The state of legal cannabis in the United States has changed appreciably over the last two decades. This rapid evolution can be tracked along five important axes:
- An expanding landscape of state marijuana laws;
- Ballooning public support for legal cannabis;
- Shifting enforcement policy from the White House;
- Congress warming to the need for reform; and,
- State policymakers stepping up to support legalization without backlash.
When President Barack Obama was sworn into office, only 13 states had legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes and none allowed its recreational use. By the time Donald Trump was inaugurated, those numbers had grown to 28 states (plus Washington, D.C.) where medical marijuana is legal and eight states (and D.C.) where recreational use is permitted. And in the months since, another state—West Virginia—passed a law legalizing medical use, Vermont’s state legislature became the first in the nation to pass a recreational legalization bill (though it was vetoed by the Governor and sent back for changes), and several other states have begun to consider their own legalization proposals. Though marijuana remains illegal at the federal level for any purpose, attitudes towards its legalization at all levels are changing, and changing quickly. In recent years, we’ve seen ballooning support in public opinion polls, substantial policy shifts in the White House, a willingness to address the issue in Congress, and state policymakers taking it up in growing numbers. As more states enact and implement legal marijuana programs, there is a growing urgency for federal policy change to ensure that states regulate as responsibly and safely as possible.
An Expanding Landscape
Since 1970, marijuana has been illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, listed as a Schedule I drug. That means for the purposes of federal law, marijuana has no currently accepted medical use and has a high potential for abuse—just like heroin, LSD, and ecstasy.1
United States, Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration “List of Controlled Substances,” Accessed July 19, 2017.
At that time, marijuana was also illegal under the laws of every state. But over the last two decades, the map of state marijuana laws has undergone a significant transformation. California was the first state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in 1996.2 Other states gradually started to follow suit, and what began as a trickle has now become a flood. In the last few years, the number of states passing laws to allow the use of legal cannabis in some form has skyrocketed.
Today, 29 states have legalized medical marijuana, eight of which also permit recreational use, and another 17 allow the limited use of non-intoxicating marijuana extracts to treat certain medical conditions (like seizure disorders in young children).3 Roughly 201 million Americans (60% of the country) currently live in states where marijuana is legal for general medical use—up from 62 million ten years ago and 32 million ten years before that. And nearly 70 million (21%) live in states where recreational use by adults is also allowed, up from 12 million in 2012 and 0 in 2011.4 All told, roughly 98% of Americans live in a state that has some form of legal cannabis—up from 0% just 21 years ago.
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