What is Marijuana?
Marijuana and cannabis plants are often thought to be the same thing; however, the two terms are not exactly interchangeable. Cannabis refers to the broader plant species and can encompass all products made from Cannabis sativa. There are about 170 different cannabis species, including marijuana plants and hemp.
Often referred to as pot or weed, marijuana is explicitly referring to the products made from dried flowers or buds of the plant. They can include flowers, stems, and leaves. The main psychoactive compound is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. It also contains CBD, while hemp contains no THC and only CBD content.
Weed is typically consumed through smoking but may also be ingested, added to food, and used topically. When smoked, THC enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain. The second most active cannabinoid is cannabidiol (CBD), which does not give the same psychoactive effects as THC.
Today several different strains can be bred to induce different responses in the user. Some marijuana plants are designed to help with insomnia, while others are meant to be energizing. Different strains are used for different occasions based on the desired effect. The effects of marijuana may include relaxation, euphoria, increased appetite, altered perception, and impaired judgment.
Cannabis Prohibition in the United States
Marijuana first arrived in the United States in the early 1600s. The Jamestown colonists grew hemp, a variety of cannabis low in THC and do not have psychoactive effects, for use in making ropes, sails, and clothing. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp on their plantations.
At that time, marijuana was not used for recreation or medicine but primarily as a textile fiber. In the early 1800s, marijuana began to be used for medicinal purposes. People believed it could cure various illnesses, including asthma, cough, and venereal disease.
Marijuana began to be used as an ingredient in many patent medicines. For example, Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, which was popular at the time, contained up to 9% marijuana.
The Politics of Cannabis
The use of marijuana as medicine was threatened by the increasing popularity of pharmaceutical drugs in the early 1900s. The pharmaceutical industry began spreading propaganda linking marijuana to crime and violence in response.
Marijuana legislation first came to the attention of U.S. officials in the early 1900s. In 1906, California became the first state to outlaw marijuana. By the 1930s, all states had some laws against legalizing cannabis.
The federal government made cannabis an illegal substance and outlawed possessing or selling marijuana with the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. This Marijuana Tax Act effectively criminalized the cannabis plant.
The act was based on a report by Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger was initially appointed to head the bureau by his uncle-in-law, Andrew Mellon, the Secretary of the United States Treasury.
Mellon hired Harry Anslinger to target immigrants to line the pockets of his friends in the pharmaceutical industry who were pushing for a prohibition on marijuana.
While it is highly likely that Mellon had no problem with weed, he needed a way to make his friends money. Anslinger and sensationalized fear campaigns like Reefer Madness (1936) convinced the American public that marijuana led to drug crimes and had to be outlawed.
He also claimed stories of people driven insane by marijuana who then committed violent crimes. However, many people believe these claims were complete fabrications.
In 1970, marijuana was listed as a Schedule 1 drug, categorized as highly addictive and dangerous based on being without medical value under the Controlled Substances Act.
CBD has become a prevalent substance and is found in many different markets, including tinctures and remedies for pets. CBD is typically acceptable under all medical marijuana laws and has become a popular over-the-counter option for anxiety, relaxation, pain management, and more for humans and their furry friends.
CBD-derived from hemp is legal on the federal level, and cannabis-derived CBD is legal in certain areas depending on if their state will legalize medical marijuana.
Recent and current research has shown that cannabis has medicinal benefits and can help manage certain conditions. There has been a growing movement to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in recent years.
In the early 1800s, pot began to be used for medicinal purposes despite the chance of a criminal record for possession. People believed it could cure various illnesses, including asthma, cough, and venereal disease. In 1944, the “La Guardia Report” found that marijuana was not a dangerous drug and recommended decriminalizing it.
Since then, many people have campaigned for legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, but there is still no national consensus on the issue.
The First States to End Cannabis Prohibition
In 1996, California became the first state to initiate marijuana law reform and legalize marijuana for medical use. Today, nineteen states plus the District of Columbia allow people to use marijuana for specific medical conditions such as chronic pain and intractable epilepsy.
