Another day, another piece of marijuana legalization news. Going by the headlines, you’d think you are free to light up your blunt anywhere and anytime without legal consequences. There’s even an unofficial “holiday” for it: April 20th or 4/20! It is without question that the legal and social status of marijuana has changed a lot in the last decade. However, it still doesn’t seem to be quite where we want it: federally legalized. So, all of this begs the question: will federal marijuana laws ever progress? Or, are we just going to sit in this strange purgatory of cannabis legality?

This year, we’ve seen the attempted proposal of so many new cannabis legislations that it’s hard not to get excited. Before we get into the potential progression of federal marijuana laws, let’s cover the legal status of cannabis as a whole. 

The legal status of marijuana is wrapped up in so many knots. Even in states where it is legal, guidelines regulate the cultivation, dose, use, and sale of marijuana. These many regulations make it easy for the uninformed to run foul of the law. The US has made some progress towards legalization since the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, which classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug. This classification means that the federal government considers cannabis to have “high abuse potential with no accepted medical use.” (We’re rolling our eyes, too.)

federal marijuana laws

Marijuana And State Law 

Medical marijuana is legal in 37 states, while 18 states have approved recreational use and possession for adults over 21 years. Rules regarding the cultivation, sale, and possession of marijuana differ from state to state. South Dakota legalized medical and recreational use of marijuana, but only the medical program is underway; the state has yet to iron out the details of the recreational aspect.

Generally, legalized medical marijuana states have a registry of patients that protects against possession arrest. Registered patients need a marijuana card to obtain medical marijuana registered dispensaries. 

Federal Law

Irrespective of the fact that most states in America have legalized marijuana in one form or the other, federal law remains prohibitive. As established, the Drug Enforcement Administration makes marijuana remain a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act. It is the job of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve drugs for medicinal use, but FDA has not approved any marijuana product other than one medication — Epidiolex. This prescription drug contains CBD and is suitable for rare, severe forms of epilepsy only. 

Under federal law, the cultivation, sale, or possession of marijuana remains a crime. It is punishable by up to one year in prison and a minimum fine of $1000 for a first offender.

In 2018, our neighbors in Canada became the second country in the world after Uruguay to legalize cannabis for all adults. Given the number of US states who have legalized the drug, it is apparent the push for legalization enjoys widespread support. According to a Gallup Poll, 68% of Americans are in favor of legalizing cannabis. However, legal hurdles and bureaucratic challenges have handicapped the effort to legalize. 

Efforts to Legalize Marijuana 

In 2019, the House passed a bill to decriminalize marijuana and levy a tax on marijuana sales. It was the first time such a bill made it to the floor of Congress. The 228-to-164 represented what appeared to be a consensus in favor of decriminalization and taxation. However, the bill — called the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act — did not reach committee level in the Senate. Still, it was a significant step in aligning federal marijuana policy with state law. It would have removed marijuana from the list of controlled substances, eliminate federal criminal penalties for individuals who manufacture, distribute or possess marijuana, and impose a tax on cannabis products. 

In the bureaucratic tangle of Washington politics, it is hardly ever plain sailing for any bill. We expect to see hurdles, debates, and amendments before they become law. The MORE bill may have failed in the Senate, but its passage in the House was a triumph. For the first time, legislators are debating the decriminalization of marijuana. 

Drug Policy Alliance is an advocacy group that pushed for the passage of the bill. Its national affairs director, Maritza Perez, said, “We had no hopes of or plan to pass this in the Senate; nonetheless, it’s really important to recognize that this is a huge historic move.

“Never before has Congress voted to deschedule marijuana, so that within itself is huge … and could really move the needle and help us reintroduce the MORE Act in the next Congress, and help us get more allies and more lawmakers on board.”

What the Future Holds

The MORE bill may have failed in the Senate, but the last is yet to be heard about the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana. There are renewed decriminalization efforts in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has proposed a bill aimed at furthering federal marijuana laws, decriminalizing the drug at the very least. The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act will ease restrictive drug policies, remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, and introduce regulations to tax cannabis products.

Speaking during a press conference at Capitol, Schumer said, “This is monumental. At long last, we are taking steps in the Senate to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs,” 

As expected, the bill will have to scale through many hurdles in the Senate before it becomes law. Republicans generally oppose cannabis laws, and moderate Democrats have not received endorsement from President Joe Biden, who favors decriminalization over legalization. 

Despite the expected opposition, supporters of legalization may have a friend in the White House. Vice-President Kamala Harris was the lead sponsor of the MORE bill, which passed in the House. 

High Hopes for Federal Marijuana Laws

American law and public policy are usually an expression of the majority’s wishes, and it is clear where the majority stands on legalization. Thirty-seven (37) states have legalized marijuana for medical uses, 18 states have legalized the drug for recreational use, and 68% of the American public support legalization. The opponents of legalization can’t fail to see that they are outnumbered; they can’t ignore the economic benefits in terms of taxes and employment opportunities. 

Support for legalization is strong, and the future of marijuana legalization is good. (Even if it takes some time to get there.)

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