OverviewThe legality of cannabis in the United States of America has been a confusing and bumpy ride for any and all that have consumed it for the last 100 years. Currently, the United States is in a volatile period of transition from cannabis being fully illegal, back to it being decriminalized or legal to use. There have been periods throughout the history of the country in which cannabis has been permitted to use medicinally, periods in which it was decriminalized, and periods in which it was completely illegal. Throughout the article, we will explore the timeline of cannabis legality, the scheduling of cannabis, recreational and medical states, and ongoing cannabis legislation.
For now, cannabis remains a Schedule I Narcotic, defined by the DEA as a “drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” (DEA, 2019). Federally, cannabis holds higher penalties and is classified under a schedule with harsher penalties than methamphetamine, cocaine, and numerous opiates. Cannabis is at the same level in the eyes of the DEA as heroin. This antiquated view on cannabis is quickly changing though, as more and more states and territories are independently decriminalizing and legalizing cannabis for medical and recreational use. The conflict with federal law will end eventually, but there is no correct way to project what or when the outcome will be. There are signs of hope though, as federal appeals courts continue to urge the DEA to reclassify cannabis, and as the USDA removed hemp from the controlled substances act with the 2018 farm bill last December. The only methods to enact change at the federal level are through the legislative branch with Congress, the Executive branch with the president, or a petition process enacted by the attorney general.
States & Territories With Legal Recreational & Medical Cannabis
Currently, there are no states or territories with strictly recreational cannabis. Every state that has legalized recreational cannabis has previously legalized medical cannabis as well (With the exception of parts of cannabis opposed South Dakota, which is explained below under illegal states). As of right now (06/27/19), Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and Washington, D.C. have recreational and medical cannabis.
Territories of the United States with recreational and medical cannabis include Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
States & Territories With Medical Cannabis
Alabama* (CBD only), Arizona, Arkansas**, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia* (CBD only), Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana* (CBD only) Iowa (CBD only), Kansas (CBD only), Kentucky* (CBD only), Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi* (CBD only), Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina* (CBD only), North Dakota**, Ohio**, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina* (CBD only), Tennessee* (CBD only), Texas (CBD only), Utah, Virginia* (CBD only), West Virginia**, Wisconsin* (CBD only), and Wyoming* (CBD only). Territories of the United States with medical cannabis include Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
* = This state currently has regulations in place for qualified patients to possess and consume cannabis, but there are no physical locations with state licenses (dispensaries) available to purchase products from.
** = This state has some sort of medical program pending in various stages: they either may not yet be accepting patient applications, they might not have any brick-and-mortar dispensaries, etc. Click on any GREEN word above to read more about that state’s current cannabis laws.
States with this star have legislation that is currently changing, or has changed already and no longer accurately reflects the map.
-Kansas allows CBD now
-Illinois is recreational
States In Which Cannabis Is Still Illegal (Or Only Decriminalized)
Idaho, Nebraska, and South Dakota do not allow cannabis products of any kind. This includes CBD, even without any trace of THC, meaning that anyone possessing anything derived from cannabis can be charged for it. In Nebraska, your first offense is a simple ticket without any charges to go with it as long as it is an ounce or less. In Idaho, it is a misdemeanor for 3 ounces or less for your first offense. Interestingly enough, though, one of the three Native American Tribes that have legalized medical or recreational cannabis on their reservation resides in South Dakota. Cannabis remains illegal everywhere in the state other than Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe land, where it is recreational with one licensed cultivation site for the nation. Currently, this is the only place in the country in which recreational cannabis has preceded medical. Something else that is important to consider is the fact that just because a state has a medical program, it doesn’t mean that cannabis possession won’t earn you a felony for possession without an MMJ certification. For example, Arizona is one of the strictest states in the country when it comes to cannabis, and simple possession of a few leaves or seed can still end in a felony charge.
Ongoing Legislation (06/05/19)
With this changing climate of cannabis acceptance, new legislation and amendments to current laws occur every day. Ten states, Washington DC, and two US territories have legalized recreational cannabis use, mostly going through ballot initiatives. On May 31st of this year, Illinois became the first state to use its legislature to pass a bill that will legalize the possession as well as the sale and purchase of cannabis recreationally (as long as the governor delivers on his promise to sign). *UPDATE as of 06/25/19: J.B. Pritzker, governor of Illinois has signed the bill into law* This is an extra step on top of Vermont’s 2018 legislation, in which lawmakers only legalized possession of cannabis but not the sale or purchase of it. On May 28th of this year, the USDA also authorized the interstate transportation of hemp and hemp-based products, as well as THC that is derived from hemp. Both of these events are huge steps in favor of cannabis policy reform, and more information on the hemp part is sure to follow. There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that the USA has reliable and legal cannabis, but in the last decade, there has been more forward progress and positive legislation change than ever before!
Timeline of Cannabis Legality
Dr. William O’Shaughnessy published ‘On the Preparation of Indian Hemp, or Gunjah’ detailing its medical use for Rheumatism, convulsions, muscle spasms, and rabies
The first clinical conference on cannabis takes place in America
Washington, D.C. requires a prescription for cannabis
April 29, 1911
Commonwealth of Massachusetts becomes the first state to ban cannabis in the United States of America
August 2, 1937
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) signs federal legislation that bans the use, production, and sales of cannabis including industrial hemp
FDR signs an executive order allowing for emergency hemp production for industrial uses during War World II. Hemp was generally necessary for canvas, cordage, rope, oil, and more. Midwest states received government subsidies to produce industrial hemp to support the war effort.