Several other state lawmakers, such as South Dakota, are expected to consider legalizing marijuana sales in upcoming years. There has been significant support for legalizing recreational marijuana use in recent years, and recreational cannabis sales have skyrocketed in legal states.
In 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. In 2017, California became the most significant state to legalize recreational marijuana.
Currently, nineteen states where recreational marijuana is legal at a state level and 36 states (as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) have approved medical cannabis programs. Many states allow home cultivation of up to six plants per resident.
States like New Mexico have even set a Cannabis Regulation Act to legalize the marijuana industry for their residents fully. Organizations like Marijuana Policy Project are fighting for an update to cannabis laws all over the country.
The Rise of Marijuana Legalization
Despite growing support, marijuana is still illegal under federal law. The federal government has not yet taken any action to change this, but it is possible in the future. Despite the legal status of marijuana, many people use marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes. A recent Gallup poll shows that 55% of Americans support legalizing recreational use, up from 16% in 1969.
The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of prescription-strength CBD in the form of the drug Epidiolex associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. The drug can be used in patients two years of age and older. Epidolex is the first FDA-approved drug with a purified substance derived from marijuana.
Where is Weed Illegal in The United States?
These eleven states have not legalized medical marijuana or recreational cannabis, and continue to have harsh marijuana laws for possession and adult use.
As of 2022, the State of Idaho still has some of the harshest laws in the nation regarding cannabis possession, use, and legalization. There is also no medical marijuana program, but the state of Idaho does have supporters for weed legalization for medical use.
The Indiana legislature has convened for its 2022 state legislature session. Many cannabis policy reform bills and a ballot initiative have been introduced to legalize cannabis and decriminalize the possession of small amounts. A new bill has been submitted to set up a regulatory framework for the legalization of cannabis.
While Governor Holcomb hasn’t previously supported adult-use legalization, he recently said that he’s on board with having lawmakers pass legislation to prepare for legal cannabis if the federal prohibition is lifted.
Indiana is currently one of only 13 states without an effective medical cannabis law and only 19 that still impose jail time for simple possession of cannabis. Under state law, possession of minuscule amounts of cannabis plants is punishable by up to a year of incarceration and a fine of up to $5,000.
Kansas recreational and medical legalization efforts are moving slower than many of its surrounding states. Updating the laws requires an act of the legislature, which meets once a year for ninety days in even-numbered years and one period of unlimited duration in odd-numbered years.
In 2021, the House passed its first medical marijuana bill, so activists are hopeful for Senate approval as well. The 2022 session has convened, and medical cannabis is on the agenda for the Senate. Prior to the legislature adjourning its 2021 session, the Kansas State Supreme Court approved a bill to legalize medical cannabis.
Kentucky‘s stance on legalizing medical marijuana starts with SB 124, which was passed in 2014, and is now the law within Chapter 218A of Kentucky’s Statutes. This senate bill accepted the medical use of cannabidiol (CBD).
The bill approved the people of Kentucky to access CBD as a treatment under a physician’s recommendation practicing at a state research hospital. SB 124 also exempted medical marijuana used in FDA-approved studies or compassionate use programs.
Kentucky’s legislators have made many attempts to legalize medical cannabis over the past decade, including SB40 in 2015 and HB 166 in 2018. Most recently, The House passed HB 136 in February 2020.
However, the pandemic halted progress, and essentially since Senate did not take up the bill before they adjourned for the year, the bill didn’t make it to the next step in the process. However, voters will have the chance to approve legalization in the 2022 election period.
Marijuana is not legal in the state of Nebraska. However, legislators have decriminalized possession of small amounts of it under certain circumstances. There are initiatives to offer Nebraska voters the option to legalize medical marijuana and set up a statewide medical cannabis program during the 2022 election cycle.
While cannabis has been decriminalized since the late 1970s in the state of North Carolina, medical and recreational use is just now coming into play for lawmakers.
As of 2022, there are three bills (Senate Bill 646, House Bill 617, House Bill 576) that many lawmakers and citizens are hoping to get passed this year in regards to the expansion of the MMJ program, as well as recreational adult use and small-batch cultivation legalization.
