On Election Day in 2012, voters in Colorado approved a ballot initiative legalizing the recreational use and sale of cannabis, making the state the first in the U.S. to do so.
Seventeen other states, Washington, D.C., and Guam would go on to legalize the drug in the next nine years as public support for legalization rose rapidly – despite marijuana being illegal at the federal level.
Some strains of the cannabis plant – often called marijuana or weed – contain a psychoactive compound called THC that produces a “high” when ingested.
Today, support for marijuana legalization has become mainstream among Democratic politicians, and some Republicans also back the idea. State legislatures are grappling with if and how to legalize the drug, while several marijuana-related bills – including those aiming to decriminalize it on the federal level – have been introduced in Congress. Most recently, the House passed a marijuana decriminalization bill on April 1, 2022, but it was facing an uncertain future in the Senate.
Opponents say marijuana poses a public health and safety risk, and some are morally against legalization. Proponents, however, argue that it is not as dangerous as alcohol and point to evidence that it has therapeutic benefits, such as stress and pain relief.
Advocates also see it as a moneymaker for states and a necessary social justice initiative. Marijuana laws have disproportionately affected people from minority communities, contributing to mass incarceration. States where the drug is legal have sought to retroactively address the consequences of marijuana prohibition, often including provisions allowing for the expungement or vacation of low-level marijuana convictions.
States where recreational marijuana is legal:
- Washington, D.C.
- New Jersey
- New York
- New Mexico
Retail marijuana could hit the shelves in Vermont in the fall of 2022, according to television station WCAX. The District of Columbia is set to have a regulated recreational market as soon as August 2022, but a proposed budget in Congress could keep a ban on sales in the district in place. Meanwhile, Guam officials in November 2021 got closer to launching the territory’s own industry by contracting with Metrc, a provider of cannabis regulatory systems.
States have their own processes for licensing dispensaries, but in all states where marijuana is legal, businesses that sell marijuana must have a license from the state to do so.
The sales are regulated and taxed by the states at varying rates. Some states implement an excise tax on the sales, which are taxes on a particular good – in this case, marijuana – levied on the seller, which typically passes it on to the consumer by including it in the product’s price.
Provisions outlining the amount of marijuana an adult can legally possess, if adults can grow their own marijuana plants and how the tax revenue is spent vary from state to state.
Is marijuana legal at the federal level?
No. Marijuana is classified at the federal level as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that the government believes it to have no medical use and a high potential for abuse. Cultivating, distributing and possessing marijuana violates federal drug laws.
States that have legalized either recreational or medical marijuana have done so in direct conflict with the federal government, creating tension between the rights of states to create their own laws and the authority of the federal government.
The federal government has, however, generally taken a hands-off approach to marijuana prohibition enforcement in states where the drug is legal. In 2009, the Obama administration told federal prosecutors to consider not prosecuting people who distributed marijuana in accordance with state medical marijuana laws.
What is the Cole Memorandum?
In 2013, the Justice Department issued perhaps the most influential memo on federal marijuana enforcement. Known as the Cole Memorandum, the Justice Department said it would not challenge states’ legalization laws at that time and expected states to have robust enforcement efforts of their own.
Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo in 2018, and told prosecutors to use established prosecutorial principles and their own judgment when prosecuting – or declining to pursue – marijuana charges.
The Justice Department has in general declined to pursue cases where individuals are acting in compliance with state law, and it has also not challenged state legalization laws in court. Observers note that even after Cole’s withdrawal, most marijuana-related prosecutions by the Department of Justice have focused on more serious charges such as firearms or organized crime.
What does decriminalization mean?
Decriminalization is, broadly defined, the reduction of penalties for a certain criminal act or the process of reclassifying a criminal offense as a civil offense.
As of April 2022, the Marijuana Policy Project reports that 31 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized low-level marijuana possession offenses, typically removing the possibility of jail time at least for first time-offenses, though the possibility of a fine or a criminal record remains in some places. Some states have reclassified the possession of small amounts of weed as a civil, instead of criminal, offense, while others have just reduced the penalties. In most of those states, repeat offenses, sales, distribution or possession of large amounts of marijuana can still land you in jail.