Cannabis is removed from the American Pharmacopoeia (US Formulary) and physicians could no longer prescribe it
At the end of WWII, the Roosevelt administration re-banned industrial hemp production and stopped subsidizing its production. Unless they wanted to risk prison time, industrial hemp farmers were forced to destroy their hemp crops, and pharmacists had removed all cannabis-related medicines for sale.
Challenges in Appeals Courts to the 1937 anti-cannabis laws force the federal government to start piecing together the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The Controlled Substances Act starts coming along as well.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is founded in Washington, D.C.
The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) becomes law and for the first time sets up a scheduling system for illicit and legal substances, classifying cannabis as a Schedule I substance meaning it is a drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
The CSA called for a presidential commission to come together to examine the current cannabis policy. This commission was later known as the Shafer Commission, due to Raymond Schafer being the chairman of the commission (Former PA governor)
The First People’s Pot Conference was held in Washington, D.C. This was the first political pro-reform conference.
The Shafer Commission recommends to congress and President Nixon that cannabis should be decriminalized for personal-use, as they find its situation more comparable to alcohol. They also suggest that personal cultivation should be permitted along with small non-profit transfers (gifts). These recommendations are promptly rejected by congress and Nixon. NORML takes the commission findings to all fifty states encouraging adoption of state decriminalization laws
Oregon becomes the first state to pass any sort of cannabis decriminalization legislation
Robert Randall of Washington, D.C. become the first legal medical cannabis patient ever in America with the argument that cannabis is the only thing that keeps him from going blind
President Jimmy Carter endorses the Shafer Commission’s findings and sends a statement to Congress on August 3 with the intention to decriminalize cannabis possession
President Ronald Reagan is elected to the White House effectively ending ‘an era of decriminalization’, from 1973 to 1981. At this time, eleven states had decriminalized cannabis possession (AK, OR, CA, CO, NE, MN, MS, OH, NC, NY and ME)
DEA administrative law judge Francis Young rules in favor of NORML to make cannabis a medicine. Among other reasons, he states: “Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.”
The Reagan administration and the DOJ appeal Judge Young’s ruling seeking to uphold a total ban on cannabis for everyone, even the terminally ill
San Francisco becomes the first city to pass an ordinance allowing medical patients having access to cannabis (Proposition P). The ordinance had a 79% support rate.
Governor Pete Wilson vetoes medically available cannabis in California State Legislature
California residents move Proposition 215 through to passage, which legalizes medical cannabis possession, use, and cultivation. With heavy federal pushback, doctors’ right to recommend cannabis were affirmed.
Arizona’s voters approve medical cannabis laws as well, but because of problems with the wording and language used in the initiative, the bill never passed.
Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Arizona pass medical cannabis laws and patient protections (though it failed again in Arizona).
Oregon legislation attempting to place a cannabis re-criminalization initiative on the ballot fails, 32%-68%
Maine voters approve a medical cannabis initiative
Nevada and Colorado voters approve medical cannabis initiatives.
Hawaii legislature passes medical cannabis legislation.
Montana voters approve a medical cannabis initiative.
Vermont’s legislature passes medical cannabis legislation
Rhode Island legislature passes medical cannabis legislation
New Mexico legislature passes medical cannabis legislation
Michigan voters approve medical cannabis initiative.
Massachusetts voters approve a cannabis decriminalization initiative
Arizona voters approve medical cannabis initiative for the third time since 1996, this time with it passing. (Prop. 203)
District of Columbia City Council passes medical cannabis legislation.
New Jersey legislature passes medical cannabis legislation.
California turns down a cannabis legalization initiative, with a 53%-47% vote
Delaware legislature passes medical cannabis legislation.
Connecticut legislature passes cannabis decriminalization legislation
Colorado (Amendment 64) and Washington (Initiative 502) become the first two states to legalize recreational cannabis, starting a wave of legalization across the country
Vermont, New Hampshire, and Illinois legislature pass medical cannabis legislation
15+ states pass some sort of medical cannabis legislation.
Washington D.C. legalizes the recreational use of cannabis and personal cultivation. D.C. City Council does not legalize commercial sales at this point.
New York City decriminalizes personal-use cannabis possession.
Guam legalizes medical cannabis.
Many major cities across the country decriminalize personal-use amounts of cannabis including Wichita, Miami, Toledo, Miami, Tampa, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis, and more
FDA approves the first drug containing an active ingredient derived from cannabis called Epidiolex to treat severe forms of epilepsy.
2018 Farm Bill passes, re-legalizing regulated industrial hemp production
Guam legalizes recreational cannabis and the US Virgin Islands legalize recreational cannabis.
The USDA authorizes interstate transport of hemp containing THC.
Illinois becomes the first state in the Union to legalize recreational cannabis through state legislation as opposed to ballot initiative
Ryan is currently an Education Assistant at Baked Bros. He is a graduate of Arizona State University with a B.A. in Educational Studies and an emphasis on Environmental Education. Ryan has experience in the cannabis industry as a Patient Consultant and Brand Ambassador.
Zuardi, A. (2006). History of cannabis as a medicine: a review. Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria, 28(2), pp.153-157