It appears this may be a big year for marijuana laws in North Carolina.
South Carolina has a very limited CBD oil medicinal program and is one of thirteen states in the US that have not legalized marijuana for medical use. However, this could be the year for that to change. SC senators passed the Compassionate Care Act in February of 2022.
Legislation is pending to decriminalize weed up to twenty-eight grams and to legalize the use, possession, and commercial sale of marijuana for adult use.
As of 2022, the State of Tennessee has some of the most restrictive laws in the nation regarding cannabis legalization. Just recently, non-psychoactive CBD oil has been approved as a treatment option for severe cases of epilepsy, leading to seizures and certain types of cancer.
Tennessee still has a minimal medical marijuana program, but there is hope for expansion in the upcoming years as they do allow delta-8 and delta-10 retail sales.
Medical cannabis is legal in Texas, and a complete medicinal program was established within the state with several state-approved dispensaries.
Current state law has not decriminalized marijuana use or possession; however, local jurisdictions have the option to decriminalize marijuana limitedly. There are initiatives to pass bills for decriminalization this year.
Wisconsin has a minimal CBD oil medical program and is one of thirteen states in the US that have not legalized marijuana for medical use. This state also has some of the harshest penalties in the country, with possession of even small amounts could lead to a Misdemeanor and a fine.
However, marijuana advocates are attempting to get a bill passed in 2022 that would legalize medical marijuana for patients with a referral from a Physician.
Wyoming has a minimal low-THC CBD oil medical program and is one of thirteen states in the US that have not legalized marijuana for medical use. This state also has some of the harshest penalties in the country, with possession of even small amounts could lead to a Misdemeanor and a fine.
However, marijuana advocates across the state are attempting to allow residents to vote on legalizing and decriminalizing cannabis during the 2022 and 2024 election periods.
|State||Legalization Status||Adult Use||Medical Marijuana||Decriminalized|
|Delaware||Decriminalized & Medical|
|Hawaii||Decriminalized & Medical|
|Louisiana||Decriminalized & Medical|
|Maryland||Decriminalized & Medical|
|Minnesota||Decriminalized & Medical|
|Missouri||Decriminalized & Medical|
|New Hampshire||Decriminalized & Medical|
|New Jersey||Fully Legal|
|New Mexico||Fully Legal|
|New York||Fully Legal|
|North Dakota||Decriminalized & Medical|
|Ohio||Decriminalized & Medical|
|Rhode Island||Decriminalized & Medical|
|South Dakota||Medical||Some Areas|
|Washington, DC||Fully Legal|
Frequently Asked Questions
Pros of legal marijuana include:
- Billions of dollars in new tax revenue
- Lessened underage use
- Decreased cannabis prices
- Higher-quality weed
- Reduced revenue for black market sales
- Decreased policing of minority communities
- More jobs added to the economy
Potential adverse effects of marijuana on the body include:
- Increased heart rate
- Cannabis use disorder and withdrawal symptoms
- Impaired concentration and memory
- Slower reaction times
- Negative drug-to-drug interactions
- Increased risk of heart attack and stroke
- Increased appetite
- Potential for addiction
- Hallucinations or mental illness
- Withdrawal symptoms
Do Americans support cannabis legalization?
- According to Pew Research, 66% of voters support recreational marijuana legalization measures, and 91% support the notion that medical marijuana is legal.
- As of 2021, there were 428,059 people employed with cannabis jobs. This was a significant jump up from prior years.
- Medical users were at the top of the market in 2020 and are anticipated to remain on trend in the future as more states legalize cannabis.
- The elderly population is at the top of the consumer base for medical marijuana.
- Cannabis is increasingly used to treat medical conditions such as chronic pain, anxiety, psychological disorders, cancer-related symptoms, insomnia, and more.
- North America is projected to lead the worldwide cannabis market in 2022 as it gains popularity in the U.S. and Canada.
Learn More about Marijuana Legalization Efforts in the U.S.
Below we have included additional resources, including news and activism websites for legalized cannabis, as well as marijuana policy and legalization efforts in the United States.